It’s probably fair to say that the Magpie is by far-and-away the least popular of all the birds which visit our gardens. Which is a shame, given its striking black and white plumage with an iridescent sheen, and the bird’s highly intelligent manner. Of course it’s the Magpies reputation for eating young birds which has earned it such a level of unpopularity, and this fueling the belief that the species is partly responsible for the decline in songbird numbers in the British Isles.
However, this is actually very unfair because a long-term study commissioned by the RSPB and carried out by the BTO, found no evidence at all that Magpies were in any way responsible for the decline in songbirds. Yes they do indeed eat young birds – as most species of corvid do – but not to the point that they adversely affect long-term national population trends. The myth of Magpies being responsible for songbird declines has sadly been popularised on social media, and is one which needs to be resisted.
In the family corvidae along with other species including Jays and the Carrion crow, the Magpie is unmistakable with its long tail which has a green gloss, and purple-blue iridescent sheen to the black plumage on its head, upperparts and wings – which is in contrast to the remaining white plumage. The Magpie is a medium sized bird with a wingspan of between 52cm and 60cm, and an overall length of between 44cm and 46cm.
The word Harakka is also sometimes used for the Magpie, and is actually the Finnish name for the bird. Eurasian Magpie is another name (reflecting its distribution across continents), though it shouldn’t be confused with the Australian Magpie which is an unrelated species but shares the Magpie name simply because of its black and white plumage. The Black-billed Magpie or American Magpie occurs across much of North America, and is closely related to our own Magpie and indeed is almost identical in appearance.
In terms of bird sound, Magpies are relatively noisy birds, with frequent chattering calls.
Magpie nesting and breeding habits
The nest of the Magpie is a bulky structure and located at the top of a bush, hedge or tree. It is constructed from twigs and mud, with a neater inner-cup lining of roots, hair and plant fibres. There is a dome of twigs over the nest, then an opening to one side of it for access. Both sexes build the nest but the materials are largely collected by the male bird. The female incubates the eggs, with there being six to eight in the clutch. Both sexes feed the young which leave the nest around 25 days after hatching. After this, fledgling Magpies stay fairly close to their parents for up to 2 months and won’t leave the breeding territory until the onset of Autumn or even winter.
Magpies typically don’t breed until they are 2 years’ old, though some birds will breed at one. Their breeding territory is relatively large at around 5 hectares, and because suitable nesting sites can be scarce in more rural areas (in particular those where there is intensive arable farming), then this can be a limiting factor in the number of Magpies that actually breed.
A pair of Magpies will normally have just one brood for a season, though occasionally will attempt a second and will also go for a further attempt if the first one fails early in the breeding season.
Magpie history and population trends
The species has gone through a rapid population increase since the 1960s, with this seeing it progressively colonise urban areas and especially in England. However, the population is currently fairly stable, and has actually declined a little in some rural areas where it is still trapped and shot on shooting estates by gamekeepers in order to protect young non-native farm-reared Pheasants and Red-legged partridges. Going further back in time, the Magpie was a very common bird in the countryside until the mid-nineteenths century, but it was from this point on that the persecution by gamekeepers started and continued.
Populations of Magpies have also performed better in urban areas due to greater food availability, less predation of their young in the nest from Carrion crows (which are shy birds and will typically avoid gardens where Magpies may nest), plus a tendency to nest earlier the season due to slightly higher temperatures in towns and cities versus surrounding countryside.
The Magpie enjoys an especially rich history of folklore, and in different parts of the British Isles the number of birds seen at any one time would signify either good or bad fortune – for example ‘one for sorrow and two for joy’ from the well known nursery rhyme. The species is also famed for stealing shiny objects, with this reputation historically extending across Europe – a great example of this long-held belief being Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra – meaning The Thieving Magpie. However, it seems that the reputation is a myth, with research carried out by Exeter University showing that Magpies actually avoid shiny objects such as rings.
Behaviour traits of Magpies
Magpies, like all species of the crow family, are highly intelligent and often entertaining to watch. Although relatively solitary and especially so in the breeding season, younger non-breeding birds often form small flocks, with some adults also joining these flocks in winter months. At times of food abundance, Magpies may hoard food for when it’s needed and will do so using man-made structures such as the eves of a house or even just gutters.
Magpie diet and food
The diet of the Magpie is highly varied, and includes carrion such as road kill including hedgehogs, insects (especially large beetles), small mammals, eggs and young birds, seed, grain, nuts, fruit and berries. In gardens, Magpies will eat almost any food that is put out and they can get to, with suet products such as fat balls being especially appealing.