The Black-billed Magpie is one of those stunningly gorgeous birds that stops you in your tracks. With their iridescent blue-green plumage, trailing tail feathers, and bright white accents, they’re quite the head turners - particularly if you happen to catch an overhead view of this bird in flight.
But not everyone is glad to see them, because when you look at their track record, they have quite the rap sheet. If you’ve ever seen La gassa ladra, an Italian opera translated to The Thieving Magpie created in the early 1800’s, you know that magpies already have a reputation for being tricky. The Thieving Magpie tells of a maid who is almost sentenced to death for stealing silver until it is discovered that the culprit was actually a thieving magpie, who had been secretly hiding its treasures in a church tower.
Though this is probably the most famous example of these tricksters, there are also a few other examples of how magpies have been caught with sticky fingers:
- Back in the early 1800s, journals from the Lewis and Clark expedition note how Black-billed Magpies fearlessly walked into the tents of the explorers, stealing morsels of food from the tables. They also followed Native Americans on buffalo hunts, ready to feast on any remains of the hunt.
- Flocks of magpies have been known to mob owls, hawks, cats and other predators so they can snatch up and steal the freshly caught prey.
- There’s a more recent account of a flock of Black-billed Magpies in Montana, who found a not-so-obvious opening in a net that was supposed to keep them from raiding cherry trees. “(T)he robins and starlings were held at bay. But a day or two later, I heard a magpie ruckus in the orchard and found four magpies inside the netting having a great time.”
The Black-billed Magpie is a member of the corvid bird family. Like the jays, crows, and ravens that also belong to it, magpies are regarded as highly intelligent. One big indicator of their human-like smarts is their ability to recognize their reflections in a mirror, and as the above example shows, solve problems that stump other birds.
The mixed response to the Black-billed Magpies is also reflected in their depictions in Native American animal legends. Some tribes have portrayed them as loud, annoying gossips, while in others, they show up as guides ready with a clever solution. Later on, the state of Idaho once took out a bounty on these birds for their alleged attacks on cattle.
Today, birders appreciate their striking appearance and clever ways. If you live on open land in the western U.S., the Black-billed Magpie will eat cracked corn, fruit and sunflower seeds. Invite them to your yard by filling a platform feeder with Lyric Supreme Wild Bird Mix. You may get a first-hand encounter of how truly tricky Black-billed Magpies can be!