BIOLOGY AND BEHAVIOR Black-billed magpies are members of a bird family that also includes ravens, crows, and jays. They are easily distinguished from other birds by their size and striking black and white color pattern. They have unusually long tails, half their body length, and short rounded wings. The feathers of the tail and wings are iridescent, reflecting a bronzy green to purple. They have white bellies and shoulder patches and their wings flash white in flight. Two distinct species are found in North America, and the black-billed species is found in Utah. Black-billed magpies average 19 inches in length and 1/2 pound in weight. They have black beaks and no eye patches. They are typically found close to water in relatively open areas with scattered trees and thickets. Magpies are omnivorous and very opportunistic. They have a preference for animal matter, primarily insects, but readily take anything that is available. Congregations of magpies can commonly be seen along roadsides feeding on animals killed by cars or in ripening fruit and nut orchards. They also pick insects from the backs of large animals. Their diet changes during the year reflecting the availability of foods during the different seasons. Eighty percent of the black-billed magpie’s diet consists of insects, carrion, small mammals, small wild birds, hatchlings, and eggs. The balance of its diet consists of fruits and grains. Magpies often store or cache food items in shallow pits that they dig in the ground. Magpies are intelligent birds that learn quickly and seem to sense danger. They mimic calls of other birds and can learn to imitate some human words. They readily adapt to the presence of humans and take advantage of the food sources provided. Nest building typically begins in early March for black billed magpies. They build large nests, sometimes 48 inches high by 40 inches wide, in bushes or in trees usually within 25 feet of the ground. Magpie nests are usually found in small colonies. Other species of birds and mammals often use magpie nests after they have been abandoned. Black-billed magpies lay six to nine eggs. Incubation normally starts in April. The incubation period is 16 to 18 days and young are able to fly 3 to 4 weeks after hatching. Young forage with the adults and then join other groups in summer to form loose flocks. Winter congregations may include more than 50 individuals.
DAMAGE Magpies can cause substantial damage locally to crops such as almonds, cherries, corn, walnuts, melons, grapes, peaches, wheat, figs, and milo. Their damage is probably greatest in areas where insects and other foods are relatively unavailable. Magpies are often found near livestock where they feed on the insects attracted to dung and carrion. They also forage for ticks and insects on the backs of domestic animals. Perhaps the most notorious magpie behavior is the picking of open wounds and scabs on the backs of livestock. Magpies, like ravens, may peck the eyes out of newborn or sick livestock. Magpies eat eggs and hatchlings from wild bird and poultry nests. They can be very destructive to poultry during the nesting season when magpie parents are gathering food for their young. Magpie can be a nuisance because of their excessive noise and the odor associated with their droppings.
CONTROL METHODS Exclusion Exclusion is generally not practical to protect crops from magpie depredation unless crops are of high value or the area to protect is relatively small. Nylon or plastic mesh netting can be used to cover crops. The netting is expensive and labor intensive making it expensive to use. Exclusion is an ideal method to keep magpies from livestock when it is economical to do so. Poultry nests and young kept in fenced coops and feeding areas are safe from magpies. Lambing pens can reduce the incidence of eye pecking. Livestock with open wounds or diseases can be kept in areas that exclude magpies until they are healthy. Habitat Modification Predation on poultry often increases during magpie breeding season. Raids of increasing intensity can often be tied to a few offending breeding pairs with young. Removal of their nests can effectively reduce predation. Clear low brush and trees to reduce nesting and roosting habitat in areas where black-billed magpies are regularly concentrated and cause regular damage. This method reduces habitat for all wildlife and should be carefully considered before being undertaken.
Frightening Devices Frightening devices are effective for reducing magpie depredations to crops and livestock. A combination of human presence, scarecrows, pyrotechnics, and propane cannons provide a good frightening or hazing program and can reduce depredations significantly. The success of these devices varies greatly with location, availability ofalternate food supplies such as insects, and how the techniques are used. In a hazing program the periodic presence of a person is important because it reinforces the techniques. The mere presence of a person will keep magpies at a distance, especially where magpies have been hunted.
Trapping Trapping is effective in reducing local magpie populations where they are concentrated in high numbers because of food availability or winter conditions. Several trap designs have been successful in capturing magpies. Traps made of weathered materials are most successful, but it still takes time for magpies to get used to traps. Traps are most effective in areas frequented by magpies or along their flight paths. Consult federal, state, and local laws before trapping. Shooting Shooting can be an effective means to eliminate a few offending magpies or to reduce a local population. Shotguns are recommended for shooting. Magpies can be stalked or shot from blinds under flight paths. They also can be lured with predator calls. Magpies, though, quickly become wary and learn to avoid hunters. Shooting in conjunction with a hazing program provides greater control of damage than does shooting alone. Consult federal, state, and local laws before shooting.
LEGAL STATUS Magpies are protected as migratory nongame birds under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Special control measures apply when magpies are committing or about to commit depredations upon ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife or when concentrated in such numbers as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance. Contact the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources concerning problem magpies.