European Magpie

The European Magpie (Pica pica) is a resident bird throughout Europe, much of Asia, and northwest Africa. It is one of several birds in the crow family named as magpies.

There are numerous races. Recent research has indicated that the Korean race, P. pica sericea, is genetically very distinct from the other Eurasian forms, and may possibly be a separate species. The northwest African race P. p. mauretanica and the southwest Arabian race P. p. asirensis are also distinct in plumage and may also be separate species. The North American Black-billed Magpie is almost identical to the Eurasian form, and was previously considered conspecific, but was found to be genetically closer to the Yellow-billed Magpie.

This easily identifiable bird has strikingly pied plumage and long (20-30cm), graduated tail. It also has a loud, harsh chatter which helps prevent confusion with any other species. In open country the Magpie commands attention as one, two, three or more birds, with rapidly moving, apparently short wings, fly in succession, chattering as they pass. When the bird lands the long tail is at once elevated and is carefully carried clear of the ground.

The European Magpie is 40-51cm in length. Its head, neck and breast are glossy black with a metallic green and violet sheen; the belly and scapulars are pure white; the wings are black glossed with green or purple, and the primaries have white inner webs, conspicuous when the wing is open. The graduated tail is black, shot with bronze-green and other iridescent colors. The legs and bill are black.

Juvenile birds closely resemble the adults, but with less of the gloss on the sooty plumage. The male is slightly larger than the female.

The northwest African race differs in having a patch of bare skin around the eye and no white patch on the rump, and the southwest Arabian race differs in being smaller, with dull black plumage lacking iridescent tones, and minimal white in the wings. The east Asian races have more white on the wings.

Like other corvids, such as crows, the Magpie’s usual gait is a walk, but when attracted by food or any special object it hops quickly sideways with wings open. Its fondness for bright objects is well known.

This bird has a voracious appetite and is by no means a picky eater; young birds and eggs, small mammals and insects are devoured. It will also consume acorns, grain and other vegetable substances.

The Magpie builds its bulky nest in tall trees, firmly attached to a central fork in the upper branches. The framework of sticks is cemented with earth and clay. A lining of the same material is covered with fine roots; above is a stout, though loosely, built dome of prickly branches with one well-concealed entrance. When the leaves fall these huge nests are plainly visible. Where trees are scarce, and even in well-wooded country, nests are at times built in bushes and hedgerows.

Once the nest in constructed the female will lay anywhere from 5 to 8 small eggs (as many as ten have recorded). They show much variation in color but the usual type is blue-green with close specks and spots of brown and grey. These eggs are laid in April, and only one brood is reared unless disaster overtakes the first clutch.

In some areas the bird is often shy of humans. However, where it is not molested it will seek out humans. It is also known to team up in bands of two or more to tease cats. These small groups will launch feigned attacks on the animals, perhaps as a general reaction against the cat as a predator and egg thief.

In winter the Magpie becomes gregarious and can be seen wandering and feeding in small parties or flocks, and gathering at a common spots to roost at night. Early in the year large numbers collect together for mating. Charles Darwin refers to these congregations as “marriage meetings”.

In the nuptial display, the males rapidly raise and depress their crests, uplift, open and close their tails like fans, and call in soft tones quite distinct from their usual chatter. During this display the loose feathers of the flanks are brought over and the primaries, and the patch on the shoulders is spread so as to make the white conspicuous, presumably to attract the female eye. Short buoyant flights and chases are part of the courtship.