We took a prairie birding drive yesterday, looking for snowy owls. Naturally enough, this post is therefore about black-billed magpies.
This is the countryside where we looking for owls. White owls.
Some trips they are easy to find, perched on power poles, fence posts, graineries and hay bales. Some trips they just don’t want to be seen.
When we left the city, I commented to my husband that we should write down on the species we see on this trip. The words had no sooner left my mouth than he said “black-billed magpie.” And he kept saying it all day.
Everywhere we went, we saw black-billed magpies perched on power poles, fence posts, buildings etc etc. On this trip we were glad of their company, as we saw little else.
With all this time to actually think about black-billed magpies, I chastised myself once again for taking these beautiful birds for granted. Having grown up in the west, these birds have been in my life for as long as I can remember. I plead guilty to looking past them to find ‘real birds.’
Their bold black-and-white pattern and long tail make them easy to identify, and in true Corvid fashion, they are rarely, if ever, silent. These clever Corvids are not actually black though, but a beautiful iridescent green/blue colour. They are magnificent in the sunshine.
One day when I was doing a shift at the local bird sanctuary, I was approached by two very excited visitors. They said they had just seen the most beautiful bird, and wanted to know what it was. I immediately started thinking western tanager, or varied thrush or something similar. They said it was black and white with a very long tail. Oh.
It turned out they were from eastern Canada, and had never seen a black-billed magpie before. Yep, we surely do take them for granted.
I regularly feed the magpies in my yard, without giving it a thought. They love chicken or turkey carcasses, and even have their own feeding tray. When I put one of these out, I immediately have about 10 magpies descend on it, providing hours of squabbling, squawking entertainment.
They often pick up a piece of meat, drape it over the edge of the tray and put one foot on it. When it is thus securely held, they can tear strips off, and prevent other birds from getting near it.
A few years ago when we had a heavy overnight snowfall, I threw a few cups of dry dog food out on the deck for the magpies, and it disappeared quickly. Ever since then, whenever we get a heavy snowfall, there is a flock of silent magpies siting on the deck railing, looking in the window and waiting patiently for their meal. The older birds have taught the younger ones the routine.
As a true Corvid fan – my favorite bird is the raven – I should be ashamed of myself for taking the clever, magnificent black-billed magpie for granted.
Yes, it is always a treat see snowy owls when they make their way down from the Arctic, but their appearance is decidedly a hit or miss affair. Our magpies, on the other hand, are always around when we want to see birds. I’d do well to remember that in future.
- For more outstanding photos of western Canadian birds, visit the Saskatchewan Birds, Nature and Scenery blog
- To read more about black-billed magpies, visit the Boreal Songbird Initiative This page also lets you listen to the sound these birds make. Turn your volume up all the way, and imagine that outside your bedroom window at 5:00 am…