Sri Lanka magpie (Urocissa ornata)

Also known as: Sri Lanka blue magpie
GenusUrocissa (1)
SizeSize: 42 – 47 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

This boldly patterned, blue and chestnut magpie can be easily distinguished from other Sri Lankan species by its distinctive, vivid colouring (2) (3). The chestnut head, breast and lower wings contrast starkly with the dazzling blue body and long, white-tipped blue tail. This vibrant plumage is coupled with bright red legs, feet, bill and eye-rings. Juveniles have a duller plumage, the blue parts being washed with grey, and the eye-ring is brown (2).

As its common name suggests, this bird is endemic to Sri Lanka, where it has a fragmented distribution confined to the wet zone in the centre and south-west of the country (2) (4) (5).

Found in tall, undisturbed, primary forest in the hills and lowlands of Sri Lanka’s wet zone, from 2,135 metres above sea level to below 150 metres. The Sri Lanka magpie has also occasionally been recorded from disturbed areas (2).

The Sri Lanka magpie usually associates in flocks of about six or seven birds, but pairs and solitary individuals can also been seen (3) (4). Breeding takes place from January to the end of March, and a clutch of three to five eggs is laid into a nest usually built at the top of small, slender trees (3) (4).

The Sri Lanka magpie mainly feeds on small animals, including hairy caterpillars, green tree-crickets, various chafers, tree-frogs and lizards, but it has also been observed taking fruits. Three individuals seen in a commotion close to the nest of a spot-winged thrush (Zoothera spiloptera) are thought to have been attempting to predate the nest (4).

The main threat facing the Sri Lanka magpie is the extensive clearance and degradation of forests within its range through logging, fuelwood collection, conversion to agriculture and tree plantations, gem mining, encroaching human settlements and fire (2). As a result, this vibrant bird’s range has markedly contracted and fragmented (5), and even some protected forests continue to be degraded and cleared (2). Several forests in the mountain region also appear to be dying, possibly as a result of air pollution and acid rain, which poses a potential threat (2) (4). While hunting in the past probably played a part in the species’ historical decline, it is unlikely to pose any significant threat today because of the high cost of ammunition, the strict control of guns due to the security situation in the country, and cultural and religious taboos (4). In addition, the magpie is thought to be prevented from colonising disturbed forests by high rates of brood-parasitism by the Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), which is common wherever there is human habitation (2) (4). It has also been suggested that biocides may be playing a role in the decline of this species (2) (4).

The Sri Lanka magpie is a legally protected species in Sri Lanka, and a moratorium was passed in 1990 to protect wet zone forests from logging (2). The colourful bird also occurs in several national parks and forest reserves, most notably Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area, Horton Plains National Park, Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, Morapitiya Forest Reserve and Tangmalai Sanctuary (2) (4).

For more information on the Sri Lanka magpie see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)