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.

The Gray Catbird: A Meowing from the Shrubbery

by Dave Hanks

A most distinctive, memorable call issues forth from a tangle of bushes. A meowing call that will not let you rest until you have located the origin. It is loud and has been known to last up to 10 minutes at a time. Most song birds wait until the sun is up, and they have solarized, before becoming active. Not so with the Catbird, who will start his song in the dark, before the sun rises. The male’s song is loud to warn trespassers to avoid his territory. The female will answer her mate in a much softer tone.

This species is one of the largest of the song birds at about 9 inches long. It is a member of the Mockingbird family and in the genus Dumetella – which means “small thicket”. The bird has a dark gray body with an even darker eye and tail. Field identification marks are its black cap and very bright, rusty butt.

Government agencies are paranoid about the feeding of birds in their parks. In some, they won’t even let you put out water – even though the birds are frantic in their thirst. However, most birds (like most other animals) are opportunistic, and the Catbird is extremely so. This highly adaptable bird eats great quantities of insects and loves berries. It prefers moist, boggy, or streamside habitats where insects abound and the vegetation is thick. Water and sand bathing are favorite activities.

Other characteristics that set it apart from other song birds are: the building of more than one nest each year, the vigorous defense of the nests against predators, and the ability to recognize (which other species can’t) Cowbird eggs laid in their nests and then destroy them. Cowbird parasitism is a big problem to many birds – not so to the Catbird.

We experience this species whenever we are in Montana’s Centennial Valley or along the Salmon River. We have also had it in our berry bushes in early September during migration. Its song and sneaky behavior is always interesting.

A Gray Catbird. See the black cap?