Family : Corvidae
Text © Dr. Gianfranco Colombo
English translation by Mario Beltramini
Who knows why, when we talk of Magpie, immediately we give her the attribute of thieving, as if this was the only one characteristic peculiar to this bird.
And to think that in no other part of the world this offensive epithet is used.
Some call it simply longtailed, others chatty, others tailed, others common, others European but never thieving.
However, even if being called in this way is by sure not pleasant, this on the magpie has always had a different meaning, amusing, a particular that has always created an aura of sympathy and benevolence around it.
This particularity has been often used in literature, in funny plays and even in the operatic music to create those special tragicomic situations that by the end of the story unfold blaming the magpie on duty, unconscious actress of misdeeds first charged to the comedy actors.
Of this is aware Rossini who, two centuries ago, with his very famous and homonymous lyric opera has rendered it likeably famous in the whole world. By sure he has been one of the main promoters of this advertising.
The magpie is not a thief as they imagine but is simply attracted by the glittering of the objects abandoned by the man that attract it curiously as happens for many other birds.
Several raptors, curious too, often approach glittering objects as well as the Larks ( Alauda arvensis ) with the fateful bait and switch but also other birds look for and steal coloured small objects like the Australian bowerbirds (family Ptilonorhynchidae) who decorate their nests with unthinkable knickknacks to attract the female. Hence, more than thief it would be better to talk of curious.
Many indicate as origin of this name the fact that the magpie actually steals, and much, but as we shall see, it is matter of the chicks of other nests but not for hiding them or abducting them, as told in the popular tradition but, even worse, for eating them.
The Eurasian magpie or Common magpie ( Pica pica - Linnaeus, 1758) belongs to the order of the Passeriformes and to the family of the Corvidae.
Being a common bird, well visible and consequently well known by all, to the Magpie have been given many local names sometimes funny sometimes friendly as usual for the pet animals.
In a short listing from north to south of Italy, we find Berta, Checca, Pica, Sgasa, Gaza, Cacciagole, Carcarazza, Ciaula, Gaisgia, Ciabòt, Tapagi, Ciadel, Fracass, Azzera, Calacòle, Ciola, Cola, Cóle, Còlecòle, Aiòsa, Ajassa, Agassa. Terms all referred to the considerable noise this bird usually makes during his daily life.
It is called Magpie in English, Elster in German, Urraca comun in Spanish, Pie bavarde in French and Pega rabuda in Portuguese.
Particular is the origin of the English term of magpie as this is commonly in slang used to indicate a collector of small and useless objects but also for pointing out a gossipy and chatty person.
On the other hand, the etymology of the scientific binomen Pica pica comes from the classical Latin term “pica” = boisterous, cheerful, that later became “gaium” = gay deriving from the proper noun Gaius, a character who probably emanated happiness from every pore!
Many legends and traditions accompany this bird in the various corners of Europe, some are funny anedoctes, others evil whishers but as it is known, the origins of this folklore, linked to nature, are often lost in the mists of time, when the mankind suffered from atavistic fears and feared witches and never seen unknown monstrous animals.
In the Anglo Saxon world one of these stories has entered the local tradition so much to be played by the children in a much known nursery rhyme and in the everyday behaviour even among adults, tradition quite often unknown by themselves but still practiced.
At the sight of a magpie it’s instinctive to metaphorically address it a greeting in order to avoid an upcoming doom, saluting cordially with a “Good morning, Mr. Magpie, how is your lady?” hinting a shrug of the hat for reverence.
A typical propitiatory reaction quite similar to the tap we give to our front to remind us the misfortune we had in seeing a black cat crossing our way.
When however the meeting involves more magpies then the situation changes for the better.
In the nice childish lyric pronounced also for the crow, with whom the magpie appears to share the misfortune of the meeting, the more birds we see and the more positive is the outcome. “One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a wedding, Four for a birth.”
Others have lengthened up to seven, perhaps in the frantic search for better results. “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told.”
The magpie has a very vast range occupying the whole Europe, continental and temperate Asia up to the Kamchatka and the Pacific Siberian coasts, the north-western Mediterranean African coasts and western Canada up to Alaska.
In Europe there is no uninhabited territory apart the Alps and the Apennines at high altitudes, the extreme north of Scotland and Iceland.
It is present even at North Cape, in Norway.
Strangely enough and without any valid credible reason, is absent in Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic islands and in Crete.
The opportunism, intelligence and adaptability of this bird have strongly helped it in occupying any type of terrestrial environment where is present even the minimum necessary for guaranteeing its survival.
From the desolate tundra to the pre-desert zones but near to the water, from intensively cultivated areas to the seashores, from the most trafficked cities to thick and wild woods, in short there is no place where this bird has not settled.
It has also gone very high stopping, however, in Europe by the 1500 metres whilst in Asia, like for instance in Bhutan, it lives peacefully even in valleys at 3.000 metres of altitude.
Till now we cannot understand what has retained it the past, to invade areas limited by a simple water stream as if this would be an impassable border to then suddenly occupying them in mass to the point to render overwhelming its presence.
Occupations at times continuous suddenly stopped for years and then moving again without the least hesitation.
With these actions we have seen the sudden occupation, after decades of hesitant siege in the hinterland, as waiting for reinforcements, of city spaces in the South European metropolis when since many years such operation had ended in those of the north of the continent.
The magpie is a medium-sized corvid but with dimensions enormously magnified by the very long tail that reaches, itself only, more than 25 cm of length on a total length of 45 cm.
The weight is reduced to only 200 g and the wingspan is of 60 cm.
When seen from far away, the livery of the magpie evidences a practically white and black bird but that, when seen up close with the reflection of the sunlight, reveals instead unattended multicoloured bronze colourations.
Apart from the belly, the sides and the alar band that are snow white, the others sides of the body are totally opaque jet black, but the wings and the immense tail that reflect that palette of colours going from the reddish to the blue, from the light blue to the green, from the yellowish to the bronze.
It is possible that the tail, present also in the female, has only a courtship function seen the difficulties it causes during the flight and the absolute absence of utilization in other instances but the problem emphasizes more when brooding, seen that the nest is by sure unsuitable to contain such an appendage.
As in the case of the Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus), it is perhaps more an obstacle rather of a thing of practical use.
The totally black bill is very sturdy, conical and massive, suitable for any use.
Also the legs are black with trousers having the same colour and are in sharp contrast with the extremely white abdomen.
The young wear shortly the same livery as the adults and can be recognized more for the temporary and reduced length of the tail and for the brightness of the feathers than for the livery in general.
About ten subspecies have been classified among which is noteworthy the Pica pica mauritanica typical of the Moroccan and Algerian Atlas that evidences a small post ocular dot of a nice bright light blue colour.
Ethology and Reproductive Biology
Like all corvids also the magpie has a remarkable intelligence, united with an atavistic instinct of curiosity and of exploratory nature. Certainly these virtues have done so that its species developed and occupied always new territories, adapting continuously to the various situations met during this path.
This intelligence united to the atavistic curiosity, grants it the title of one of the most intelligent birds in the winged world. Maybe the word is missing a little but it is known for certain of subjects capable to emit guttural sounds quite similar to the human voice.
It is a very talkative bird and its presence is always signaled by the “ke ke ke ke” emitted continuously and in any occasion. Same sound for signaling its presence, always the same song for calling its similars, the same to signal predators and always the same also during the uproars creating in the groups during the post reproductive period.
Certainly monotonous but also boring when close to houses where it is immediately ready for quarreling, emitting always the usual shrilling and typical “ke ke ke ke”, with the house cat or with the barking doggie or even with a bystander unaware of its presence and absolutely harmless for its own safety.
A martyrdom, say those who have it nidifying on the tree in their garden.
Like all corvids, it reproduces once a year during the summer season and this period becomes the hell for all the small birds that nidify close to its nest.
In fact, the magpie often nourishes its nestlings with the chicks of other birds in whose nests it goes to steal as soon as it realizes their presence.
If necessary, it eats also their eggs consequently around its territory it creates practically a desert for those birds who have an evident and handy nest.
Typical behavior, this, also for the Hooded crow ( Corvus cornix ) with whom it shares not only most of the territory but also the vice of rummaging in another’s nest, their own included.
From an English study it has been noted that there is practically nothing that the magpie does not eat. It is insectivorous and granivorous, is necrophagous and frugivorous, eats small fishes and frogs but does not forget mice and even domestic chicks.
If, more, we add that it is also a thief par excellence, here are shown all its virtues.
A quite massive nest is built among the tall fronds of trees formed by a platform of robust branches intertwined and cemented with slush and long roots, with a deep central cup that is decorated with small stems of dry grass and hairs of animals.
Over it is built a roof of often spiny small branches that wraps totally the nest, letting a small lateral opening that serves as access door to the nest.
Though being great and capacious its is not surely sufficient for hosting during the brooding, a bird having a span wide tail and, upon the birth, a numerous and overflowing progeny. However, the nest is very resistant and can be utilized again, after a spring modernization, also during the following seasons.
The magpies are monogamous and often do have an indissoluble link all over their whole life.
The magpie usually lays 5-8 greenish light blue eggs, densely spotted of brownish. Very similar to those of the Blackbird (Turdus merula) but of course bigger, in any case very small for a bird of such size.
The brooding lasts more than three weeks and the chicks stay in the nest for 25 days more. Both parents take care of the nestlings that are followed also after their first flight and until the beginning of the following nidification season.
In autumn and in winter it is frequent to see important bands of these birds, most likely expanded family groups, scouring the countryside with their usual vociferous uproar. This period lasts until the following spring when the couples separate for occupying their own territory. It is a very territorial bird and fiercely defends its vital space.
It is not, and is unlikely to be also in future, an endangered species, seen the vastity of its range and the huge number of specimens present in the various populations.
The magpie during the last decades has even entered the popular slang. During the last century the cars of the Parisian gendarmerie were called pies = magpies due to their white and black colour. Great Britain is not far behind with the team of Newcastle upon Tyne in Scotlad called Magpie rightly for the colour of white and black jerseys.
Corvus pica – Linnaeus, 1758.
The photographic file of Giuseppe Mazza