Black-billed Magpie Nesting Behavior

This past spring and summer I had the opportunity to observe and photograph nesting behaviors of Black-billed Magpies on Antelope Island in northern Utah.  Magpies are common in Utah and much of the western US but they’re typically difficult to approach (and very challenging to photograph well because of the contrast of their coal-black and almost pure white plumage) but this pair of birds was so intent on their nest-building activities that they virtually ignored my presence. 

Mated pair of Black-billed Magpies

   Mated pair of Black-billed Magpies

Magpies are monogamous and typically mate for life.  This is a mated pair on top of their domed nest in a sagebrush.  The male is on the left, the female on the right – males are about 20% larger than females so they are sexually dimorphic.  As you can see from the muddy bill of the female they’ve been actively building the mud-bowl found inside the nest.   Typically the male provides the heavier branches and sticks for the nest and the female delivers most of the mud for the mud bowl, which probably explains why the female’s bill is so muddy while the male’s is not.

 

 Magpie obtaining mud for the nest

 Obtaining mud for then nest   

The mud for the bowl of the nest was obtained wherever the birds could find it.  When we’d had dry weather they would have to fly quite a distance to get any but after a recent rain they would often get it very close by.  This bird has just scooped up a bill-full.  When it’s available they’ll sometimes use fresh cattle or bison dung in place of mud. 

 

 Mud delivery to the nest

  Mud delivery to the nest

This magpie, presumably the female, (I have a difficult time telling sexes apart unless they’re together) is landing on the nest in front of her but just out of the photo. 

 

 On top of the nest dome with a mud delivery

 More mud for the nest

Here the magpie has landed on the sagebrush where the nest is found with another delivery of mud.

 

 Taking off for more mud

 Taking off for more mud

These birds made countless trips for mud and twigs over the many days I was able to observe them.   Construction of an entire nest can take up to six weeks.  Each nest begins with a mud anchor with twig superstructure which takes 2-3 weeks to build.  Then the interior mud bowl – 9 days and the grass lining – 4 days.  Approximately 11 days later the female will begin laying her eggs. 

 

 Magpie with twigs

 Rejecting a twig

Occasionally I would see one of the magpies flying away from the nest with a twig.  I presume it was because they found that particular twig unsuitable for construction.  This is one of my favorite photographs from the many days I watched these magpies.  When the light strikes these birds just right (especially the male) you get an impressive display of  iridescence.   I was fortunate to get it so well here, especially combined with the upswept tail and the twig in the beak.   

 

 Food for the female and chicks

 Food for the female and young

Only the female incubates the eggs and while she’s doing so she relies on the male for food.  In this photo you can see that it’s much later in the spring by the growth of sage coming through the sides of the nest.  By this time the eggs had hatched and both parents were providing food for the nestlings.  Here, one of the parents is about to deliver a beak full of insects.

 

 Sagebrush with magpie nest

 Sagebrush with magpie nest, Great Salt Lake in background

This is the sagebrush that contains the nest.  The photo was taken in August - long after the nest had been abandoned for the year.  The top of the nest can barely be seen at top,  just right of center but this very large nest was mostly out of sight within the bush. 

 

 Fledgling magpie on the nest

Juvenile magpie, on the nest

Circumstances prevented me from visiting the nest as the youngsters were fledging but when I was able to return in early July I found two of the juveniles still at the nest.  This is one of them.  You can clearly see the perimeter of the top of the nest through the summer greenery. 

Interestingly, the two birds of a mated pair sometimes have a difference of opinion about where the nest should be constructed and it’s not unusual for two nests to be constructed even though only one can be used.  I often saw these birds raiding another nest in the vicinity for construction materials and now wonder if they had built both nests this year and then as egg laying time approached they decided that the second nest would be a good source of twigs.  Speculation on my part but I can’t help myself…

My good friend Mia and I had a wonderful time observing and photographing these magpies and we’re already making plans to do something similar early next spring. 

Ron

 

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23 comments to Black-billed Magpie Nesting Behavior

  • Jane Shipp

    Beautiful photography, but the way!!

  • Jane Shipp

    We have a pair of magpies that have begun to build a nest in a tree just a few feet from our back deck. So far I have enjoyed watching them. However, we have two dogs whoi play in our fenced back yard. Is there any danger that the magpies will becoe aggressive and hurt the dogs?
    Also, is there any way to discourage their building the nest? Thanks!

    • Jane, They won’t hurt your dogs but they might harass them if they feel threatened by them. They’re much more likely to harass cats. They’re also well known for stealing dog food left outside.

  • Thankyou so much for these beautiful photographs. I adore Magpies they are a fantastic bird.

  • Dawn

    They are a mean bird that has attacked our dog and myself. To me they are rats with wings, and if there is anyway to discourage them from our house would be greatly appreciated. I can’t understand how a vicious bird that attacks people and animals are protected. They are absolutely ugly pains.

  • Trudy

    We have been enjoying a pair of magpies that nested in one of our front trees this year. Unfortunately something got to one of their young and they seem to be very angry with us (we can tell by the birdless feathers on the lawn). They are diving at us. It’s not so fun to have them around now. Will they ever stop?

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  • cyd

    What can you tell me about where they decide to build their nests? We have knocked it down 5 times this spring and they were back this morning rebuilding. They just choose another tree but in the same clump of trees in our front yard. Last year they insisted on building in the same trees. Do you think it is the same 2 magpies that were here last year? We can’t understand why they insist on our yard when we are surrounded by trees and some are in secluded areas where no one would ever bother them. They can also empty our dogs dish in 3 minutes flat. And it’s a big dog dish. So very frustrating! HELP!

    • Cyd, I suspect it may be the same two birds as last year but of course I don’t know that.

      I’ll email you some info on magpie nest selection – it’s too lengthy to include here.

      I do understand some of the frustrations of magpies. Years ago a pair built a nest in the elm tree next to my house. Their raucous shenanigans became very annoying over time. That said, they were fascinating to watch – they’re very smart birds with what seems like playful personalities. I loved watching them torment the neighbors cats who were illegally allowed to roam free and terrorize the other birds in the neighborhood.

      I wish I had a practical solution for you but I don’t. However, be aware that the Black-billed Magpie is fully protected under Migratory Species Act in the U.S. so I’d suggest keeping that in mind as you mull over your options. Good luck.

  • Steven Fugal

    Magpies are a destructive nuisance. They have destroyed our cherry tree crop and grape crop for two years now. I am doing everything in my power to destroy them.

    • Steven, I understand the frustrations of farmers and others in agriculture when wildlife has a negative impact on crops. Our family farm in Montana has had similar negative effects from the Richardson’s Ground Squirrel.

      That said, I hope that your efforts to “destroy” magpies fail. And that whatever methods you’re using are legal.

  • Tom Fore

    Don,
    Excellent Photos. We’ve always thought that(According to the children’s story) Magpies laid their eggs in other birds nests
    like Cowbirds.
    We have the black and white type here in Colorado City CO. We feed our birds in winter and see many Magpies.
    We haven’t seen any nests, but they are evidently very capable nest builders. Thank you for the fine pictures.

  • Kim Blomme

    Hi Ron,
    Fantastic photos! I came across your site while searching for information on BBMA breeding and social behavior. I have a pair that are currently raising three youngsters who are all now flying and begging from them. Tonight, a mystery third adult magpie appeared. It looked like one of the pair was attempting to drive it away while the other was strutting around with it’s tail up at a 45 degree angle. I’m having trouble telling which is the male and which is the female as they look so close in size. The other interesting thing about this pair is one has a slightly damaged wing that hangs down at the “wrist” – the first three or four primaries hang down. The other has a damaged leg – cannot bear weight or lower the right leg. I have been seeing these birds all winter but did not realize they were a pair til this spring! Kim from Edmonton, Alberta

    • Thanks Kim. Sounds like you have a very interesting (and raucous) magpie situation to observe. I think their behaviors are fascinating to watch but must admit that their cacophonous calling was a bit irritating for me a few years ago when a pair nested in a tree near my bedroom window…

  • Miriam Shane

    We live in Colorado Springs and have been watching a mated pair of magpies nesting in a pinon pine tree just outsideo our kitchen. The questions concerning nesting behavior have been answered and have inspired us to watch more closely. We have noticed them flying from tree to tree pulling on dry twigs until the drop off, then dropping to the ground to pick them up among dozens of other trigs. They certainly know exactly what they are looking for in nesting materials! This will be our second next in our yard. The last one was two years ago in the much taller Russian olive tree. Although they are a joy to watch, especially when they chase the cats, they do set up a roucous cawing at dawn each morning and the young do not leave when they are fledged. They hang around until they drive their parents off… at least that’s the way it looks from here. Thanks for the great photos!

    • Miriam, your magpie observations sound eerily similar to mine – from their pickiness in choosing nesting materials to their raucous behavior in the early morning to their love of tormenting cats. Thank you for your feedback (I’m late in responding because I’ve been out of town).

  • Thank you Sue. Our magpies are basically black and white also – it’s only when the light angle is just right that the iridescence shows up. It sounds like yours are more aggressive towards humans than ours are though. The Black-billed has been shot (firearms) indiscriminately for so many generations that they’re generally quite wary of people.

  • These photos just blew me away. Thank you so so much. We have magpies here in Oz too, but ours are quite different. Not as colourful (black and white) and as far as I know they don’t use mud in their nest building. Very protective parents who will dive bomb (sometimes connecting) anyone who they feel is too close to their nests. Local councils have to place warning signs on their trees in spring.

  • Magpies are always a joy to watch, they always seem to display fascinating behaviour! I really like the picture of the magpie with a twig, in fact I saw a magpie with a really big branch in its beak and was amazed and bewildered at how it could carry such weight with its beak!

  • Jim Hackley

    Catching up on your posts and I really like the documentation and images displaying these colorful magpies, well done.

  • Mia

    Excellent post about these fascinating birds, I can’t wait until we can photograph them nest building again!

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