26 May 2007

(108) Magpies, the most colorful in a noisy family

On occasional summer mornings, I have been distracted by a raucous argument between family members. Not my family. Crows and magpies settle into the trees in my yard to shout insults and threats at one another.

The family Corvidae includes crows, ravens, magpies and jays. Crows, ravens and magpies are all large, conspicuous birds, known to be highly intelligent, and sharing the habit of eating the eggs and nestlings of songbirds.

The black-billed magpie, Pica pica, is currently recognized as 13 subspecies distributed across western North America, Europe, Asia and small parts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The yellow-billed magpie, Pica nuttalli, is restricted to California.

Experimental studies of behavior have revealed that magpies have a concept of self; they recognize their own image. When most bird species are shown their reflection in a mirror, they attack their reflection, hoping to drive off the stranger. Magpies ignore their image in a mirror. Furthermore, if a red laser pen illuminates a dot on the breast of a magpie, and the magpie sees the red spot in a mirror, they immediately preen their breast, concerned that it is a wound or a drop of blood. At one time, it was thought that the concept of self elevated humans above all other species.

Magpies, like crows and ravens, are opportunistic omnivores that take eggs and nestlings whenever they are available. Magpies are clever predators; they sit quietly to watch songbirds build nests, or feed nestlings, planning their attacks. In spring, smaller birds will mob magpies, ravens and crows, to chase them from their nests or to punish them for thievery.

Magpies are known for their audacious and mischievous behavior; here is my favorite personal observation, just one anecdote.

A CU student tied her dog to a blue spruce at the entrance to the biology building and went in to attend a class. The dog, a placid golden retriever, was content to sit in the shade and watch the people walking by and the magpies cavorting on the lawn. One magpie approached the dog, squawking loudly. The dog rushed at the irritating bird to shoo it away, but was brought up short by the stout leash.

The magpie did a quick calculation, and the game began. The bird calculated the perimeter of the dog's space, and taunted the dog from the outer edge of the perimeter. The dog repeatedly lunged at the annoying bird, which did not flinch, but continued taunting. The dog, realizing the futility of the situation, retreated to the base of the tree, lay down and went to sleep.

The magpie would not be ignored. It flew into the tree, and carefully dropped to a branch just above the dog. It reached down, grabbed some hairs on the dog's head, yanked fiercely and jumped to the safe side of the perimeter. The retriever exploded, awaking tweaked and disoriented. Once again, it lunged at the magpie, and was again restrained by the leash. The magpie strutted in victory.

Millions of anecdotes over thousands of years have earned magpies a place in mythology, sometimes as a good omen, more frequently as an evil omen.

Jeff Mitton