Magpie (Pica pica)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyCorvidae
GenusPica (1)
SizeLength: 40-51 cm (of which tail = 20-30 cm) (2)

The magpie is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (3), but can be trapped, shot or their eggs and nests destroyed under the terms of General Licences issued by government (9). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Green List (low conservation concern) (10).

The common magpie (Pica pica) is an unmistakable species with its black and white plumage, and iridescent green or blue glossy sheen (2). The tail is long, and is usually longer in males than females (2). Its harsh voice includes a fast chattering alarm call; the 'mag' part of the common name used to mean 'chatterer' (4), and was added to 'pie' (referring to the black and white 'pied' colouring) in the 16th century (6).

Various races of the magpie occur throughout Europe and Asia, reaching as far south as the Mediterranean and the Himalayas (5).

Occurs in a broad range of habitats (7), but the magpie tends to breed around farms and villages and in urban areas (2) where there are trees, shrubs and open areas (5).

This much maligned bird is widely disliked because of its feeding habits; magpies occasionally take bird eggs and chicks, small mammals and even adders (6). Yet they are often beneficial birds, perching on livestock and ridding them of ticks, and feeding mainly on pest insects (6), other invertebrates and vegetable matter (7). Magpies hoard food in holes in the ground during winter (7). They are notorious thieves, taking clothes pegs and other brightly coloured objects from gardens (6).

Magpies are sociable birds, gathering in groups to roost, and occasionally forming noisy gatherings called 'magpie parliaments' (4) in the first few weeks of the year. It is thought that these gatherings are 'crow marriages', which allow unpaired birds to find a mate before the approaching breeding season (6). During spring, territories are defended, and fights may ensue. Both sexes help to construct the large roofed nest; the male brings nesting material while the female arranges it. Five to seven eggs are laid in April or May, and incubated for up to 18 days (6). After hatching, the chicks stay in the nest for 22 to 27 days, and rely on their parents for food for up to eight weeks after leaving the nest. The fledglings stay with their parents throughout autumn and winter (6).

There are many folk stories involving the magpie; it is thought to be associated with the devil in many parts of the country, and crossing oneself upon seeing one or saluting lone magpies is a practice that continues to this day in some areas. The magpie rhyme varies greatly, but usually begins: one for sorrow, two for joy (4). It is believed that the magpie refused to mourn Christ at the crucifixion, it is also said that the magpie refused to enter Noah's ark, instead sitting on the roof and swearing for the duration of the deluge (4).

This common species is not threatened in Great Britain.

No conservation action is targeted at this species, but it receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (9).

Find out more on the magpie and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:
http://www.rspb.org.uk/

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D., & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. Naturenet (July 2002):
    http://www.naturenet.net/law/wcagen.html
  4. RSPB (2003): Pers. comm.
  5. RSPB (2003) The population status of birds in the UK:
    http://www.rspb.org.uk
  6. Greenoak, F. (1979) All the birds of the air; the names, lore and literature of British birds. Book Club Associates, London.
  7. Bruce Wilmore, S. (1977) Crows, jays, ravens and their relatives. David and Charles (Publishers) Ltd, London.
  8. Walters, M. (1994) Eyewitness handbooks: Bird's eggs. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  9. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A. D. Poyser Ltd, Calton.