The magpie is an unmistakable pied bird, immediately recognisable by its black and white plumage. The adult’s scapulars, belly and flanks are white, as is almost the entire outer wing. The rest of the plumage is black. On close inspection, the black parts reveal a green and blue metallic gloss, which depends on the angle of light and plumage wear. This iridescent sheen, like a beetle’s shell, is most marked in the bird’s long, graduated tail, appearing bronze-green, with bands of several shades of purple near the tip. The male has a longer tail than the female, and it can be up to half his body length. Sexes appear similar. Magpies have black legs and bill. Young birds have duller plumage and shorter tails than adults.
The magpie is noisy and chattering, with a harsh alarm call that it will sound against cats, squirrels, or whomever it feels like, for whatever reason. In courtship displays, the male magpie will soften slightly and emit a seductive low cooing sound.
Magpie alarm call
Simon Elliott, XC599983. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/599983.
Magpie in flight
The magpie feeds on the ground. It is an opportunist and will take advantage of various avenues for procuring food. It has a powerful, curved bill that is the perfect multi-purpose tool for an opportunist prepared to make a meal out of almost anything. Magpies’ typical diet consists of insects, seeds, fruit, nuts and carrion. They will also eat small birds and eggs, and small mammals.
Although traditionally a bird of woodlands, the magpie is now very common in urban areas. The bird is vigilant but not timid. It will swoop down and patrols lawns and flowerbeds, striding along cockily. Magpies are resident in Britain year-round and will be seen across the entirety of the territory except for the Scottish Highlands.
Magpies’ feet have three toes pointing toward and one point pointing backwards, this gives them the ire uneven, jerky motion when walking.
In flight, the magpie’s short, rounded wings show large white panels on ‘hand’. It has a fluttering flight when on straight course, with occasional sweeping glides. When on the ground it makes strong bounds, while the tail jerks up and down. It carries a confident, almost arrogant air about it. At times the species gather in noisy flocks of 5-25 birds, known as magpie parliaments. In winter it may roost in even larger flocks that can contain over 300 birds.
Magpie coming in to land
Magpies traditionally breed commonly around farms and villages, wherever there are a few trees and patches of short-cropped grass or bare ground. Adults may spend their entire lives on the same territory. It is thought that females select mates based on tail length. Pairs are monogamous and usually stay together from one breeding season to the next. Magpies prefer tall trees in which to build their roofed nest of sticks and twigs, usually in the crown of the tree, next to a central fork.
The female lays eggs 4-7 variable blue or olive or greenish, heavily speckled olive-brown eggs between April-May. She will incubate these for 20-21 days while the male feeds her. Parents will raise 1 brood a year. Magpies leave their nest around 30 days after hatching but are fed by their parents for a further four weeks. After this, juveniles from loose flocks wither other young birds. These are easily identified because their plumage is duller than adults. Sexual maturity is reached at 2 years of age.
The nest and eggs of a Magpie
Magpies typically live for 5 years. The oldest recorded bird was 21 years of age.
Magpies are resident in Britain.
The magpie has a Green UK conservation status, with a breeding population of around 600,000 territories.
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