April 2015 - Magpies

Magpies belong to the crow family, and have white and black plumage with iridescent blue/green/purple highlights and long tails. They are much maligned birds, often blamed for the decline of songbirds. They will, like all the crow family, feed on chicks and eggs during the breeding season as well as their staple food of carrion, invertebrates, fruit, seeds and any household scraps put on bird tables. When food is abundant, magpies hoard the surplus to eat later by making holes in the ground with their beaks, placing food inside, and covering it with grass, stones or leaves. Songbird decline is largely due to habitat loss, development and changing farming practices (study by British Trust for Ornithology). In towns predation by domestic cats should also be considered.

Photo with thanks to Dominic Gwilliam-Bell

Magpies are often seen 'chattering' noisily in small groups throughout the year. Large gatherings of magpies (parliaments) occur in the spring mainly to sort out breeding rights. Breeding magpies hold a territory of about 12 acres all year round. Because nest sites are limited, between 25% and 60% of magpies in an area do not breed. These non-breeding birds often form flocks with a home range of up to 50 acres and may pair up within the flock. Magpies mate for life, which is about 3 to 5 years, although they may live much longer than this, the oldest recorded being 21 years. Both male and female birds build a large nest made of small branches and twigs, with a lining of mud and vegetation.  The nest is usually in a large tree and frequently domed to prevent predation by other crows. Magpies are famous for collecting all kinds of objects, particularly anything shiny, to decorate their nests. The hen incubates the eggs and can often be identified by having damaged tail feathers at this time. Both parents feed the chicks.

The UK Governments issue annually general licences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), some of which allow magpies to be killed or taken by 'authorised persons', using permitted methods, e.g. for the purposes of conserving wild birds. If challenged, anyone killing magpies may have to prove to a court of law that they had acted lawfully. This may be difficult given the lack of scientific evidence that magpies affect bird conservation.

Magpies are the source of myth and legend hence the rhyme:-

One for sorrow, two for joy;
Three for a girl, four for a boy;
Five for silver, six for gold;
Seven for a secret, never to be told;
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss;
Ten for a bird that's best to miss.


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