Magpies – Part 3 – Our Noisy Lovable Neighbors

A pair of magpies has built a nest right in our front yard in a huge may tree that hasn’t leafed out yet. I’ve been mostly photographing them through our front dining room window. They used to fly off as soon as I opened the front door. But they’ve become more comfortable and bold of late, or maybe undeterred in their quest to raise a family. This morning I walked out on the front stoop and took this video. They don’t appear to be nesting yet. You will see the mate fly across the view in this video.

You could play that video in a continuous loop and that’s pretty much what it sounds like around here. Even as I write this blog that magpie has alighted somewhere on another end of the property going ‘yaak’ ‘yaak’ ‘yaak’. It’s a different sound than the “yak-yak-yak-yak’ we were hearing, until about a week ago. Is it some huge announcement to the the animal world, “This is our territory and we’re raising a family!” I hope they have only claimed as territory the west end of our front yard surrounding the tree.

They are never far apart from each other.

Magpies mate for life. They are usually at least two years old when they choose a mate and they stay together year-round. If one of them dies then the other may find a new mate. They will even try to find a surrogate parent to help with raising the young if a mate dies while they are nesting. Although I did wonder if they also divorce, and sure enough, according to this Wiki link, – divorces are possible: one South Dakota study found about an 8% rate of divorce, but another 7-year study in Alberta found divorce rates up to 63% (hey, so they’re smart and complicated, like humans).

Black-billed magpies, also known as the American magpie, are native to the northwestern half of the the US and Canada. Here’s a screenshot of the map in the Wiki article showing their habitat.

Magpies (and other corvids like crows, ravens and jays) are considered to be the smartest non-mammal animals. Of course we humans are much smarter, the smartest of all animals and mammals, with our guns and opposing thumbs, the species at the top of the food chain. When Lewis and Clark first encountered black-billed magpies in South Dakota in September of 1804, they reported the birds as being very bold, hopping into the tents of Plains Indians in search of meat, some which were tame enough to take food from the hand. Magpies followed the buffalo herds, picking insects and ticks off their backs but when the white man came along and decimated the buffalo herds in the 1870’s, magpies switched to cattle, horses and mules. By the 1960’s they had also moved into the emerging towns and cities of the west.

During the first half of the 20th century magpies developed a bad reputation because they stole game bird eggs and also because they picked at the sores on the backs of cattle, for example, their fresh wounds from being branded, and saddle sores on horses and other unhealed wounds. So humans systematically trapped and shot magpies. Bounties of one cent per egg or two cents per head were offered in many states. In Idaho the death toll eventually amounted to an estimated 150,000. In 1933, 1033 magpies were shot in an exterminating contest in Washington’s Okanogan Lakes Region, by two 6-person teams of bounty hunters. Many magpies also died from eating poison set out for coyotes and other predators.

Luckily magpies survived human’s extermination efforts in the early part of the 20th century, and they are common and widespread today. Their main natural predators are owls, crows, raptors, dogs and cats. They can have eggs stolen out of their nests by raccoons, hawks, weasels and minks. Most males appear to begin breeding in their second year. Mean life expectancy in the wild is 3.5 years for males and 2.0 years for females. Although, in captivity magpies can possibly live up to 20 years. It’s a hard scrabble life for magpies.

I’ve been watching the magpies closely today. One of them is chirping constantly.

I saw the two of them together on a limb near the nest and then one of them hopped into the nest and stayed there until I got tired of watching, a good ten minutes. The female incubates and the male feeds the female throughout incubation and guards the nest. I’m wondering … is the female laying eggs now? The female lays up to 13 eggs, but the usual clutch size is 6 or 7. Incubation period is 16-21 days.

One magpie, (the male?) is still talking constantly. I just now stepped out the front door and captured this video:

Tuesday, April 11, 2:26 PM. Did we possibly just witness the male deliver food into the nest for the incubating female? Has she started laying and incubating eggs!? It’s admittedly a good day to lay eggs. We’ve had a two-day sunny warm spell here with temps soaring into the mid-sixties. Of course, the weather forecast calls for a 25-degree drop in temperature over the next 48 hours.

I have to admit – I’ve become quite attached to these magpies. Ol’ grandma here will keep a close watch and do my best to scare off predators and any unwanted visitors, like their wily close cousins the crows.

At this point, I just don’t want anything seriously bad to happen to this budding little magpie family. Is that just too much to ask of Mother Nature and the Universe? Yes?

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2 Responses to “Magpies – Part 3 – Our Noisy Lovable Neighbors”

  1. Tom Says:

    Years ago, an Idaho old timer told me that magpies were smart enough to talk if you split their tongue. Not sure how to do that though.

  2. Jody Caraher Says:

    Yes, from what I’ve read, magpies can imitate sounds and you can find Youtube videos of pet magpies imitating words and expressions of their owners. I haven’t heard of splitting their tongues, don’t know how in the world you could do that!

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