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Magpie

Black-billed Magpie Magpie Both Sexes
Black and white with long green-black tail.
Distribution map - when and where you are most likely to see the species.
Pica pica
Length: 44-46 cm  (18")
Wing Span: 52-60 cm  (20-24")
Weight: 200-250 g  (7-9 oz)
Breeding Pairs: 590 000
Present: All Year
Status: Green
Description   Voice   Feeding   Nesting   Movements   Conservation   My Garden  
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Description

From a distance the Magpie is a black and white crow with a long tail. The tail accounts for over half the total length of the bird and is an indication of the bird's status in its society.

The head, breast and back are black, the shoulders patches, belly and flanks are white. The black wings and tail, however, are a beautiful glossy, iridescent blue, green and purple. The bill and legs are black.

Juvenile Magpies have much shorter tails than their parents, the white of the plumage is dirtier, and the black is less glossy.

In the spring, large numbers of Magpies often gather to resolve territorial conflicts and social standing. These gatherings, called parliaments, probably gave rise to the many nursery rhymes and poems about Magpies, such as:

One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil's own sel'.

Or more commonly:

One for sorrow, two for joy;
Three for a girl, four for a boy;
Five for silver, six for gold;
Seven for a secret, never to be told;
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss;
Ten for a bird that's best to miss.

Voice

Choose from Quicktime and mp3. Call
  Quicktime mp3

Magpies are very vocal birds, but the harsh repeated chattering "chacker chacker" call of the Magpie is unmistakable.

Feeding

They have quite a varied diet in their original rural habitat - insects, rodents, carrion, eggs and nestlings, grain, berries and fruit.

This variety carries over into the suburban garden where they will also eat allsorts of kitchen scraps and bird foods. 

Nesting

Both birds build the large nest, which can take several weeks to complete, from small branches and twigs, and line it with mud and vegetation. The nest is usually in a large tree (but sometimes in pylons) and domed to prevent predation by other crows, but some birds do not bother.

The hen lays and incubates eggs that are smooth, glossy and pale blue with olive-brown or grey spots. The eggs are about 35 mm by 24 mm. During the breeding season, the hen can often be identified by having bent or damaged tail feathers.

Both parents feed the young after they have hatched.

Breeding Data
Breeding Starts Number of Clutches Number of Eggs Incubation (days) Fledge (days)
early April 1 5-8 21-23 22-28

Movements

Magpies are sedentary birds, rarely moving far from their birth place.

Conservation

Magpies are persecuted by gamekeepers but to a much lesser extent than before the last century. The population increased during the last century, especially as the birds adapted to modern living and moved into urban and suburban areas, and had stabilised by the 1980s.

My Garden

Graph of garden visits.

Magpies are despised by almost everyone owing to being wrongly blamed for the widespread decline in many of our songbirds by preying on their eggs and nestlings. In fact, many of our songbirds are in decline owing to poor survival rates after leaving the nest, which has nothing to do with the Magpies. Also, Jays are responsible for taking as many eggs and nestlings as the Magpies, but do so less conspicuously and without blame. Further, Magpies occasionally fall victim too: during the last week of May 1999, the Carrion Crows claimed a juvenile Magpie, while perched on a neighbour's TV aerial the Carrion Crow proceeded to tear at the feathers and flesh of its writhing prey. Not a pleasant sight.

They are intelligent, like other crows, and intelligence leads to eccentricity: one individual has a passion for dunking its bread in water before eating it! They are also surprisingly agile and we can see them hanging over gutters and eaves searching for spiders, etc. Despite their intelligence and agility, the Magpies, unlike the Jays, have not yet fathomed how to get peanuts from the red peanut bag.

A pair of Magpies nested in a neighbour's tree in 1998, after much fighting between rival pairs. The nest building took several attempts over six weeks, and when finished did not have a domed roof. Given the time it took to build, and the absence of the roof, we think they were an inexperienced couple. We never saw the juveniles, so we do not know whether they were successful in rearing young. The gales at the beginning of February 1999 demolished the previous year's nest, but the Magpies started to rebuild it during March and April, but after several failed attempts they gave up and flew away. They nested somewhere close by and the bird with the passion for dunking its bread was a regular visitor. The Magpies' attempts to build a nest in 2001 - 2004 were abandoned after continued attacks by Carrion Crows. In 2005, they nested successfully in a neighbour's tree, but the juveniles were not seen.

The chart above shows that the numbers of Magpies is practically constant through the year, and suggests that they are the same birds - especially when considering the eccentric habit of one bird - but with the occasional visitor from further a field.


Last revision: 01 Jul 2010
Copyright © David Gains 1999-2014.
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