The Yellow-billed Magpie

That black and white bird with an iridescent sheen, long tail, and yellow bill is the Yellow-billed Magpie, unique to (accurately called “endemic”) the California valley and a bit of the south coast in open woodlands and adjacent fields. The identical, except for bill color, Black-billed Magpie is found over most of the west and north to Alaska. The European Magpie is that areas’ version of the Black-billed and was once thought to be the same species.

Magpie is one of those funny names, but interesting, so let’s examine it. “Mag” comes from Maggie which is a nickname for Margaret. In Europe, Maggie referred to a very talkative, gossipy person. So Mag refers to the birds’ raucous, chattering calls. “Pie” comes from pied or piebald, which means patched. You may remember that the Pied Piper of Hamlin who led the rats out of town had a coat of patches. The magpie has black and white plumage patches, hence the name. Speaking of piebald, this is how the Bald Eagle got its name. Not because it is bald but has patches (piebald) of white on its head and tail. There are also Pied Flycatchers and Pied Cockatiels, and other birds named similarybmagpiely.

Magpies, like much of the crow and jay family, eat most anything and fly around in flocks of a dozen to twenty birds seeking food, mostly on the ground. Having lived where I have in north Chico for twenty years on an acre and a half, I have watched the bird population in my backyard change as the vegetation has changed and filled in. I have been replacing the old walnut orchard trees with blue and valley oaks, some of which are now ten meters tall. Fifteen years ago I observed many magpies in the backyard and neighborhood. Slowly they disappeared and seemed to be rare everywhere in California, the victims of West Nile virus, which is nearly always fatal to members of the crow family. These days I am seeing more magpies so I presume either the West Nile virus threat is diminishing or that the birds are developing some sort of immunity to it.

Magpies are fun to watch, like a group of kids at recess. As they sweep through an area looking for food, they jostle one another, jump up and down, and take short flights, like a small swarm of big locusts. Like others of their family, they are sometimes considered with disdain, but I again make the argument that they are natural members of the ecological community and deserve as much respect and admiration as any other bird.

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