Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

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


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

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

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