Black-billed Magpie photo by Amanda Atkins

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpies are part of the Corvidae Family, which includes crows, ravens and jays. This family is known for their noisy and aggressive behavior and, most notably, their intelligence and curiosity. According to accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition, magpies entered tents and stole items from the group. Members of this family are also known to mob predators (e.g., hawks and owls) in attempts to drive the potential predator out of their territory. During the non-breeding season this species is very gregarious. 

Magpies have striking pied plumage and a very long, graduated tail. Sexes have similar plumage; however males are approximately 20% larger than females. There are no seasonal changes in plumage though juveniles are duller and have less iridescence. Overall feathers are black. White can be seen on the scapulars, belly and the primary feathers. The tail and dorsal surface of the wing are iridescent, metallic blue-green. The bill is stout and black. This feature distinguished the Black-billed Magpie from the Yellow-billed Magpie. Magpies have steady, rowing wing beats and can often be seen walking and hopping on the ground while foraging.


We currently do not have any Black-billed Magpies in residence.


Scientific Name

Pica hudsonia


Length: 17" ave.

Wing Span: 25"

Weight: 5-6 oz. 


This species is generally stable throughout North America. North Dakota and Nebraska have seen declines in magpie populations in the last few decades. It is uncertain if this decline is due to reduced quality of habitat or if persecution is the cause. This species is both state and federally protected in the United States. However, in Canada where this species is not protected, some farmers still shoot any magpie on sight. 


Found in open areas of the west, magpies prefer cooler, dry-steppe habitat. Breeding sites are often along riparian thickets with open meadows, grasslands and sagebrush nearby for foraging. 


Omnivorous diet consists mostly of invertebrates and vegetable foods but they will eat carrion if available. Magpies may also prey upon the eggs and young of other birds. Magpies are opportunists and can quickly learn about a novel food source. Extra food is cached by burying it in the ground or hiding it under ground litter. Magpies are able to remember thousands of different cache locations. Visual and olfactory cues are used to find these temporary stashes of food. Evidence exists for symbiotic relationships with many ungulate species (including domesticated species). Magpies spend many hours gleaning ticks and other ectoparasites from mammals' fur, caching those parasites for later consumption. 


Call a nasal, rising jeeeek, Harsh alarm call skaa skaa ka ka ka. 


Pairs are monogamous, as the male's assistance is needed for successful fledging of young. In late winter, the male and female begin building a nest. Nest construction takes approximately 43 days. Nests are constructed using a mud anchor with a twig bowl on top. Females line nests with grass upon completion of the twig and mud main structure. Eggs are laid in late March to early June depending on the temperature. Six eggs are laid on average and the female alone incubates the eggs for 25 days. The male is needed to bring food to the female during this time. Young are altricial, naked and their eyes are closed. Once the young fledge (24-30 days later) both the male and female feed the young. The young are fed by the parents for another 6-8 weeks, one of the longest post-fledging dependency periods for any corvid. 

Most Common Problems

With the demise of Bison in the west, the range of the magpie also decreased. In the early 1990's, poison would be placed in grain to attract magpies in order to decrease the amount of poisoned carrion (intended for coyotes) eaten by the birds. Reports state that thousands of magpies were killed in this way. Poison continues to be a problem for the magpie, especially parasite treatments on domesticated livestock. Collision with vehicles and house cat attacks are also a significant cause of mortality.

Range Map

Two distinct populations exist in North America. The northern range includes southern Alaska and extreme northwest British Columbia. The southern range extends from south, central British Columbia down through Washington, Oregon and California east of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Eastward from British Columbia, the range includes southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and southwest Ontario. In the United States, the range continues through Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Colorado into the western Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska. Climate rather than food availability limits the range of this species. High temperatures and humidity restrict the magpie's range in the Midwest. Generally, magpies are not a migratory species.


Special Thanks for range maps:

Dan Gleason
BGleason Design & Illustration
Commercial & Scientific Illustration, Graphic Design
CraneDance Communications
Book Production/Design