Black-billed Magpie: A Perfect Combo of Brains and Beauty

Often viewed as an entertaining clown or mischievous rascal, the black-billed magpie never lacks in personality — and ingenuity.

What Makes Black-billed Magpies Special?

Black-billed Magpie in AlaskaLarry Keller, Lititz Pa./Getty Images
The black-billed magpie is a bird in the corvid family.

“They’re such clever problem solvers,” said Emma Greig, Ph.D, project leader of Project Feeder Watch at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They have a very high intellect.”

Members of the Corvidae family, sometimes their smarts lead them into trouble. Eric Rasmussen, avian scientist of MPG Ranch in Florence, Montana shared how a black-billed magpie broke into his family’s chicken coop and carefully removed full eggs in its beak. Instead of being cross with the bird, he said, “That made me appreciate them all that much more.”

They’re also known talkers. “They have a vocal repertoire and the ability to mimic, said Greig. While their standard call is “mag-mag-mag,” they can mimic other birds, and those in proximity to people are known to imitate human voices. There are also studies indicating they remember individual’s faces.

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What Does a Black-billed Magpie Look Like?

Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia)Stan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer/Getty Images
Look for blue feathers on the wings and tail

Slightly larger than a blue jay, a black-billed magpie is primarily black on its upper parts, including the head. Most of the body is white, and its most striking feature is the iridescent blue along the wing and at the top of the long tail. Their black-bill differentiates them from their yellow-billed relative found in California.

“Male and females look the same,” said Greig, “but people might be able to notice a difference in their behavior. During courtship, males tend to feed the females. The females flutter their wings and the males give them a treat.”

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Range and Habitat

Black-billed MagpieStan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer/Getty Images
Black-billed magpie in central Colorado

Black-billed magpies are found throughout North America from western Wisconsin to almost the West coast, and as far north as Alaska and the Saskatchewan River, while their southern boundary dips into the northern reaches of the southwestern states.

They are perfectly comfortable around human development, particularly when easy meals, such as pet food, are nearby. Often spotted on the uppermost branches of trees or perched on fenceposts, they prefer being close to shelter belts or other forms of cover in order to escape predators such as foxes and coyotes.

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Black-billed Magpies Build Elaborate Nests

young magpie runningRobin Johnson/Getty Images
Young magpie after leaving the nest

Black-billed magpies mate for life and create domed nests sometimes measuring nearly four-feet in diameter in the crook of deciduous trees or conifers, and even in vacant buildings. The pair works together with the males gathering the sticks for the massive outer part of the nest, while the female forms a mud cup lined with soft grass where she broods one to nine eggs. “It’s designed to be exactly what they need,” said Greig.

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What Do Black-Billed Magpies Eat?

Dining MagpieJanelleStreed/Getty Images
Black-billed magpie with a morsel caught in its beak

As the ultimate omnivore, Rasmussen said they’re the first animals to discovers a carcass, and as a raucous group, magpies let all the other birds and other scavengers know about the meal. In the warm months, they eat grasshoppers and other insects, including picking ticks off the backs of deer or livestock, and hunt small mammals, frogs and young birds.

Always fun to watch, they’ll visit platform feeders for suet and will eat fruit and mealworms. If they’re in your neighborhood, keep the lid on trash cans, as magpies will also use them as personal feeders.

Next, find out if crow sightings have meaning.

Amy Grisak
Working for a decade as a sound recordist on natural history programs for National Geographic Television gave freelance writer and author Amy Grisak a deep appreciation for the bird sounds heard throughout the season. Combining this work with decades of gardening experience, which is another one of her favorite writing topics, birds are part of nearly everything she does. Whether she is working in her backyard or hiking the trails of her Montana home, she loves sharing her birding experience with readers.