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My local magpie family: four weeks of observation, 265 photos, and how good are the results?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Over the past few months, a pair of European magpies Pica pica have been nesting in one of the short trees I have growing in my front garden, and within the last couple of weeks, their two young fledged and all four birds moved off. I was thrilled: I love watching corvids and I was really looking forward to getting some up-close, detailed observations of magpie social life. As you’re about to see here, I did take a lot of photos – some of which aren’t all that bad – but I really didn’t get to see as much detail and excitement as I hoped.

Mostly this is because magpie parents are smart and secretive. Throughout the entire nest-building, incubating and chick-rearing phase of the operation, they remained as cryptic as possible, only appearing fleetingly (as in, for literally one or two seconds) before plunging deep into the foliage and becoming invisible. Neither my reactions nor camera zoom were ever quick enough to capture either of the adults as they practised this strategy of rapid entrance and exit, and after the first week or two of observation I was beginning to think that I’d never get a single good photo. To photograph anything happening, you’d either need a hide that was set up before nesting occurred, or be lucky enough to have a nest right next to your window or something.

Like so many corvids, magpies are well known for being complex, sophisticated, intelligent creatures. Magpies in general (that is, all member of the genus Pica) are especially good at remembering the locations of concealed objects, have passed the ‘mirror test’ and hence seemingly recognise themselves (Prior et al. 2008), and have learnt to do such things as ring doorbells in order to solicit human attention (Marzluff & Angell 2012). There are also fairly reliable reports of what have been interpreted as funeral rites: Marc Bekoff (well known for his writings on the emotional lives of non-human animals) drew attention to cases where magpies were seen to gather at the side of a deceased individual, taking it in turns to place tufts of grass next to the corpse.

Adult magpie (at top of holly tree) frustrates concerned male blackbird (at lower right).

I never got to see ‘my’ magpies do anything especially interesting or peculiar. They – or one of them, anyway – did frequently annoy the male Blackbird Turdus merula that shared the same approximate territory and he would often be close to a perched magpie, posturing and giving scolding and alarm calls. Of course, blackbirds have good reason to dislike magpies, since magpies are notorious nest-raiders of other birds, including not only small passerines, but also pigeons and even egrets and herons. There are even reports of magpies killing adult thrushes (Boog 1966) and starlings (Butlin 1971) but such occurrences must be very rare.

Anyway, nest-building was clearly going on throughout April, as verified by occasionally glimpses of adults with twigs and branches in their mouths. Magpie nests are often really interesting since they sometimes incorporate a roof and have a sort of thorny framework round the sides, one or two openings permitting access (Goodwin 1986). At some stage I’ll see if I can find and photograph the now empty nest (its location is difficult to access). Nests are re-used year on year, sometimes being added to over time such that enormous structures as much as 1.8 m deep are on record (Coombs 1978).

Both sexes work in nest-building, but they’re indistinguishable at distance so I could never say which bird was male and which female. Magpie clutches are large: there can be as many as eight eggs, with 5.6 being the average given by Coombs (1978), so the two fledged young that I saw during early June indicate that things didn’t go as well as they could have done. Local Carrion crows Corvus corone definitely displayed an interest in the nesting site and I once accidentally flushed a crow from the hedge adjacent to the one where the magpies were nesting. Whether crows were responsible for egg theft, I don’t know.

Adult ?male with food in gular pouch. It should be possible to distinguish the members of a pair by the length and configuration of their tail feathers.

Both parents feed the chicks, but the male does most or all of the food-gathering during the first two weeks after hatching. I watched what I assume was the male making numerous trips to and from the nest; on the occasions when I photographed him on his way to the nest I could see that he was carrying food in his gular pouch (you can see that here).

As with all corvids (and, indeed with many animals in general), a large number of communicative postures and movements can be observed in these birds. Wing-flicking, ‘tilting’ of the whole body, jerking movements of the tail and other such actions can signal aggression, excitement or uncertainty. ‘My’ birds seemed to blink a lot, and – in a surprising number of the photos I took – the nictitating membrane is covering the eye. I know humans who also seem to be blinking every time you take a photo. However, blinking of the nictitating membrane in magpies is actually used as an appeasement gesture: the membrane is even said to have an especially obvious orange section in one of its corners (Coombs 1978), though I’ve never witnessed that and don’t know exactly where it is. Anyway, in view of this, it stands to reason that you might see the birds blinking a lot when interacting with family members.

The chicks were seen begging from their parents on several occasions, and here’s my best photo. An unusual feature of magpies is that they adopt an upright body posture when doing the begging: other corvids stand in a sort of bowing posture, chest close to the ground or branch or nest, while doing this.

I also managed to get one photo of a parent feeding a chick – not easy, since just about all interesting behaviour happened while the birds were partly, mostly or entirely hidden in the vegetation.

On occasion, the parents would obligingly sit for a while on a nearby streetlight or at the top of vegetation, so I managed to get quite a few nice shots. As I’ve said before, my photographic skills are limited and just about all of these photos are taken at maximum zoom. Anyway, check out the wonderful iridescence on the wing and long tail feathers of the adult(s) you see here. Glossy black feathers cover the head, neck, back, scapular parts of the wings and so on. Some of the feathering on the head is short and fur-like.

I like this photo (below), though I’m not entirely sure what’s going on – the bird might be vocalising. Magpies are fantastically vocal and it’s normally possible to get some idea of what they’re trying to communicate. ‘Tchuk’ (often aggressive in intent) and ‘cheeuch’ (associated with appeasement or begging) sounds are often heard, as are rattling alarm calls best written as ‘cha-ka-cha-ka-cha-ka-cha-ka!’ or such.

I’ve never really seen magpie chicks before, and it was weird to see their very short tail feathers. Their body plumage was also fluffier and softer than that of their parents. And check out the eye colour: greyish-blue, compared to the dark brown of the adults.

As is typical for juvenile passerines, an obvious band of pale keratinised tissue at the corner of the mouth gives them a sort of ‘smile’ that extends well up on the side of the face. This tissue – frequently yellowish – presumably helps adults find a chick’s mouth when in the subdued lighting or darkness of the nest (for this reason, you’d expect it to be most prominent in cavity-nesting birds).

The photo below is nice in showing a good view of the bird’s tail while it’s preening; it’s striking how short the tail feathers are compared to those of an adult. Another interesting thing about the chicks is that the general form of the head and bill is, with imagination, not especially magpie-like. In some of the photos above, the head and bill reminds me of the same features of a Jackdaw Corvus monedula. I don’t think that means anything (magpies are certainly not close to jackdaws in phylogenetic terms), it’s just an observation.

Here’s a shot of both chicks together, the one on the right doing a nice wing-stretch.

After just a few days during which both chicks were seen hanging around for extended periods of time, there came the day when they flew off (I wasn’t around to witness it), and as of right now there’s no sign of any of these birds nearby. During the few weeks in which I was observing – and trying really, really hard to document, photographically – ‘my’ magpies, I took 265 photos. I don’t feel that I succeeded in photographing the stuff I was hoping to, but – I dunno – maybe I didn’t do too badly. Farewell, my corvid friends, you will be missed.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on corvids and related passerine birds, see…

Refs – -

Boog, E. J. 1966. Magpie killing and eating a Song thrush. British Birds 69, 309.

Butlin, S. M. 1971. Food hiding by Magpie. British Birds 64, 422.

Coombs, F. 1978. The Crows. B. T. Batsford, London.

Goodwin, D. 1986. Crows of the World. Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History), London.

Marzluff, J. & Angell, T. 2012. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. Free Press, New York.

Prior, H., Schwarz, A. & Güntürkün, O. 2008. Mirror-induced behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): evidence of self-recognition. PLoS Biol 6(8): e202. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. HJMMeijer 8:28 am 06/12/2013

    Yay, magpies!! Have you also found bits and pieces of food hidden around your garden? My parents have found potatoes and pieces of cheese in their garden, hidden in pots and between plants. After a few weeks of garden watching, they noticed a magpie flying in with food and hiding it between the plants. They must have gotten it from somewhere nearby, but I never heard of it before.

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  2. 2. BilBy 11:22 am 06/12/2013

    When I was a kid in the UK we had magpies nest in a tree on our lawn. As a budding bird nerd I was out there before and after school observing ‘my’ magpies. The next year they bred there again, as did jackdaws on our roof. The magpies were vocal when I was too close but if I went up on the roof through a skylight the jackdaws were hyper vocal and hyper aggressive. The downside was this would warn my mother I was on the roof again and she would get vocal and hyper aggressive too. Anyway, ‘your’ magpies might be back next year Darren.

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  3. 3. chris y 1:17 pm 06/12/2013

    If you love watching corvids you should move to Sheffield. On our street we have such a density of magpies, carrion crows and jackdaws that there are almost no other birds.

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  4. 4. jdunnette 3:16 pm 06/12/2013

    Thanks for sharing your observations and photos.
    Here in Minnesota we have Magpies, but only in the northern part. And there they are usually pretty wary and distant from much human activity. So your photos are especially nice to see.

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:53 pm 06/12/2013

    Apparently, a tame magpie was once trained to steal valuables by some thief – but I cannot find details.

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  6. 6. CS Shelton 11:12 pm 06/12/2013

    I like how our supposed robins are closer to your blackbirds and our blackbirds are something else entirely.

    Also, FLUFFY MAGPIES!! Those are cute bastards. We’re way overdue for a Jurassic Park -styled film with cute fluffy death machines.

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  7. 7. Chabier G. 6:14 am 06/13/2013

    Urban magpies are quite common here in Aragon, in front of my home there is a garden where a nearly psychopath Dobermann is locked up. I love the way in that magpies come to steal the dog’s meal (pellets), they actue like a commando. One or two individuals arrive first and sit on the garden’s wall, if there is not danger, they go down and begin to take pellets, being inmediately replaced by other magpies of the flock (6 to 8 birds, probably a family group), that remain on the top of the wall watching about; during some minutes, there is traffic of magpies going down and returning to the wall with their haul, always there is at least one bird looking after, until everybody has got its meal and the poor sleeping dog rests in the misery.

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  8. 8. Hai~Ren 8:51 am 06/13/2013

    Interesting observations!

    House crows (Corvus splendens) are common here in Singapore, but they are very aggressive when nesting, and will swoop and peck at unsuspecting passersby. Crows’ nests are also actively removed when people complain to the local authorities (this species isn’t native and is considered an urban pest).

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  9. 9. Halbred 2:07 pm 06/13/2013

    Anchorage is typically overrun by magpies in the summer (they appear to be the same species). They tend to be most active during the morning and frequently wake me up (“MAG MAG MAG!”). I’ve seen them going after worms like a robin and attempting to “hover” in flight and peck out some of our peanut butter-based food in log feeders which are really for the woodpeckers. It’s especially funny watching juveniles attempt this, because they are never really successful, and they tend to have ADD–they’ll try anything once, then try some wholly other thing (like worms or seed feeders).

    Oddly, we get magpies in the summer but they all leave in the fall and are replaced by ravens. I’m not sure where the magpies go in the winter and I’m not sure where the ravens go in the summer.

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  10. 10. Zoovolunteer 2:28 pm 06/13/2013

    I believe it is in My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrells account of his childhood in Corfu, that he tells the story of two hand-raised Magpies that deliberately played tricks on the family dogs for their own amusement – given the tendency of corvids to play various games that is not perhaps so surprising.

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  11. 11. John Harshman 8:29 pm 06/13/2013

    Is Pica pica still a single species? OK, it is by definition. What I should ask is whether the holarctic entity formerly known as Pica pica is still all considered one species. If so, it would be a comparative rarity among holarctic birds, with most former such species having been split several times.

    So far, all I find on this is the mtDNA paper of Lee et al. 2003, which suggests that P. pica is at least paraphyletic to P. nuttali, so the answer to my question would depend on whether you’re willing to tolerate paraphyletic species. Any more literature on this?

    Lee, S., Parr, C. S., Hwang, Y., Mindell, D. P., and Choe, J. C. 2003. Phylogeny of magpies (genus Pica) inferred from mtDNA data. Mol. Phylogen. Evol. 29:250-257.

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  12. 12. Dartian 3:22 am 06/14/2013

    What I should ask is whether the holarctic entity formerly known as Pica pica is still all considered one species.

    It’s not, at least not by the American Ornithologists’ Union.

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  13. 13. naishd 3:38 am 06/14/2013

    Thanks for all these great comments!

    Magpie taxonomy: I deliberately avoided discussion of this issue, since I knew it would lead to me talking about the several interesting Pica pica (sensu stricto) ‘subspecies’, some of which are highly distinct and might be regarded as distinct ‘species’ at some stage (look at north African P. p. mauretanica and Korean P. p. sericea).

    Anyway… as shown by my use of “European magpie” (instead of “Black-billed magpie”), I was following Lee et al.’s generally accepted discovery that the black-billed magpies of North America are closer to P. nuttalli than they are to Eurasian magpies, in which case they (the American black-billed ones) should be called P. hudsonia.


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  14. 14. naishd 3:39 am 06/14/2013

    … in other words, the version of Pica pica used here is an exclusively Eurasian entity.


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  15. 15. Perisoreus 12:05 pm 06/14/2013

    What I like most about magpies is that they’re so acoustically conspicuous even when you cannot see them up in the trees where they become almost invisible. And it’s nice to watch them (or listen to them) while they’re talking to each other and to figure out what they’re talking about/to: a nearby crow or cat, their fellow members in a spring flock, their partner at the nest …

    For those who want to get a better glimpse at magpies (they’re very shy in most western countries), I recommend peanuts, perhaps the greatest temptation for most corvids :) I always had them on my windowsill and could watch them from a distance of less then 2 m.

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  16. 16. Yodelling Cyclist 12:31 pm 06/14/2013

    Ladies and gentlemen, may I remind you that there is still the small matter of a pair of unidentified skulls to attend to.

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  17. 17. John Scanlon FCD 12:59 pm 06/14/2013

    With these Palaearctic and Neotropical bird posts, I don’t have much to say but often play a game of “if that were an Australian bird, what family would it be in?”

    In this case, I’d put it as some sort of basal artamid (sensu e.g. Christidis & Boles) with a combo of Cracticus, Artamus and Strepera stuff going on. Which reminds me, there was an interesting molecular phylogeny paper recently that found representatives of a large Asian and African assemblage sprouting from between Artamus and the Peltops-Cracticus-Strepera clade, so we’ll presumably now go back to calling the latter Cracticidae. (Can’t find the reference at the moment, but don’t think it was one of the recent corvoid papers in MPE).

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  18. 18. Perisoreus 1:52 pm 06/14/2013

    comment #17 (John Scanlon):

    In this case, I’d put it as some sort of basal artamid (sensu e.g. Christidis & Boles) with a combo of Cracticus, Artamus and Strepera stuff going on.

    That’s actually what early taxonomists did, only the other way round (putting Butcherbirds and Australian Magpies into Corvidae). However, as early as the begin of the 20th century, the behavioural differences were widely recognised (caching food, open-billed probing on the corvidae side, the peculiar social behaviour of the Australian Magpie and its song on the other). The Australian family they’re actually the closest to is the Corcoracidae (Australian Mudnesters), i.e. White-winged Chough and Apostlebird.

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  19. 19. Heteromeles 11:59 pm 06/14/2013

    @16: I’m *sure* our gracious host is waiting for June 18th, at which time it will have been one month since the date of the last post. Presumably he’s waiting for this auspicious moment to answer that particular question. Ahem.

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  20. 20. naishd 4:49 am 06/15/2013

    Alas, lately, the only time I have for the blog has to be spent on generating new content and on dealing with the latest comments. There are not enough hours. I’ll get to those answers eventually though, don’t worry.


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  21. 21. Chabier G. 6:57 am 06/17/2013

    About blinking and orange sections in the nictitating membrane, this morning I´ve disected a magpie chick (dead by starvation following severe Trichomonas infestation), I´ve been searching for some orange spot or fringe in the nictitating membranes, but I haven’t found anything like this, the membrane was indeed a very conventional one. Perhaps it’s a feature only found in adults, I will continue looking for.

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