Black-billed Magpie

On the wild side—November, 2010

by Tina Mitchell

A purely western bird, Black-billed Magpies are very vocal members of the amazing, intelligent Corvid family, which also includes crows, ravens, jays, and nutcrackers.  An adult magpie is 18 – 24” long, much of which is its very long tail.  They are primarily black, with contrasting white across their backs (called the scapulars), white bellies, and stunningly iridescent metallic blue-green on their wings and tails (although it often just looks black unless the light is just right).  The scientific name for the Black-billed Magpie is Pica hudsonia.  In Latin, “pica” means magpie.  But it is also the feminine version of “picus,” which means “woodpecker.”  So somehow, ancient Romans thought magpies were both female-like and woodpecker-esque.  (Okay, so no language is perfect.)  The species name hudsonia refers to the northernmost boundary of the Black-billed Magpie’s historical range—Hudson Bay in northern Canada.  Some people think that the common name “magpie” comes from its typical vocalization:  a rising, nasal-sounding “Mag? Mag? Mag?”  But others say that the Latin “pica” evolved through Old French and Middle English to “pie” and both “pica” and “pie” were used to refer to magpies.  In Middle English, the nickname “Mag” was used to disparage supposedly female traits, especially idle chatter.  (“Magge tales” were tall tales or nonsense.)  Thus, this chattery bird’s name evolved from “pie” to “magge the pie” to today’s “magpie.”

As with all members of the Corvid family, magpies are extremely smart.  In 2008, scientists in Germany found that individuals in a closely related species—the European Magpie—could recognize themselves in a mirror, showing at least a rudimentary sense of self.  When a colored mark that could only be seen in a mirror was placed on a magpie, the bird regularly scratched and tried to preen that area when it looked in a mirror.  Once the bird had removed the mark, it stopped preening.  As a comparison, they then placed a black mark—which could not be seen in a mirror—on the dark feathers and the birds didn’t bother those spots.  This study provided the first demonstration of self-awareness in a non-mammal species

The magpie’s proclivity for pilfering and hiding things won it a place in theater history.  It is the only bird species (at least that I know of) to be a pivotal character in a well-known opera—Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).  In that story, a servant girl is accused of stealing a silver spoon.  Just as she is about to face dire consequences, the spoon is discovered in the pet magpie’s nest.  So if you hear magpies out and about—hide your silver and any other shiny objects!

To learn more about this species, click here.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons; photographer, Peter Wallack.)

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