Magpie: Our Black and White Jay

The Black-Billed Magpie is an extreme bird. People either love ‘um or hate ‘um. They probably have more detractors than supporters. However, I am one who likes this beautiful bird. Their satiny black and white feathers and long tails are most attractive. Seen in the right light, their feathers shine with an iridescence. People from the east who haven’t experienced this species are usually very impressed – much as westerners are with Blue Jays when visiting eastern states.

Like all jays, this bird is very raucous. When they are near, you can hear them “jabbering away” to each other. This intelligent species would have to be considered the valedictorian of the bird world. Very alert to their surroundings and very hard to approach, they have been known to do clever things – like the one that dropped nuts at a stop light. The nuts would be cracked when the traffic ran over them. The bird would then fly in to get the results when the light changed.

They are a year-round bird and very adaptable. As generalists, their diet covers a wide range from fruits, grains, worms, slugs, and insects to small animals like snakes and mice. They also do much scavenging and are often seen on highways taking advantage of the “road-kill”. Magpies are early nesters and build roofed, dome shaped nests of sticks that protect the eggs from the early spring weather. The same nest is used each year. Five to nine eggs are laid and are incubated for 16 to 18 days. When fledging, the young have short tails which elongate as they mature. By early nesting, they are gone from the tree when other species arrive.

We have other jays in Cassia County: the Scrub Jay which is blue and gray, the Pinyon Jay which is all blue, Clark’s Nutcracker which is gray, black, and white, the American Crow, and the Common Raven. All are raucous, opportunistic, smart, and adaptable. The Black-billed has a cousin – the Yellow-billed which is slightly smaller and found in central California. Magpie behavior is always interesting. I’ve watched them “mob” hawks and owls, sneak food away from larger animals, and even perch on the rumps of deer – getting great pleasure out of annoying their hosts.

Animals Tend to be Opportunistic

Many things that have been held to be fact, are not true at all. In my first year of school teaching I depended heavily on the text book, only to learn at a later date that some of the facts were not really facts. In our travels, we are constantly regaled to not feed birds, and other forms of animal life because it will hinder their survival in the wild. I just don’t believe this anymore. I have been around animals and observed their behavior all of my long life, and have learned that they will do whatever is necessary to survive or make their existence easier. In short, animals are opportunistic!

We have observed Western Tanagers, with their insectivore beaks, eating seeds. Now that just isn’t supposed to be. Meat eaters, such as Fox or Coyote, will often consume non-meat items. Great Blue Herons are supposed to eat small fish, frogs, and other small aquatic organisms. Much to my surprise, I once watched for some minutes a heron, on a park lawn, carefully creeping up on a ground squirrel hole. What, I wondered, was it doing? Suddenly its head shot out and into the hole. Out it came with a large ground squirrel in its beak, which it swallowed in one mighty gulp.

Little kids will all say that bears eat honey and that may be so, but in reality (and this is shocking to some) they eat a large quantity of grass. It is interesting to watch them on a hillside grazing like cattle.

But of course, we all know that Grizzlies are opportunistic and will consume almost anything. Meat is a big favorite – their “Ice Cream food” so to speak. However, other than squirrels and such, and the new born, they are poor predators. Scavenging on the larger winter-killed beasts is common after emerging from hibernation. The Grizzly pictured is feeding on carrion at the side of a pond. When I saw the bear moving to it, I ran and hurriedly walked for about a mile (packing a heavy camera and tripod) to witness the spectacle that was to occur. Now, that is hard on a 75 year old man, but it was well worth the effort!

Grizzly Bear Gorging upon a carcass

Gorging upon the carcass