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Blane Klemek column: Magpies are expanding range

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A friend of mine who lives southeast of Bemidji recently wrote to me asking a couple of interesting questions, along with relating some stories and observations about a bird that seems to have become more abundant than they used to be, especially in the Bemidji area.

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This particular species of bird is already a common, year-around resident across the open landscape west of Bagley to Crookston and throughout the Red River valley. Indeed, the black-billed magpie has always been a bird of the West.

Without question, one of the most interesting birds that inhabit Minnesota is the handsome and long-tailed black-billed magpie, also known as simply "magpie." The other North American species, the yellow-billed magpie, lives in California. But here in the Northland we have only one magpie -- the black-billed magpie.

My friend wrote about his first encounter with a magpie, which occurred in the 1950s. He said an uncle of his mistakenly caught a magpie in a trap set for coyotes, or "brush wolves," as they were commonly called back then. He said his uncle was trapping coyotes because there was a bounty on the animals at that time.

Throughout the years, as my friend wrote, magpies "were a rare but interesting sighting that usually started during deer season and ended mid-winter."

He also informed me that beginning about 10 years ago he began seeing magpies more frequently and observing them closer to his farmyard.

"Last year," he continued, "I had a pair that stayed all winter and even visited my birdfeeder a few times, much to the delight of our grandkids who had never seen a bird like that."

He also reported that the pair of magpies remained in close proximity throughout the summer, too. Nearly every day he either saw or heard them -- be they in the adjacent ash swamp, on one of his fields, the neighbors' fields . . . but always nearby.

"Then toward the end of August they appeared to be joined by four more," he wrote.

And since then, he's observed what he assumes to be the same group of birds, but not since the 2009 Christmas snowstorm.

As my friend has undoubtedly discovered, few birds are as conspicuous looking as the black-billed magpie. It's bold black-and-white plumage and long metallic green tail -- which often appears black -- makes it instantly recognizable.

Belonging to the avian family Corvidae and related to jays, crows and ravens, the magpie shares many of the behaviors of its corvid cousins. They are intelligent birds, and, if domesticated, can be trained to imitate the human voice. Like crows and ravens, they are opportunists when it comes to food. They eat a wide variety of foods including carrion.

Interestingly, the black-billed magpie's scientific name, Pica pica, is so-named because of its feeding behaviors. Pica, which means a craving for non-food items such as dirt and clay, are often purposely ingested by the magpie. It is thought they do so to help with gastrointestinal problems resulting from microorganisms in the gut. Moreover, the word magpie also means "one who collects indiscriminately." And magpies do indeed collect and ingest objects, both food and non-food items.

Regardless of its namesake, the black-billed magpie is a fascinating bird. As my friend has noticed, more of them are being observed in areas where they once were rare. In fact, magpies appear to be breeding and nesting in more wooded areas, suggesting that the species is slowly expanding their range.

The nests of magpies are elaborate and are constructed of sticks by both sexes of a mated pair. The sticks, often thorny, are used for the bottom and walls of the nest. Fresh manure, mud, and vegetation are packed inside. The nest is then lined with softer materials such as roots, stems, and hair. Lastly, the nest is usually domed with more sticks.

The black-billed magpie is a vocal bird that emits a nasal sounding "mag? mag? mag?" or "yak-yak-yak!" One often hears a magpie before actually observing one. Aside from their distinctive vocalizations, many people are charmed by the graceful flight of the magpie. Its long and flowing tail give this bird a tropical look and the appearance of nearly effortless flight. They seem to float through the air in butterfly-like fashion.

Magpies are often associated with carrion. These birds, along with their relatives, are usually the first to arrive at a carcass. In fact, in areas inhabited by coyotes and wolves, it has been observed that these predatory and intelligent mammals will sometimes follow flocks of corvids, such as magpies, crows and ravens, apparently knowing that the birds could potentially lead them to food.

My friend wondered if it were possible that the pair of magpies that took up residence near his farmstead had successfully raised a brood. While I don't know for certain if his magpies raised a family or not, I can fairly well assume that since he observed his birds throughout the year, in addition to seeing more than two by late August, then his magpies might very well have been successful nesters.

Regarding the possibility that black-billed magpies are expanding their range eastward, this indeed seems to be occurring in some regions. Factors that might be contributing to this easterly migration are growing magpie populations, preferred food sources, and unoccupied habitats. Black-billed magpies are considered abundant enough to be deemed a species of "least concern," a term used to describe a species in no apparent risk.

Here in northwestern Minnesota, we should be thankful for birds like the black-billed magpie. They help make our home a unique place to live. Many of these beautiful birds nest and raise their young right here or nearby. Magpies, year-round avian residents, are common throughout Minnesota's great northwest as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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