Use Time for Birds: The Black-billed Magpie

The laughing, cackling black-billed magpie is one of the noisiest birds in the Yukon and one of the most noticeable at this time of year.

Like its kin in the corvidae family of crows, ravens and jays, the magpie loves to talk and is drawn closer to communities for food in early winter.

While other birds flee for milder climes, the magpie likes to hangout, often in large flocks, and roost together when the trees are bare and the temperature drops.

They are a showy bird, with black heads, white bellies, and short rounded wings that open with a brilliant white patch in flight. Their tail and wing feathers shine with a blue-green iridescence that belies their inelegant chatter.

A social bird, magpies often mate for life. They build big sturdy nests of twigs with a tell-tale dome design, often as part of a colony. One nest was observed this year on an island in the Quartz Road wetland.

Popular lore says that when they come across a dead comrade, some species of magpie will gather for a kind of funeral, perching together in a nearby tree to show their respects for a few minutes before dispersing.

Like most birds they like insects and seeds, and are opportunistic eaters. That means that if they find easy sustenance – dog food, scraps, garbage – they will grab it. And while they are not considered serious predators of eggs and baby birds, they will gladly steal such meals from predator birds – like shrikes – if they can.

While it’s not certain that magpie numbers are increasing in the Yukon, anecdotally, long-time observers say the populations seem to be higher – especially in Whitehorse – in the fall.

Found mainly in western North America, its northernmost range is southern Alaska and the Yukon. It migrates to the central Yukon in summer, but is rarely seen as far north as Dawson.

Local birding expert Cameron Eckert notes that since communities are trucking more of their waste to the Whitehorse landfill, because of the no-burning rules, magpies are likely following.

“I’ve seen flocks of up to 70 magpies at the Whitehorse dump during the Christmas bird counts,” Eckert says.

To discourage magpies from hanging out at your bird feeder, Eckert suggests hanging a suet feeder on an angle. Small birds, such as the red-breasted nuthatches, can feed upside down, but magpies can’t easily hold on.

So when you hear their chuckle in the trees, take another look while you can at the black-billed magpie. Winter will be here soon, and they won’t be standing around too long. Even for funerals.

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