Photographed in Silverthorn, Colorado
Black-billed Magpies are familiar and entertaining birds of western North America. They sit on fenceposts and road signs or flap across rangelands, their white wing patches flashing and their very long tails trailing behind them. This large, flashy relative of jays and crows is a social creature, gathering in numbers to feed at carrion. They’re also vocal birds and keep up a regular stream of raucous or querulous calls.
The Black-billed Magpie makes a very large nest that can take up to 40 days to construct. It's a lot of work, but a study found that it only used about 1% of the daily energy expenditure of the pair. Laying eggs, on the other hand, takes 23% of the female's daily energy budget.
Historical records of the American West indicate that Black-billed Magpies have been associates of people for a long time. Magpies frequently followed hunting parties of Plains Indians and fed on leftovers from bison kills. On their expedition, Lewis and Clark reported magpies boldly entering their tents to steal food.
Like most members of the jay family, the Black-billed Magpie is a nest predator, although eggs and nestlings make up only a tiny portion of the bird’s overall diet.
The Black-billed Magpie frequently picks ticks from the backs of large mammals, such as deer and moose. The magpie eats the ticks or hides some for later use, as members of the crow and jay family often do with excess food. Most of the ticks, however, are cached alive and unharmed, and may live to reproduce later.
Photographed at a rest stop on California's Hwy 1
I had read about this bird so I was looking for it as we toured California. Motoring up Hwy 1 near Santa Barbara, this one flew in front of us and I had to stop. My wife was/is used to it.
A boisterous bird that lives in California and nowhere else, the Yellow-billed Magpie is a riot of black, white, shimmering blue-green, and yellow. It lives in open oak woodlands of the Central Valley, the Coast Ranges, and the Sierra Nevada foothills. This magpie is gregarious throughout the year, even when nesting: dozens of pairs sometimes nest close to each other. This species has been hit hard by habitat loss and West Nile virus, and is on the Partners in Flight Yellow Watch List for species with restricted ranges.
In 1837, John James Audubon named Yellow-billed Magpie “Corvus nutalli” in honor of fellow naturalist Thomas Nuttall, who collected early specimens near Santa Barbara, California.
Yellow-billed Magpies have been seen pecking insects off the backs of mule deer.
The Yellow-billed Magpie makes a dome like, covered nest that requires maintenance throughout the nesting season. Pairs usually build a new nest each year, but late in the breeding season they may refurbish an old nest rather than build a new one.
Photographed in Rocky Mountain National Park
The intelligent and sociable Common Raven has been the subject of mythology, folklore, and literature through the ages. In Native American cultures, it is portrayed as a sly trickster, a spiritual figure, or even a god that helped create the earth.
Others have seen the raven as a bird of death and doom, perhaps most famously by Edgar Allan Poe in his poem, "The Raven." Swedish folktales depict ravens as the ghosts of those who have been murdered, and old German stories describe ravens as damned souls.
Maybe people find ravens intimidating because they are so smart. Their brains are among the largest of any bird species, and they display excellent problem-solving ability. Biologist Bernd Heinrich, known for his studies of raven behavior, argues that the raven is one of only four known animals (along with bees, ants, and humans) with the ability to communicate about events not in the here-and-now.
Ravens have been observed demonstrating this communication capacity when a lone juvenile bird discovers a large carcass guarded by a pair of adult ravens. The juvenile raven will return to the roost and communicate the find to other birds, and the next day, a flock of unmated ravens will fly to the carcass and chase off the adults.
Ravens may have a scary side, but they also are among the most playful beings in the animal kingdom. Notable among wild animals for making their own toys, they have been observed lobbing stones back and forth and breaking off twigs to play catch. Juvenile ravens slide down snowbanks and roll in fresh snow, apparently just for fun. They seem to play in the air as well, flying loop-de-loops and rolls; dive-bombing each other; and locking claws in mid-air.
They're also adaptable, found in many parts of the world in habitats from mountains to deserts. Eight subspecies are recognized over their extensive range. (Map above shows range only in Western Hemisphere.)
Ravens are easily told from their close relatives, the crows, by greater size, larger and heavier beak, shaggy feathers around the throat and beak, and wedge-shaped tail, most visible in flight. The Common Raven's deep, croaking voice is also quite distinct from the crow's characteristic “caw.”
Ravens are known for dozens of other vocalizations, though, most of which are used for social interaction. Like other members of the crow family, ravens are talented mimics and copy many sounds from their environment, including human speech.