There are around 17 species of magpies distributed across four genera in the Corvidae family. Like all corvids, magpies are exceptionally intelligent and rank amongst the most intelligent animals on the planet. Here, we’re going to answer the question; what do magpies eat?
Magpies are omnivorous scavengers and feed on various plant, animal and invertebrate foods. In terms of arthropods, invertebrates and insects, magpies eat everything from worms and caterpillars to beetles, spiders and flies. They also eat lizards, small mammals and other birds and their eggs.
Like most corvids, magpies employ a wide range of hunting and foraging activities but mostly prefer to scavenge carrion and insects from the ground.
Magpies are flexible, hardy birds that aren’t too fussy with what they eat. In winter, many species of magpies turn to a more plant-rich diet. For example, the Black-billed magpie’s winter diet consists of around 60% vegetable matter.
Read on to find out more about the diverse diet and feeding skills of these intelligent corvids!
A Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica) eating a grasshopper
The Australian magpie is omnivorous, but predominantly consumes invertebrates such as earthworms, beetles, millipedes, snails, spiders, cicadas and even scorpions.
They also eat small animals, including small lizards like skinks. Like corvid magpies, Australian magpies are opportunistic, flexible feeders that won’t pass up on a tasty meal no matter whether its plant food, insects, animals or human scraps.
The Australian magpie is from the Artamidae family and not the Corvidae family. Nevertheless, there are many similarities between these intelligent birds and the corvid magpies, even despite them being only distantly related.
Australian Magpie eating some bugs
The Eurasian magpie of the UK is extremely common and is a flexible omnivore, like all other magpies, and its diet consists mainly of cereal grains and arthropods (around 60% in some studies). They have a particular fondness for beetles, flies, woodlice, caterpillars, worms, spiders and leather jackets.
Eurasian magpies are also excellent scavengers and take food scraps in urban areas. As the temperature drops in winter, insect life becomes less abundant, and the Eurasian magpie’s diet emphasises grains, seeds and berries instead.
A Eurasian magpie eating a stag beetle
There are two species of magpies in the US; the Black-billed magpie and the Yellow-billed Magpie. Both are omnivores and eat a wide variety of invertebrates, plant foods and small mammals and birds.
Some essential foods include:
The Black-billed magpie regularly preys upon nestlings and small mammals, whereas the Yellow-billed Magpie consumes mainly invertebrates. Around 10% of the Black-billed magpie’s diet consists of animal meat, which is probably higher than the Yellow-billed Magpie.
However, the two birds’ diets are more similar than they are different, and both are fundamentally opportunistic scavengers. Both will eat practically anything they can get their beaks into at the time!
Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia)
Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nutalli)
Magpies are not inconspicuous and feed throughout the day. They’re often seen hopping around the ground in both the countryside and urban areas and will quickly swoop in on any scraps that become available to scavenge from the floor.
Magpies feed well into the early evening and dusk if they need to. In warmer regions, magpies generally try to avoid full daytime sunlight and mainly forage in the early morning and late evening when it’s a bit cooler.
They’re also often observed sticking to the shade if they can - they’re not particularly fond of super-hot summer days!
Australian Magpie foraging on the ground
Magpies are often spotted foraging by hopping through trees, hedges or on the ground, and they can be very curious when it comes to finding their food. They usually forage from the ground, pecking at the ground and lifting rocks, leaves and other debris to reveal beetles, worms and larvae.
Magpies often forage in pairs or follow other birds, especially crows. Pairs of mated magpies feed cooperatively and are often observed sharing meals equitably.
Most species of magpies forage from the tree canopy and bushes, particularly when hunting nestlings and eggs in the breeding season. When it comes to hunting other animals, magpies can be brutal and ruthless. Though they usually peck their prey to death, magpies have even been observed drowning small animals!
Eurasian Magpie foraging for food on the grass
Black-billed and Yellow-billed magpies do cache food, notably harder plant foods like acorns, nuts and seeds. Small mammals and birds have also been found in some magpie caches. Cached food is generally stored in small hollows, or under rocks and leaves.
The Black-billed magpie is exceptionally good at relocating caches - studies have revealed that they often track down their caches by scent rather than sight or memory. Cached foods are usually retrieved in just 1 to 2 days.
The Eurasian magpie does not generally share this caching behaviour.
Magpies are active birds and feed throughout the day and early evening.
It’s difficult to estimate how much food magpies eat a day - magpies likely consume as much as they can in the early morning but will continue to feed throughout the day and even the early evening if they need to.
In addition, some species of magpies cache their food for later, so if they manage to forage a good haul and can’t eat everything in one go, they may store some food under a rock of leaf for later!
Black-billed magpie calling
Magpies certainly do eat other birds, especially in the breeding season, where they can easily take unattended, defenceless nestlings from the nests of small birds. Magpies often prey upon starling and swift nestlings and may also rarely target adult birds.
Contrary to belief, magpies generally leave songbirds alone. In fact, a study in the UK revealed that songbird concentrations are higher in areas densely populated with magpies, suggesting they have some form of protective effect.
Like many other corvids, magpies can be rather brutal in their methods and are often observed ganging up on hapless nestlings and fledglings, pecking them to death. But, of course, this is natural behaviour amongst many carnivorous and omnivorous birds, not just magpies.
By and large, this sort of behaviour is pretty rare - magpies feed primarily on invertebrates and plant matter.
Eurasian Magpie in flight
Magpies are omnivores. While they do have a reputation for eating other birds and small mammals, magpie diets primarily consist of invertebrates; beetles, crickets, flies and larvae, as well as plant food, particularly acorns, seeds and nuts of various kinds.
Magpie diets vary by region and habitat - many populations will consume barely any meat at all.
Baby magpies are fed almost solely on soft, high-protein, high-fat foods like larvae and grubs, beetles, flies, crickets and meat scraps. The parents either regurgitate food into the nestlings' mouths or feed them soft foods whole.
A magpie feeding a fledgling, UK
Magpies are extremely easy to attract to a garden, but most people are more concerned about shooing them away due to their rather aggressive reputation! Meat scraps and mealworms are two of the best ways to attract magpies.
You might notice that magpies rarely summon to your garden when you provide bird seeds and vegetable scraps, but as soon as you put out some meat or a fat ball, the magpies suddenly emerge and begin scavenging!
Magpies are flexible feeders, but they’re easily attracted with meat scraps, mealworms, cheese and fat balls. While magpies will feed on a bird table or even a hanging bird feeder, they generally prefer to feed on the ground.
While magpies will scoff practically any meat you can throw at them, do bear in mind that they still need a balanced diet and that birds, like humans, can have too much of a good thing!
Magpie at a bird feeder eating seeds
While magpies love fat-rich foods like meat, cheese, mealworms and fat balls, you shouldn’t overfeed them with these sorts of foods.
Another consideration is bread. While bread is not strictly toxic or harmful to birds, it’s also lacking in nutrition. Overfeeding birds with bread will prevent birds from looking for nutritious foods. Avoid feeding birds bread where possible, or choose wholemeal, seeded or granary bread.
Provide a balanced selection of food for all your garden birds, and if you get an incline that your magpies are overgorging themselves on fatty foods, then slacken off for a bit.
Magpies drink water and only water. While they’ll get some water from food, especially during summer, magpies will frequently drink from garden birdbaths and ponds.
So make sure your birdbath is regularly topped up with fresh, clean water - this is one of the best ways to support garden birds!
A young Australian Magpie at a bird feeder
Magpies are intelligent and flexible birds and will certainly use bird feeders.
In fact, magpies might seem to monopolise your bird feeders, putting off other birds in the process! Make sure to provide plenty of bird seeds to your garden birds, as magpies aren’t great seed eaters!
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