Magpies are a key member of the intelligent Corvidae family, and there are some 17 species distributed across much of the world. The commonest magpies are the Eurasian magpie and Black-billed magpies, which are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Like many birds, magpies are pretty secretive with their nesting behaviours. This is a guide to magpie nesting.
Magpies build large, impressive nests. Unlike most bird nests which are open-topped, many magpies build domed nests with a side entrance. The dome is glued together with mud and moss and can take several weeks to build. A well-constructed nest created by an experienced pair of magpies can measure some 50 to 75cm in width and height.
Like all corvids, magpies are extraordinarily shrewd and intelligent birds. In fact, they’re one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet - they can recognise their own form in the mirror and are capable of solving advanced logical and creative problems. Magpie intelligence shines through in their nests, which are typically strong and well-designed.
But of course, there is much more to learn about magpie nesting. Read on to discover more magpie nesting facts and behaviours!
A large magpie nest
Magpies are flexible birds that nest in all sorts of areas, but they prefer tall, dense trees and dense, thorny bushes. Like most corvids, magpies generally prefer to nest in tall trees at the height of 10m or more, but they’re perfectly able to adapt to their local environment.
While magpies are most common in rural, semi-rural and agricultural environments, they also frequently nest in towns, cities and parklands. In these situations, magpies often depart their preferred dome-like nest to build a simpler, open-topped nest.
A study of Black-billed magpie nests found that around 30% were open-topped rather than domed.
Eurasian and Black-billed magpie nests are large, bulky structures that are dome-like in shape.
They’re made from twigs and sticks and have a 'mud cup' inside, which is usually built before anything else. Mud is used to anchor the initial structure to the tree. Domed magpie nests have side entrances and look somewhat like a stick hut suspended in a tree. However, not all magpie nests are domed - some are open-topped.
Tropical and subtropical magpies from the genera Urocissa and Cissa often build simpler platform-like nests rather than large domed nests.
A magpie building their nest
Magpie nests can be very large. For example, Black-billed and Eurasian magpie nests can measure around 50 x 75cm.
These large dome-like nests often have a side entrance, but they may be open-topped.
In the UK and North America, magpies may start building their nests as early as December.
Egg-laying typically starts in late March and April, but magpies in the Northern Hemisphere prefer to build their nest in good time ahead of the breeding season.
Magpies nest primarily in the spring and spring breeding season until late summer or early autumn, which is when they migrate or join a wintering flock or roost.
A pair of magpies feeding the chicks in the nest
Magpies in the Northern Hemisphere begin building their nest in the winter prior to the spring breeding season. So, they’ll usually finish the nest in March at the latest.
The female magpie will usually lay her first clutch in April - the pair will nest for as long as they need to raise the brood to fledge. Most pairs only have one brood per year.
Magpies are highly intelligent birds, and their nests are expertly crafted. Both birds cooperate to build the nest, but the male typically transports materials to the nest as the female builds. Once there is sufficient material at the site, both birds will build the nest together.
Most magpie nest builds begin with a solid platform or ‘mud cup’. This secures the base of the nest against the tree. The magpies will then build the dome from twigs and sticks - the walls can be around 75cm tall. Once the dome is somewhat sealed from the top, the birds will work to secure the structure with more mud and moss. Finally, the inside of the nest is lined with moss, animal fur, feathers and other soft materials.
In Europe, the Eurasian magpie either begins by building a mud base upon which the dome is built, or by creating a rough 3D structure from sticks and twigs and filling its interior later. There seems to be two distinct ‘modes’ of magpie nest building, which leads researchers to believe that one mode might be advantageous over the other in specific habitats.
Not all nests are domed. For example, of Black-billed magpies in the USA, some 30% of nests are built with open tops.
Nest building can take some 1 to 8 weeks. However, experienced pairs often start early and build larger, more substantial nests than younger couples. Crafting the 3D dome structure is not easy, and many pairs resort to a more straightforward nest. The dome is not essential for nest survival - many magpies raise successful broods in open-topped nests.
A Magpie gathering nesting materials for nest construction
Baby magpies fledge after around 26 to 30 days, at which point they’ll typically leave the nest and roam to a nearby tree branch.
Baby magpies stay close to their parents for another one to two months and won’t leave their parents’ territory until the autumn or winter after the breeding season. After that, Magpie families may remain close together for years, and some young stick around to help their parents raise the following year’s brood.
Magpies nearly always raise just one brood. However, if their brood fails early in the season, they’ll usually try and raise a second brood. A small minority of magpies raise more than one brood a season.
Where there are a lot of magpies in one habitat, not all pairs may breed due to competition over nesting sites. For example, in the UK, as many as 25 to 60% of all magpies in a given habitat may defer breeding until the following year if they can’t find a suitable nesting site.
A large magpie nest
Both Black-billed and Eurasian magpies often reuse nests, or nest in the same territory. Some 30% to 40% of magpie nests in the USA are reused and upgraded.
In Europe, Eurasian magpies either return to the same territory to nest or reuse last year’s nest. Most magpies are sedentary and remain in their breeding territories throughout much of the year.
Magpie eggs are a pale blue or blue-green with speckled olive-brown markings, which are often concentrated at one end.
The eggs measure around 35mm by 24mm. Each clutch contains between 2 to 6 eggs, though 3 or 4 is more common.
Seven magpies eggs in the nest
In most of the Northern Hemisphere, magpies lay eggs in the typical spring breeding season, which runs from late March until June or July.
In the UK, most magpies lay their clutch in April. In the USA, egg-laying varies by state, with some Black-billed magpies laying their eggs as late as June. In subtropical and tropical regions, magpies may lay eggs throughout the year.
Magpies don’t use nest boxes - they much prefer tall or dense trees or bushes. However, magpies are known to raid nesting boxes for other birds’ eggs and nestlings.
Magpies are opportunistic omnivores and occasionally feed upon songbird eggs and nestlings. This is not as common as many people seem to think, and either way, it’s the natural behaviour of an opportunistic omnivore. Magpies and other corvids generally don’t affect populations of songbirds.
Paradoxically, some studies even find a correlation between increased corvid numbers and increased songbird numbers. Perhaps the corvids scare away predators that are more troublesome to the songbirds than themselves.
A magpie (Pica pica) sat on the nest full of chicks
In the winter, magpies usually roost communally in large flocks. In summer, magpies sleep on perches near their nest. During incubation and initial brooding of the chicks, either the male or female will sleep on the nest at night.
Magpies are not usually gregarious in the breeding season. After the breeding season ends, pairs of magpies join together in large wintering flocks of more than 20 or so birds. Magpies typically mate for life, and they join flocks in pairs.
Magpies nest in most places, including gardens. You can find magpies everywhere, from cities and towns to parks, forests, farmland and moorland.
Magpies are a common garden bird in North America, Europe, and Asia. Like crows, magpies are not always welcome as garden birds due to their ability to be aggressive and eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings.
However, this is natural behaviour, and for the most part, magpies and other corvids are generally found not to reduce the number of songbirds in their habitats. In fact, some studies find that magpies and crows paradoxically boost local songbird populations.
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