Posts Tagged ‘Magpies’

The Superbowl – The Magpies v. The Crows

February 15, 2010

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


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.

Messenger Birds

June 24, 2009

magpie (1 of 1)

For a bird of the air shall carry the voice,
and that which hath wings shall tell the truth.

Ecclesiastes 10:20

Mirrors and Magpies

August 20, 2008

Not many beings on this planet can look in a mirror and realize they are seeing an image of themselves. Even humans need a few years before we figure it out. Orangutans, Chimpanzees and probably dolphins and elephants can do it but, until recently, that was about it as far as we knew. Even Border Collies, widely acknowledged as some of the smartest dogs, think that is an entirely different dog in the mirror. They try to herd it.

Now comes news that we at the top of the mammalian food chain aren’t the only ones who look in mirrors and see ourselves.

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

Magpies are corvids, members of the same family as crows, ravens, jays and nutcrackers. That means they’re smart. So smart in fact that they spontaneously recognize mirror images of themselves — as mirror images of themselves.

How do we know this? We don’t speak Magpie and they don’t speak Human. So, scientists placed stickers on the bodies of Magpies in positions that the Magpies could only see in a mirror. When no mirror was present the Magpies did not notice the stickers. When a mirror was present , they removed the stickers from their bodies, without bothering to try to remove them from the mirror image first. They knew that was only a reflection and went after the real thing.

As the BBC puts it, the experiment was, “the first time self-recognition has been observed in a non-mammal.” (I have a prejudice against exclamation points, but it seems to me that sentence deserved one.)

We’ll have more to say about this experiment and its implications for our view of cortex-free intelligence and about social cooperation in other species in a subsequent post. In the meantime, you can read the report of the experiment and watch additional videos of the Magpies at work. Here is one of the videos from the experiment.


Thanks to the authors of the study, Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz,and Onur Güntürkün for sharing their report, photos, and videos with us laypeople.

Magpies, Al Gore and Climate Change

October 14, 2007

I’ve been gone for a few days and out of touch with the world. But I knew that Al Gore and the scientists who study global climate change would receive the Nobel Peace Prize while I was gone. A Magpie told me. Actually, the Magpie only told me that Al Gore and the scientists are right: The climate is warming and faster than it ought to. I figured the rest out for myself. blackbilledmagpie12.JPG

Magpies, in many mythologies, are messenger birds; able to transcend time and space and communicate with worlds unseen by us. They can fly to the heavens and receive messages which they bring back to earth. They’ve been in North America since long before humanity arrived here. Their range was once as extensive as that of the bison. They followed the great bison herds as they ranged throughout the current western United States.

The Magpies, now that I look back on it, have been telling me for years that the climate is warming. But I need to back up a bit. My family – for three generations now – has been the privileged custodian of an old cabin in a canyon of the southern Rocky Mountains. The cabin itself is more than 100 years old and the trees which were used to make it probably another century older than that. When I first made the annual pilgrimage I was a baby and have no conscious memory of the Magpies. But, by the time I was eight or nine years old, I delighted in seeing them. We lived outside their range and so saw them only during our summer vacation as we approached the cabin. In those days, the northern extent of their local range was about 20 miles south of the cabin.

But over just the short span of my life, the Magpies have moved north and, more important, up into the Canyon. Unless you look back more than four decades, the movement was imperceptible. But now the Magpies live a mere six and a half miles from the cabin. They have reduced their range 15 miles north and 1000 feet upward. The Magpie I saw yesterday was further north than I have ever seen one and was at least a mile further up-canyon than last year.

The only reason for their movement is that the climate here is warming. Magpies don’t do well when temperatures rise to 35 degrees centigrade (95 Degrees Fahrenheit) for more than an hour or so a day. They move upward to cooler temperatures to stay alive and are well adapted to colder temperatures. The only reason for the speed of the Magpies’ upward move is that the earth is warming faster than it would be without Homo Sapiens Sapiens adding carbon dioxide to the air at breakneck speed. It may be news to humans, but not to the Magpies. They’ve known for a long time.

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