• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mad about Magpies

Air Date: Week of

Ornithologist Chuck Trost holds a dead magpie he uses to perform a "magpie funeral." (Credit: Photos © Guy Hand Productions)

Producer Guy Hand tells the story of the much-maligned Magpie, the bird everyone loves to hate, and why the critter deserves a break.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Many of us look to the natural world for clues to living a more harmonious life. For instance, we aspire to those traits in animals we value: the wisdom of the owl, the noble bearing of the bald eagle, the grace of the swan. But producer Guy Hand wonders what Nature is trying to teach us when it starts acting like some pushy, poorly socialized uncle, you know, the one with the loud voice who moves in uninvited and threatens to eat everything in sight.


HAND: Ah, it's springtime in the Rockies, when a black-billed magpie's thoughts turn to love. And, as you can hear, that's a noisy time of year. There's the courting, nest building, egg laying, followed by the defending of the new family against every dog, cat, raccoon, garden tool, lawn chair, and child in its territory. All of it accompanied by the magpie's call, which is not exactly the bird world's sweetest. Add to that a few other disconcerting traits and magpies plunge pretty much to the bottom of the list of birds we Westerners love.

J.D.: I don't know anybody that likes magpies . . .

TAYLOR: To wake up every morning to screeching magpies . . .

WAJ: I'm not sure I would hate them as much if it weren't for the fact that so many other people seem to hate them.


WOMAN: We're fighting a war, Sam.

MAN 1: A war? Against who?

MAN 2: Against birds!


HAND: OK, that last bit is from the Hitchcock movie "The Birds," but it captures the mood.

VOICEOVER: In Bodega Bay today early this morning a large flock of crows attacked a groups of children . . .

A magpie takes wing. (Photos © Guy Hand Productions)

HAND: Crows, who play a starring role in "The Birds," are related to magpies, and both belong to a whole family of unpopular birds. Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

MCGOWAN: Well the family Corvidae encompasses about a hundred species, more or less, about half of them are crows and ravens, the big black guys. And then the other half are things like the jays and the magpies . . .

HAND: McGowan believes that our dislike of the corvid family is rooted in European history.

MCGOWAN: A lot of cultures around the world actually like crows and ravens and revere them as, you know, part of their creator myth. But in Europe and western European society that’s influenced North America a lot, they tend to have a bad reputation. They're birds of ill omen, um. they're birds of bad luck and disease, and things like that. And basically that comes from the fact, I think, that there were no vultures in Europe and that it was the crows and ravens and magpies that were the scavengers.

HAND: After a big battle or a nasty plague, the corvids had the unsavory habit of swooping down on the fallen victims and pecking their eyes out.

MCGOWAN: Then add to that that the crows and ravens at least are black. And that again was a negative association for western European thought, as black is the color of evil, and all that sort of things.

HAND: Think Edgar Allen Poe:

VOICEOVER: Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!' Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

HAND: A century ago, magpies had a bounty on their heads. A hundred and fifty thousand were killed for cash in Idaho alone. Today, our cultural distaste for corvids is still codified in American law. the Migratory Bird Treaty Act only protects magpies, crows, and a few other unloved birds if they reform their evil ways. According to Rex Sallabanks of Idaho Fish and Game, it’s legal to control them if they peck at your screen door, eat Fifi’s dog food, go for the cherry tree.

SALLABANKS: Or, and this is the interesting part, when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard, or other nuisance. And the main way, obviously, to control them is to shoot them.

HAND: You’re not supposed to blast magpies within city limits, but other than that, the law is loose.

SALLABANKS: So it’s kind of like, well, does it have that look in its eye? Like it’s up to no good and about to do something?

HAND: Some people would say it always has that look in its eye.


J.D.: Hear that? That was a rooster, a pheasant rooster, he was right over there.

HAND: JD and his black lab are walking through his hunting preserve in Southern Idaho.

JD: Did you hear that rooster?

HAND: Yeah

JD: There was one in right over here, one over there. There’s just a tremendous amount of pheasants here and we have a lot of quail. We have lots of ducks here. We have geese that nest here. There’s lots of wild birds, though here too. There’s killdeer, red winged black bird, herons...

HAND: JD loves birds, just not magpies, although various magpie species can be found in numerous parts of the world, the American magpie lives exclusively in the Western US and this expanse of high desert has the densest concentration of magpies on earth. JD thinks that density threatens his other birds.

JD: Look at the baby ducks. See them in the water there?

HAND: Yeah.

JD: There’s three baby ducks there. Now, magpies will go after them if they’re on land. They’ll just wait until those eggs or babies get just right and swoop down on them and eat them up. That’s all they do.

HAND: That’s why he’s carrying a twelve-gauge shotgun, just in case he catches a magpie in the act of raiding a game bird’s nest. And it’s not just the act of depredation that bothers JD and plenty of other people. It’s the seemingly devious way magpies kill other birds.

JD: Yeah, they’ll usually travel in groups and I’ve seen them where, like if you have a bunch of quail and they’ve got their little babies, one or two of the birds will distract the quail, the adults, and then another two magpies will come in behind and swoop down and pick up the baby quail. They’ll team hunt, sort of like a pack of coyotes or wolves.

HAND: A few minutes later JD spots a magpie in the act.


JD: Got ‘em! Woo! First magpie!

HAND: He picks up the limp bird and holds it hanging by that tail.

JD: They’re a pretty bird. I mean, they’re handsome, they’re always dressed in a tuxedo and ready to party.


HAND: Magpies are iridescent black and blue and creamy white with a long showy tail. By corvids standards they are beautiful birds. But still, people think they look flat out evil. And magpies don’t mind taking that dark side into town.

A fledging magpie (Photos © Guy Hand Productions)

PETERSON: Look, there’s one right there. Right there, there’s a magpie nest, do you see it? Right by our porch.

HAND: My neighbors, Dave Peterson, and Mary Lou Taylor, live in Idaho’s biggest city, Boise, where they’re worried the magpies are taking over. Dave and Mary Lou count six magpie nests from where they stand in their backyard.

PETERSON: So maybe Mary Lou’s theory that there are…

TAYLOR: … a few jillion more magpies than last year.

PETERSON: Well, but how many? I dunno if there are a few jillion more, but how many robin nests are in the same vicinity.

TAYLOR: Well, see that’s the thing that I think, that the magpies are driving out the other birds.

HAND: Dave and Mary Lou are generally pretty sane, law abiding citizens, but magpies have got them fanaticizing revenge.

PETERSON: So Mary Lou wants to start a magpie eradication program and she has some real clever ideas for getting rid of these magpie nests I might add.

HAND: What are they?

PETERSON: Well her best idea is to have me hone up on my archery skills and then get a flaming arrow and shoot it into the magpie nests. We checked with the, uh, fire department, and they frown upon this.

HAND: Neither Dave or Mary Lou are serious about their eradication program, but plenty of others are. People routinely shotgun magpie nests, pull them out of trees, light them on fire, or grab the eggs and crush them.


MAN: Get yourself guns and wipe them off the face of the Earth.

WOMAN: That would hardly be possible

MAN: Why not Miss Bundy?

WOMAN: Because there are 8,650 species of birds in the world today. The five continents of the world…

MAN: Come on, get rid of the messy birds.

WOMAN:…Probably contain more that a hundred billion birds

HAND: Yeah, that’s from The Birds too, my point being that it’s really hard to untangle fable, in this case film, from scientific fact when it comes to magpies, corvids, and well, nature in general. Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says all this magpie directed malevolence is misplaced.

MCGOWAN: Partly it’s because some of the things we see them do we don’t like. And, we don’t have a sense of how important that is to the whole grand scheme of things. So we see them come in and take a robin’s nest and eat the babies and we’re all upset by that and we think of them as these nasty thieves kind of thing. Well in fact they’re not thieves, they’re just trying to raise their own young.

HAND: In fact, one study found that songbird populations actually increased as the number of magpies grew in the area. McGowan believes we label magpies and other corvids as wanton killers simply because they are big obvious birds and when they do something we find distasteful, we notice it. Whereas lots of unexpected predators in nature sneak by unnoticed.

MCGOWAN: As studies recently have been putting cameras on bird nests and seeing who it is that’s actually coming in and eating those eggs and babies. What we’re finding is that it’s predominantly squirrels.

HAND: Squirrels?


HAND: And McGowan says nest cams have caught another unlikely suspect. Deer eat a lot of eggs and nestlings of ground nesting birds. I tell you, I didn’t expect that. But it’s not just a question of them accidentally breaking eggs as they’re cropping grass either. There’s video of them actually chasing down little fledglings that are trying to run away from the nest and grabbing them and gulping them down.


BOY: Hiya Bambi!

HAND: Bambi 2?

BOY: Watch what I can do!

HAND: Scientists say magpies are way down the list of animals that eat baby birds. But like it or not, our view of nature is informed not only by biology but by everything from Beowulf and the Bible to the birds in Bambi, We try to understand nature, like everything else, through stories. We cast animals in the roles of hero and villain, often unconsciously, then push them off on a narrative adventure we hope will end in just, morally satisfying ways. When nature doesn’t follow the script, we often react with anger or fear.


BOY: Are the birds gonna eat us Mommy?

MAN: Now, maybe we’re all getting a little carried away by this.

HAND: Watching a magpie pull a baby bird out of its’ nest, even when we tell ourselves it’s part of nature, is nevertheless unsettling.

WOMAN: Why are they doing this?

HAND: It whispers the possibility of a cold, uncaring universe. A natural world less teacher than tormentor. So we often try to rewrite the script to save the baby bird and sentence the murderous magpie to death.

TROST: They’ll be all around here, yeah, they’ll be down…some of them will be on the gravestones, some of them will be right here pecking at the magpies.

HAND: Chuck Trost has spent twenty years trying to read nature’s story from a magpie’s perspective. A retired professor of University at Idaho State University, he’s the nation’s leading expert on magpies. And when he asks me to meet him in a cemetery so he can perform a magpie funeral, I’m glad to hear I’m not to play the role of the dearly departed.

Ornithologist Chuck Trost holds a dead magpie he uses to perform a "magpie funeral." (Photos © Guy Hand Productions)

TROST: Alright, well I’ve got a dead magpie here, and, uh, I’ve just put it on the ground in the cemetery and, uh, we’re going to go back and sit in the car and see what happens. What I predict will happen is that a magpie will notice it and start calling. And the effect of that is it draws other magpies in. Magpies will come in from across the river and all around here. And, uh, they’ll be in the trees and they’ll be down looking at this dead magpie. So its kind of an intense thing that goes on for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and then they leave.

HAND: Trost hopes his so-called magpie funeral will give me a taste of what he’s discovered in his two decades of study, that magpies are surprisingly intelligent complex creatures. He says they have a well-defined social hierarchy. They’re monogamous but they also allow for divorce. They’ll defend their chicks against animals many times their own size, and they might even have a sense of humor.

TROST: I’ve seen a merlin actually attacking magpies, a flock of magpies. And you just have to laugh to watch it, because the magpies would dive into a bush and the merlin would take off and start to leave and one of them would chase it and they turn around and drive that magpie right into the bush again. And this would happen like ten times, over and over again. They’re using this merlin just to show off. So there’s fascinating things you can see if you just have enough patience to watch.

HAND: Trost thinks we’d all learn to love magpies if we were patient enough to watch them for awhile.


HAND: As we talk, magpies gather in the trees above the dead bird, calling, then begin gliding down and gathering around the corpse itself. One tentatively pulls at the tail, and when there’s no response, backs off and simply stands there. Trost has an explanation for all this.

TROST: It’s probably trying to see what killed it and mostly I think what it is is they’re trying to see who it is. Because they know each other, magpies know each other, and whenever there’s a dead magpie, that means there’s an opening in the social system. And if you’re a submissive magpie you can move up one notch.

HAND: As a scientist, Trost can’t speculate on the magpie’s capacity to mourn, but watching these birds standing there among the gravestones, dressed in funereal black and white plumage, I can’t help but wonder it there’s some kind of spiritual spark glowing in these complicated little corvids skulls. If we’re so quick to assign the worst human traits to magpies, can’t we just allow them just a little room for reverential reflection? It seems only fair. Who's to say magpies aren’t contemplating the nature of life and death, like us? Maybe they’re just a little nosier about it.


HAND: For Living on Earth, I’m Guy Hand.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth