The magpie (Pica pica) is a black-and-white bird with a very long tail. It is a member of the crow family. When the wings are folded, the magpie has a white breast and a white patch in each side. In flight the bird is more spectacular, with white body and white wing tips and the long tail spreads out into a huge fan. On close inspection, the black on the wings has a blue sheen while the tail has a green sheen. Males and females have identical plumage, but young magpies have many black feathers mixed in the white, giving them a scruffy look.
Like all crows, the magpie does not have a musical voice. Its cry is an irritating 'Ack-ack-ack-ack' which has been likened to a football rattle. A fully-grown magpie is typically 18 inches long, including the tail. Magpies can be found in north-western Africa, Europe, Asia and North America.
Who's a Clever Bird?
Magpies are intelligent creatures. They have been known to unlock pet rabbits' cages to steal the food! They can be taught to say words in the manner of a parrot. The writer and animal collector Gerald Durrell had two which used to delight in mimicking his mother, calling the dogs in her voice, to their great confusion. Magpies are sociable birds and will work together. Four of them will terrorise a cat. They have even been seen to fly down and lift to safety an injured magpie which had been hit by a car and was lying in the road.
Magpies, like all crows, have a reputation for liking shiny objects, and will reputedly steal jewellery, earning them the name 'The Thieving Magpie'. Rossini wrote a tragicomic opera of this name (La Gazza Ladra). It concerns a French servant-girl who is accused of theft. She is tried, found guilty and executed. Later, the true culprit is revealed: a magpie. In remorse, the town organises an annual 'Mass of the Magpies' to pray for her soul. The title The Thieving Magpie was later used by progressive rock band Marillion for one of their albums.
Magpies live on insects, grubs, berries and carrion, with occasional frogs and snails. They have also been known to kill small pets such as baby guinea pigs. Magpies supplement their diet in the breeding season by raiding nests of smaller birds and eating the eggs and baby chicks. This practice makes them much disliked by humans, particularly British gamekeepers.They are considered to be evil birds by people who insist on attaching human standards to nature. Studies show, however, that nature is able to cope and songbird and gamebird populations do not suffer as a result of occasional raids by the magpies.