National Geographic : 1933 Jan
CROWS, MAGPIES AND JAYS AMERICAN MAGPIE (Pica pica hud- YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIE (Pica nut sonia) talli) In 1927, under the direction of the State au thorities of Montana, 25,269 magpies were killed and 18,071 of their eggs destroyed. Nothing, perhaps, can more forcefully illustrate the popu lar dislike for this bird throughout the cattle and sheep-raising districts of the Far West than the fact that ranchmen are willing to pay for its destruction. Despite the constant warfare made on the handsome black-billed magpie, its numbers seem not to decrease, except locally, and then only for a time. When its enemies become weary of the seemingly hopeless task of exterminating it and relinquish their efforts, the birds are soon about the country in their usual numbers. The reason for the rural westerner's dislike is that the magpie persistently destroys the eggs and young of wild birds, and hunters deplore the destruction of game birds by any wild creature which they class as "vermin." Magpies kill young chickens and eat hen's eggs when they can find them. They will gather about a sickly sheep or a cow, or the newborn young of either, and kill it by their pecking. They attack newly branded stock and freshly sheared sheep. At times, and in some localities, these propen sities render them extremely annoying. How ever, Mr. Kalmbach well points out: "As in most, if not all, problems of bird control, the real need for drastic action against the magpie is confined to local areas where one or another of its faults has become unduly emphasized." Over the greater part of the magpies' range they appear only in moderate numbers. They are great scavengers, and with the ravens, and in some regions with the vultures, they help to rid the countryside of offensive carcasses. They clean up scraps of meat and offal about places where stock is butchered. They flock about In dian villages or encampments where little effort is made by men to dispose of offensive refuse. Magpies cat grasshoppers that consume the grass, which is scanty enough in many regions. They destroy countless weevils, caterpillars, and grubs and kill a certain number of noxious rodents. The magpie, therefore, is not wholly had. It is a comfort to one interested in the conservation of all wild life to reflect that its range is so great over vast. thinly settled sections and its fecundity so pronounced, that we may expect this striking species to live and prosper for years to come. The magpie is a very noisy bird and is con tinually chattering about something. Mr. Hen shaw, speaking of the flexibility and the range of its voice, said that it runs "from a guttural chuckle to the softest whistle." The bird is imi tative, and here and there magpie pets learn to imitate the human voice in a highly entertaining manner. The nest is a bulky, domed affair of twigs, built in trees. It contains a mud cup lined with rootlets. Mrs. Bailey speaks of certain old nests which "were much in demand for roof-trees by English sparrows, and to a less degree by house finches." This species ranges from Alaska and Manitoba to New Mexico. The yellow-billed magpie is a little smaller than the American, or black-billed magpie, but the difference in size is very slight. The birds are exactly alike in appearance, except that one has a black beak and the other has a yellow one and also a bit of yellow skin back of the eye. The difference in the distribution of these two species constitutes one of the amazing and un explained problems in the field of ornithology. Closely related subspecies of the black-billed form are found in northern Africa, Spain, northern Europe, northern Asia, China, and western North America. The race occurs over the greater part of the Northern Hemisphere. On the other hand, the yellow-billed magpie is con fined to less than half of the area of California. Why is one restricted to such a limited region and the other so widely distributed ? This is a problem for evolutionists and geologists. The yellow-billed magpie may represent a very ancient race that is dying out. Since scientific interest has been directed toward the observation of its habits and distribution, it has been dis covered that its range has become more re stricted. There are reports that fifty or sixty years ago it was a common bird in many places in the immediate vicinity of the coast, where the observer would now look for it in vain. It in habits only the interior of the State west of the Sierra Nevada, from Tehama County to Ventura and Kern counties, and chiefly in the Sacra mento and San Joaquin valleys. It haunts the neighborhood of stock ranches, because food to its liking is usually plentiful in such places. When cattle and sheep are butch ered, the refuse attracts magpies. They gather about any animal which accident or disease has killed. They feed also on grasshoppers, worms, and grubs to be found in certain places, and, of course, always consider the possibilities of a reasonable supply of eggs of birds or of poultry. The nest is a bulky, roughly rounded structure consisting of a great mass of twigs. In this is built a deep cup of mud or cow dung. The lining is of rootlets, pine needles, dry grass, shreds of cottonwood bark, and sometimes horsehair. Egress is through a passageway in the side. An opening in the opposite direction admits of swift exit if danger threatens at the front. These rude cradles for the young are often placed in oak trees from Io to 6o feet above the ground. Sycamores, willows, and cottonwoods are some of the other trees chosen for nesting purposes. Small colonies of these magpies are sometimes seen, but more often a single pair, with its nest, is found in some secluded gulch or out-of-the-wav corner of the ranch. The nest may be cunningly hidden among clumps of mistle toe or it may be placed in such an open situation that it can be seen from a considerable distance. These birds become much attached to a locality and will return year after year to build their nests in the immediate vicinity of the domicile used the previous spring. Often a pair will make use of the same tree and at times even build the new nest on top of an old one. The five to seven yellowish or olive eggs are covered with spots of brown or grayish olive.