The Superbowl – The Magpies v. The Crows

The Stadium

While most of America spent Superbowl Sunday watching the contest between the Saints and the Colts, we took our annual Superbowl bird outing. Superbowl Sunday is always a fine day for birding in the U.S. because one hundred million of us stay indoors watching the game, leaving highways and trails relatively deserted.


Actually, we spent the entire Superbowl week birding in one form or another. The Fat Finch had to go to market and market was in San Francisco and so part of our birding consisted of looking at seagulls out the window of the Buena Vista Cafe where, purely coincidentally, Irish Coffee is served.

Even though we missed the football game, we watched an athletic contest between the Magpies and the Crows. The stadium was a tree in which several crows were sitting about idly and minding their own business, as far as we could tell. But they upset two Yellow-billed Magpies who determined to evict the crows. The magpies were on a grassy slope some distance from the tree but clearly believed the tree was in their territory.

Kicking off

Yellow-billed Magpies live only in Northern and Central California valleys. Why they evolved yellow beaks instead of the regular black beaks sported by all their other and larger magpie cousins is a mystery, as is the variable yellow eye patch. The valleys of Northern California must demand a certain extra elegance. At any rate, that is in only place you’ll find Yellow-billed Magpies.

Magpie ancestors arrived in North America three to four million years ago. The Yellow-bills probably got isolated from Black-bills due to subsequent ice ages and the uplifting Sierra Nevada. By the time of the Pleistocene, they were on their own. Recent mitochondrial DNA analysis proves that Black-billed Magpies are far closer relatives of Yellow-bills than of the similar looking Black-billed Magpies of Eurasia and North Africa.

The Contest

Magpies, by the way, along with Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed Flycatchers, are the only land birds in North America whose tails are longer than their bodies.

A Loser Departing the Stadium

Magpies and crows are both Corvids and, one assumes, about equal in intelligence. In other words, both are smart. Crows have a size advantage but the magpies make up for that with faster aerial acrobatics. The contest was noisy but the two magpies routed six or seven crows, claiming the tree for their own. After the game was over and the crows departed, both magpies returned to the grassy slope and continued pecking their way across it. No victory parade followed.

The Victorious Return

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For more on Yellow-billed Magpies, Pica nuttalli, try this from UC Davis and this from the Magpie monitor organization. BNA, subscription required, has a detailed entry as well. For suggested places to see Yellow-billed Magpies, go here.

For a humorous take on the anthropology of the Superbowl, go here.

While the two Yellow-billed Magpies we watched rout the crows got no victory parade, they are no strangers to communal rituals including funerals. We’ll be back with more about that another time.

Click on the photos above for larger versions.

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