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Black-billed Magpies are Bitterroot Valley's cleanup specialists
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Black-billed Magpies are Bitterroot Valley's cleanup specialists

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As I drove by the hawthorn tree on Teller, I could not miss the tangle of branches, appearing to be over one meter in height and width, settled in amongst the thorny branches. Upon close inspection, you could see what looked like a roof of haphazardly woven sticks covering the top of the twig cluster.

Visitors to Teller Refuge often ask about the entanglements, but most of us living in the Bitterroot know that this structure is a nest of one of our more common bird species in the valley, the Black-billed Magpie.

Black-billed Magpies are members of a group of birds known as Corvids that include jays, crows, and ravens. Birds within this family are often thought to be some of the most intelligent bird species.

I often refer to these colorful birds as flying raccoons in that they will feed on anything. The magpie’s diet consists mostly of carrion. A familiar sight here in the Bitterroot is a gathering of ten or more magpies feeding on the carcass of a road-killed deer. We certainly do not lack this in the Bitterroot which may have led to a local increase in numbers.

Magpies also eat insects, seeds, fruit, other bird’s eggs and young. Especially vulnerable are ground-nesting birds like pheasants and quail. Once hatched the chicks can be wiped out by several magpies if sufficient ground cover is lacking for the young birds to hide. Research also reveals that this bird will land on large mammals like moose to pick off irritating ticks. I’m sure the moose is appreciative of the magpie’s task.

Many archery deer hunters have used the sight and sound of magpies to locate a mortally wounded animal for the recovery of some venison. Once, I found myself in a situation where I was tracking a deer, when I came across 30 plus magpies chattering so loudly that I thought I certainly found my quarry. Nearing the chatter, a whole flock suddenly took wing and departed the area.

I took a closer look to see what attracted this gathering and to my surprise, I found a dead magpie. Intrigued, I researched the behavior and learned that this grouping is common to magpies known as “funeraling ” where groups of up to 40 magpies have been observed chattering about loudly, all apparently at the sight of a dead magpie. This may last several minutes before the entire group takes flight and leaves the area.

While this bird can be characterized as a bothersome, chattering, carrion feeder, it is one of the more beautiful species in terms of plumage. Both males and females share striking black and white plumage with long tail feathers. In the right light, the black plumage on the wings and tail carries a bluish-green iridescent color. The head and neck retain a solid black color with a black bill, hence the trademark difference from their cousin the Yellow-billed Magpie that is confined largely in central California.

One question that has been around for years is, “Can Magpies detect odor?” This trait would obviously help them locate food. The vast majority of avian species lack the olfactory capabilities, studies have revealed that Black-billed Magpies have a limited olfactory capacity.

One study demonstrated that magpies were able to locate approximately 25 percent of the samples of buried decaying chicken. Scientists believe it is a combination of visual and audio clues, such as the presence of other scavengers, cache recollection, and smell, that lures these birds to hidden food sources.

From a conservation perspective, the North American Breeding Bird survey reveals a continental decline in the species of 26 percent from 1966 through 2014. However, over the last 31 years in the Bitterroot, the annual Christmas Bird Count for the Hamilton survey area reveals the Black-billed magpie is one of the more common species observed with an average of 327 individuals counted during that one-day. There is no doubt, with the increasing numbers of white-tailed deer in the Bitterroot from hunter harvest and roadkill, that this species will continue to flourish and contribute to their vital role as nature’s carrion clean-up specialists.

Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.

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