DALS WILDLIFE SITE { WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND}

WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

THE MAGPIE Pica pica

Game keepers in particular and people in general tend to show a dislike for this large corvine because of its natural tendency to eat the eggs of other much more favoured bird species. Yet comprehensive studies have failed utterly to provide direct evidence to suggest the decline in song bird numbers has been unduly affected by the increase in the number of magpies.

This handsome bird {for if it were a rare species it would surely be admired} has a characteristic chattering call. It is a familiar sound not only to country folk but the wider populace in general for the bird is now just as likely to be seen in an urban setting as a rural one.

Below---there is no denying the magpie is a handsome bird. Photograph courtesy of Skarabeusz, Creative commons share alike.

Magpie Description.

It is immediately recognizable because of its prominent apparent black and white plumage {pied} that makes up the second syllable of its common name. Incidentally the first syllable "mag" derives from maggie and old English word alluding to a chatter box. The bird is known as maggie in many northern districts. The bird has a characteristic gait as it walks, this handsome bird positively struts which is often accompanied with sideways hops and jumps.

The plumage consists of a white belly and wing panels which contrast greatly with the rest of its apparent black plumage. I say apparent for closer observation will reveal a variation of iridescent colouring. The head which has a flat crown with a purple sheen while the short rounded wings display a brilliant bronze -green iridescence. The tail is wedge shaped, when in flight is relatively long and of a brilliant bronze-green colouring , banded with purple near the tip. The chest is deep the body relatively stocky and short, while the long strong legs are of a dark colour.     

                                                 MAGPIE THE TOWNY!

So why has the magpie become a regular and familiar member of the urban feathered fraternity? It is thought that changes in farming practices, loss of suitable habitat, changes in land uses and persecution in the form of traps and the game keepers' gun has made this wily Corvine take to the relative safety of villages and towns.

Magpie a perception

Town people {and those not familiar with the ways of nature} observing this large bird eating the eggs and fledglings of their favourite song birds such as the blue tit, blackbird,song thrush and robin are quite naturally shocked, yet the magpie cause much less damage to the populations as a whole than the domestic cat, which accounts for many more losses.

Other predators include---

Squirrels, hedgehogs, rats , stoats, woodpeckers and other corvines such as the jay all eat eggs or/ and young of other species.

The magpie in a garden setting may well be perceived as a bully intent on ravaging the nests of our much loved song birds, this is a territorial characteristic. The magpie is an intelligent creature. I have witnessed with my own eyes a pair of magpies working an hedgerow in search of nests of other species which are occupied by eggs or fledglings. The female will perch high on the top most twigs of the hedgerow while its mate flushes out small inexperienced fledglings not yet capable of flight. She would then fly down and take them at her leisure. It can be a disturbing sight it is true, yet other nests of the species will remain undetected and will be successful and enough young will survive to restore the balance of nature. This hunting of other bird species will often coincide with the magpies' own breeding season when they will have hungry mouths to feed from their demanding nestlings.

The increase in magpie numbers may well coincide with the decline in the number of game keepers employed since the second World War. Many were called into active service and have never been replaced. Magpies and song birds have coexisted for many thousands of years and other factors {hugely man made} need be looked at to reveal why other species of birds are decline.

Magpies are scavengers like many of their cousins such as the carrion crow and are often seen picking the carcasses of road kills. { incidentally because of the increase in traffic numbers and the speed it they travel at in these modern times many more creatures are run over which make a good supply of the food for birds such as the magpie during the winter} This again is not pleasant to observe but if it were not for scavengers like the magpie and others of its ilk the countryside would abound with dead animals.

Magpies are gregarious birds by nature which is particularly evident in early spring when large gatherings may be encountered. These social assemblies are a chance for single birds to find a partner. Observation of these gatherings will convey to the observer that the birds spend a lot of time pruning themselves while at the same time displaying to other birds their fine colourful breeding plumage. Pairs are usually two years old before breeding commences.

Nest and eggs of the Magpie.

Once a pair has bonded and chosen a nest site other magpies are driven away from the territory. Nest building is a long affair which may last up to two months. The nest are bulky structures comprising of twigs and sticks intricately, although loosely, woven together, these large structures are clearly visible at first, for they are built when the trees still lack their foliage. When the leaves adorn the trees later in the season the nests become much more difficult to locate.

These nests survive for many years defying winters cruel weather. However, most birds choose to construct a new nest each season. This gives the opportunity for other birds and small animals to tenant the vacant nests during these hard times, for shelter and security.

Magpie near its large bulky nest . Taken in Sweden

Image courtesy of Leo Johannes Public domain

Bulky nests

The bulky nest is domed with twigs and comfortably lined with fine grasses. A tall tree is usually chosen but the birds will readily build in thorny shrubs such as hawthorn. Egg laying usually occurs in late March or early April, but studies have shown that recently the birds are laying much earlier, especially in the more southern counties  of England. { is this due to the effects of global warming or the notorious false starts that spring often bestows on us?} .

Only one clutch is laid unless circumstances render a second clutch is required. The eggs themselves have a greenish cast the light colour being speckled over with brown colour. They are much smaller than one would expect of such a large bird being not much larger than the blackbirds egg. { 34 x24mm= 3.2cm x 2.2cm} weighing about 9gms. However, they are relatively numerous 6-8 eggs are laid. Magpies themselves are not immune from predators and have to defend their nests from local marauding crows.

When the first egg is laid incubation begins and lasts for about three weeks. This task is, in the main, carried out by the female. Hatching is staggered, and, if times are hard  only the strongest, older chicks will survive . The chicks are born naked , helpless and dependent, on their parents a term for this is altricial from the Latin alticialis from alttrix meaning to nurse  from alere meaning to nourish.

From hatching to leaving the nest takes around 26-31 days. Once the young birds become independent they are instantly recognizable, they have the the same apparent black and white plumage but lack the long tail, giving them a stumpy appearance. The tail lengthens as the birds mature.

The diet of these omnivorous birds includes vertebrates, invertebrates especially beetles, fruit,seeds, carrion, scraps, in fact if it is edible the birds will eat almost anything.

Magpie trivia------

Magpies are well known for stealing shiny objects as do their smaller cousins the Jackdaw.

When magpies were much less common this country rhyme was popular.

One for sorrow-Two for joy

Three for a girl-Four for the boy.

Five for silver -Six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told.

There were many variations on rhymes that involved the sightings of magpies. Another variation is-----

One for anger -Two for mirth

Three for a wedding-Four for a birth

Five for rich-Six for poor

Seven for a witch-I can tell you no more.

Pica the Latin name alludes to the magpie but is also used for any pied bird.

The typical life span is 5 years in the wild, however, in captivity they can live a great deal longer than this.

The Gaelic word for the magpie is Pioghad.

BTO Garden Bird Watch Survey  2011 results.

The Garden Bird Watch survey began in 1995 and has run every week since then. In 1995 the magpie was reported from 53.4% of gardens. In 2011 the figure was 53.4% this shows a remarkable consistency.

Familiar Wild Birds {1800,s}

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