A noisy crow with black and white plumage, the Magpie (Pica pica) is instantly recognisable. When viewed up close, these birds appear to be quite colourful as their black feathers exhibit an iridescent sheen and there’s a green tint to their distinctive long tails. Magpies are 44-48cm in length and boast wingspans of up to 56cm.
Magpies are perhaps best known for their habit of collecting objects to decorate their nests. They have been accused of reducing songbird populations as, like all crows, they will take eggs and young birds from nests. However, research has shown that their presence has no impact on the populations of songbirds. Magpies are somewhat arrogant birds which are scavengers and predators. In consequence, they are not the most popular species, but they do control pests and can be fascinating to watch. These birds can be seen in many habitats from grassland and heathland to suburbia.
What is the magpie’s distribution and population?
Magpies were extremely common throughout the UK until the middle of the 19th century. They were very popular with farmers as they ate the insects and rodents which could destroy crops. However, their population was then severely reduced due to persecution by gamekeepers. Once they were protected by law, their numbers began to rise and trebled between 1970 and 1990. Since then, the population of magpies has remained stable at around 600,000 breeding pairs. The birds are present throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They can be seen in Scotland but are absent from the highlands where food sources are scarce, and temperatures are much lower in winter.
What do magpies eat?
Magpies are omnivores. Their summer diet consists of invertebrates including beetles, flies, caterpillars, spiders and worms. In winter, these birds favour plant material such as berries, grains, discarded food scraps and bird food placed on bird tables. They will eat carrion throughout the year and will hunt small birds and mammals. During the breeding season, they will take eggs and chicks from nests. Magpies are opportunists and so thrive in the urban environment where there are diverse food sources to exploit. If they gather excess food, they will make small holes in the ground in which to hoard the surplus.
Where do magpies nest?
A breeding pair of Magpies will hold a territory of up to five hectares year-round. Good nesting sites can be limited and so up to 60% of magpies in any area will not breed. Breeding pairs build large nests which are domed and lined with a variety of materials. Their preferred nesting sites are thorny bushes or tall trees. In towns and cities, magpies will often choose to nest close to people as this protects their eggs and young from other crows. They are happy to use artificial nesting sites including gutters and eaves. Females lay six egg on average which they will incubate for 18-19 days. The young fledge after 4 weeks.
Did you know?
It is said that Magpies didn’t mourn with the other birds during Christ’s crucifixion. Magpies are intelligent birds which can recognise themselves in mirrors. Lone magpies are considered to be harbingers of bad luck.