Magpies are no bird brains |

Magpies are no bird brains

Alan Braunholtz

Magpies are tough and handsome birds. They’re hard to like as they wreak havoc on the nests and young of more desirable songbirds but earn my grudging respect for their intelligence and boldness. I know when the neighbors cats are out and about as a pair of magpies will be squawking away, dive bombing and generally harassing the cats. My dogs also know this and immediately start looking for cats whenever they hear the distinctive “Maagg! Maagg! Maagg!” of the magpies.They’re vocal and their distinctive black and white coats gave them their name. Pied is used to describe mixed colors and “mag” is the noise they make. Some old timers in England refer to them as chatterpies, and groups are called “parliaments.”The birds built one of their distinctively large nests of mud-glued sticks in a tree next to our deck. The dogs aren’t welcome on this deck, as the magpies hate them. The local colony still holds a grudge from a few years back when a nest blew down and the dogs followed their noses to the dead chicks and became the magpies scapegoat for their family disaster. They peck and squawk from the deck railing trying to lure them over the edge before getting chomped by annoyed canines. It’s an animal variation of the game chicken, I suppose.If you ever want to imagine what a dinosaur’s family looked like, you could do worse than watching magpies look after their brood on their first few days out. There’s a lot of young scattered on the lawn and in low bushes fluttering clumsily around. The adults are on high alert, hopping and strutting among them or perched as lookouts. Woe betide any cat that wanders too close. Adults have a coat that has a more iridescent green/blue sheen to the juveniles dull black, and adults have a proud long tail. Tail length relates to status for magpies.Magpies are members of the corvids, and corvids are bright. Crows, ravens and jays all do stuff, which questions the term “bird brained.” It takes very little harassment from me for our local magpies to change their behavior becoming secretive and quiet, never going near their nest until they’ve checked that no one is watching.In California, crows drop walnuts onto the roads for cars to crush so they can eat them. They even use intersections with pedestrian crossings to make it safer. Caledonian crows use and construct tools to pull insects out of trees. Researchers used to think they copied their parents, but a hand-reared one did it all by itself. There are a variety of tools they make from the same leaves and twigs, and another explanation is it’s merely hard-wired instinct. Then one of a pair (Betty) in Oxford lost its tool – its mate Abel flew off with it – and it was left with only a straight piece of wire. The crow took this new material, wedged one end in a crack and bent it into a hook to pick up a little bucket of food from the bottom of a glass tube. Chimps don’t get the concept of a hook, and neither will children under 3 years old. The researchers in Oxford describe the crows as flying 2-year-olds and have a hard time protecting them from electrical outlets.Magpies are such a distinctive bird; there is a wealth of folklore about them. They either didn’t sing at or attend Jesus’s crucifixion, so have to wear black-and-white clothes of mourning forever. They mate for life, so a single magpie is seen as lonely and a presence of bad luck though this is avoided by saluting or greeting the bird.Being omnivorous and adaptable, they do very well in the fragmented habitat we create. This is bad for migratory and songbirds, which need dense woods to build their nests in. Nests in isolated trees are easy to locate for magpies, cuckoos and cowbirds.We’ll have to get to appreciate these birds, as over time we’ll lose a lot of the unique and local ones. Birds are going extinct at the rate of one species per year, and this rate is rising. This’ll lead to the loss of regional diversity. We decry the loss of local shops to the pressures of economic globalization, but the same is happening in nature as we alter the world’s habitats. Corvids are likely to be one of nature’s big franchise winners as we degrade the environment.The bird extinction rate is lower than other less-alluring animals. We like birds, and they’re well protected by conservation programs. They’re also highly mobile and able to move and live around us in ways that a frog can’t.Future generations will rue the day we lost so many irreplaceable biological treasures. Millions of years of evolution providing solutions to the myriad problems of living in habitats, climates, relationships and other ways we can’t imagine. It’s a moral issue: Can we ignore the human-caused extinctions of the diversity of life on planet earth. We’re playing god – and probably a bad god at the moment.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado

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