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Magpie Antics

Monday, January 7, 2008

Corvids (the crows and jays)... They are the bomb. Smart, pretty, bold, cagey. Black-billed magpies have to take the prize for flashiest North American corvid. They're all over the place in Taos and Arroyo Seco. They love those foothills, sagey flats, cottonwood-lined rivercourses, cow pastures. They write haikus across the landscape with their white wings.On our last morning in our nice adobe house in Arroyo Seco, Bill got the idea to feed the neighborhood magpies. We broke out some whole-grain bread, Cheezits and almonds. He put the food out on a rock and I scurried to get my camera. The magpies were on it before I could focus. They're always watching for handouts, for people doing something food-related.

No dummies, the first magpies to arrive took the almonds. Given a choice, a corvid will always choose protein over carbs. Maybe that's why you don't see magpies riding around in electric scooters at Wal-Mart. They're all fit and trim. But inclined to be gluttons.

These birds were convinced that if they just tried hard enough, they could get three almonds in their bill at once.Two was nice, but three would be so much better. This one is contemplating Almond # 3, and trying to decide whether to drop #1 and #2 to rearrange and stuff #3 in.

They practically lay down on the rock, knowing that picking the nuts up sideways was their best hope. Look at the rainbow in this bird's tail.
Beaks filled, they'd adjourn to the neighboring lawn and cow pasture to cache the treasure. Corvids don't often stop to eat when they find abundant food. They carry it off in expandable gular (throat) pouches and hide it in a bunch of different places, hedging against a lean day. This bird stared at me incredulously when I went and dug up his cache. We were running low on almonds, and I figured I'd recycle them and get a few more shots. I could feel the outrage in his glare. Humans aren't supposed to notice when and where magpies cache their food. Ah, but I am no ordinary human, Grasshoppa.Whole -grain bread's OK in a pinch, but we prefer almonds. Or hamburger. Got any hamburger?

The light is always a challenge in New Mexico. It can be pretty harsh, and we found that diffuse cloud light (rare there) was usually better for bird and landscape shots. I was pleased with how the camera was able to capture the magpies' iridescence in bright low morning sun, though.We perceive them as black-and-white, but they're anything but. Try teal-blue and white. Cozying up to a captive-raised, imprinted talking magpie in Paul Tebbel's office at The Wildlife Center in Espanola, I was astounded to see that its nictitating membranes were white, with a neon orange center. What's with that? It flashed them rapidly as it spoke to me (charming!), so I guess the wild color has social signaling value. Ooh, he liked me, and talked a blue streak, kind of a whispery hurried, muttered mess of sweet nothings come'ere, com'ere hiyahowyadoin' prettyboy and that kind of thing. I was so charmed I offered him my finger, which he bit savagely. He's a magpie, after all. Kind of tough to make an education bird out of a character like that, but they're going to try. He'd been confiscated from his captors by wildlife officials. Apparently Native cultures in New Mexico kept magpies and ravens as pets for centuries. He made Charlie look like a pushover.

It's hard to get a picture of a bird's nictitating membrane, but sometimes it happens accidentally. This enlargement barely hints at the Dreamsicle orange center of the membrane, but trust me, it's as bright as the Cheezit in his bill.Fine birdies. I wish we had them in Ohio. I would feed them meat scraps and whatever else they asked for. It's nice to see a corvid that's not afraid of people. You wouldn't be sitting in a patio chair 30 feet from American crows, shooting their pictures and laughing out loud, that's for sure. I guess we can put black-billed magpies under the heading of: Just One More Thing to Love About New Mexico.


The first time I went out to Alberta, I saw all these gorgeous black (or deep teal blue!) and white birds and I thought they were the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. I was there for a job interview and rhapsodized about this bird during one of those horrible scheduled small talk sessions. Turns out Albertans by and large hate magpies and I didn't get the job. But I still smile every time I go out there and see these gorgeous birds! And I've even managed to get a few Albertans to admit to their beauty.

One of my favorite classical pieces of music is Rossini's La gazza ladra, "The Thieving Magpie"

I saw them for the first time in Utah in 1999. I had NO clue what they were and asked a local who looked at me like I just fell off the turnip truck.

Striking birds, so sharply dressed.
Wouldn't they be entertaining on the ranch!
I guess our bumper crop of blue jays will be the closest we'll get in Ohio.

I first saw magpies in England earlier this year and they were pretty common. My cousin in Leeds dislikes them immensely as witnessed magpies (I'm pretty sure it was magpies) killing smaller birds in her "garden." It appeared to her that a group of them somehow had a plan to ambush these birds.

I then went to Colorado a month later for a business trip and, thanks to my trip to the UK, had not trouble identifying them. They are beautiful creatures; I'm happy to see them eating almonds and leaving the smaller birdies alone.

I've seen magpies on two continents: in California in '94 and in Scotland in '99 - Gawd, are they beautiful birds!

Does Charlie know you were two-timing him with some random corvid? tsk-tsk


These guys are more entertaining than 'Hekyll and Jekyll' of my youth! and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce should send you a commission for promoting their state -- I'll bet they never thought of employing magpies as a lure.

Ohhh...for half a second I thought you somehow had gotten magpies to Indigo Hill.

They are amazing. I think they should have a fedora and a brief case under their wings. However, they can act like a well organized gang when they want to.

And they fly like no one else.

And Zoey and I were shocked when we got out of the airport in Shannon, Ireland. The VERY FIRST thing we saw was a magpie in a palm tree. Sheesh!

I've only seen Magpie's at Trixie's house. I think you know them better than they know themselves - ah HA!

They are beautiful. Colorful. Flashy.

magpie takes sweet nuts

he thought he loved the fat but

Julie says protein

On our Christmas trip to London, my husband spotted a bird that looked--well, different. He said--what's that. And I said--I think it's a magpie.
They are exotic looking, especially to those of us who don't see them frequently.
I love the way the photos you got capture the blue-black of the dark feathers.

Such beautiful birds! I've never seen one. Thanks for sharing Julie.

Maybe it is fat
Perhaps it is the protein
Magpies like almonds

This is what happens when I'm reading blogs too late while sipping a shot of Jim Beam.

Beautiful birds and photos.

Indeed, you are no ordinary human, Science Chimp, workin' your kung fu on the magpies.

I like how dazzlingly white their white parts looks.

I guess how desired they are is relative, isn't it. Here in eastern Washington the darn things chase juncos, chickadees, nuthatches and the like away from the feeders. They're almost as pesky as squirrels.

When I visited my brother in northern California, I saw magpies on people's front lawns. I told him I thought that would be pretty cool, but he said people think they're pesty. Maybe the same way some people here in Minnesota think the bluejays are pests.
Thanks for all the beautiful magpie pictures, Julie.

After being woken up at 5 a.m. for the tenth straight day by a group of magpies fighting over food in the neighbor's bird feeder, I've totally lost my appreciation for them. All the other lovely song birds that used to use the bird feeder have been replaced by this squawking pack of bullies. I didn't know a bird could be SOOOO loud.

The other morning I was so fed up I burst out the door in my nightie and started throwing rocks at the buggers -- which seemed to amuse them greatly but not scare them in the least. The neighbors had a good laugh too.

Posted by Jessica June 25, 2008 at 9:32 AM

I grew up in the Espanola Valley, La Puebla to be exact, and I was looking for some pictures of New Mexico Magpies because most images I was finding weren't my birds. Google helped me find your site.

You have a gift for capturing the magical aspects of detail. I enjoyed your blog and bookmarked it.

Like Jessica,I know it's not fun being woken up by a bunch of noisy magpies after a long day, but they are lots of fun most of the time.

They live life on their own terms and they are not politically correct, but they do have a goood heart.

I recall seeing them everywhere (most times causing trouble) in town and in the mountains.
They are considered a pest, but they do make things interesting and their beauty is undeniable.

Sometimes I would see them flying high above and evading an angry pair of nesting birds they had wronged in some way. I also know they are great parents and have no fear of humans when it comes to protecting their young.

They are very smart--no bird brains here...
I imagine they are what a penguin dreams it could be: sleek, smart, agile, funny...and they can talk. You gotta love 'em.

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