St Nicks

Centre for nature and green living

November 2014: Spotlight on… Magpies

Juvenile Magpie at the Environment Centre

Juvenile Magpie at the Environment Centre

The Magpie (Pica pica), a member of the crow family, will be a familiar bird to almost everyone who wanders around St Nicks. Noisy, large and strikingly marked with a long tail, they are easy birds to see and identify. There are probably 3 – 5 pairs of Magpies breeding at St Nicks, although no formal count has been made.

To hear a recording of a Magpie’s chattering call, click here

Magpie nest, near Tang Hall Beck

Magpie nest, near Tang Hall Beck

Nest building (or repairing) by both the male and female often starts in February. The nest is a large structure, often with a domed roof to prevent predation by other crows, made from small branches and twigs, and lined with mud and vegetation. The normal clutch of 5 – 8 eggs is laid from April onwards.

During the 18 – 19 day incubation period, the male feeds the female whilst she remains on the eggs. The young, fed by both parents, fledge after 3 – 4 weeks. Male and females are identical in looks, but during the breeding season, the females can often be identified by having bent or broken tail feathers caused by the cramped conditions in the nest!

The months following fledging are a dangerous time for young magpies, with a high percentage failing to make it through the first year. If the young birds survive to breed, their average life expectancy is around 3 years. Some live much longer than this, with the oldest recorded being over 21 years old.

Magpie in flight at St Nicks

Magpie in flight at St Nicks

The Magpie has long been regarded as a bird of bad omen, as instanced in the adage “One for sorrow, two for joy“. To protect themselves against the sorrow which the sight of a single Magpie might bring, people used to cross themselves, raise their hats to the bird, or spit three times over the right shoulder saying “Devil, Devil, I defy thee”. We do not advocate the latter practise at St Nicks!

Originally a bird of rural areas, Magpies have, since the 1940s, moved increasingly into suburban areas. Many people believe that the increase in the Magpie population is responsible for the decline in our songbirds.

But research by the respected British Trust for Ornithology (“BTO”) strongly suggests that this is not true: “Research examining the question of whether Magpies have been responsible for songbird decline has failed to find any evidence to support the notion that they are to blame. It is true that while Magpie numbers have tended to increase, those of many of our songbird species have declined. These increases and decreases have occurred over different time periods and in different parts of the country, which suggests that the general patterns are a coincidence and not cause-and-effect.”

It is true that, during the breeding season, Magpies will take eggs and youngsters of other species, but this is common practise by many large bird species.

Young Magpie begging for food - at the Environment Centre

Young Magpie begging for food – at the Environment Centre

21 November 2014 | Categories: Spotlight on..., Wildwatch | Tags: magpie, nest, predation, spotlight