Interesting Behavior of Black-billed Magpie – Part 1

August 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

I have been observing black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia Sabine) for the past nine years and found the species to demonstrate some interesting behavior. I first noted aggressive behavior of the species on the summer (June) of 2004 while I started working on my Masters degree at the University of Lethbridge. The incident took place on the green areas within the university campus close to the Aperture Drive. It appeared to me from a distance that some birds were fighting over the carcass of a Richardson’s ground squirrel on the ground. On closer inspection I saw that the carcass was fiercely contested by a black-billed magpie against three marauding crows. What was quite fascinating to note was that the magpie, which we always saw flying away at the slightest movement, stood its ground boldly, held the carcass to the best of its ability and repeatedly hit back at the approaching crows while it also feasted on the meat every now and then. The incident took place for about 5 minutes, after which the crows gave up, chased away by the defending magpie that finally retained its claim on the carcass.

Looking at the fury and the aggressiveness of the magpie I was quite amazed. It flew to the nearby tree shade holding the carcass in its feet and peacefully kept on feasting when I left for my nearby apartment across the main road. They are extremely inquisitive about human reactions and behavior. Parents are quite aggressively protective of their nests and young ones and they take very good care of their young ones. As far as I remember both parents take turns and share the burden of raising the nestlings, bringing food for them continuously so that the chicks grow up fast. The aggressiveness in them is possibly due to the fact that they share a common phylogenetic relationship and belong to the broad family of Corvidae including jackdaws, crows and ravens, rooks, treepies all known for their aggressive reactions under adverse situations.

Early in the summer of 2005, I was jogging along the university lake that is surrounded by an artificial wood. While moving across the corner, I was attracted to the constant calls of the magpie and ventured into that direction. On the ground I saw three new chicks that may have learnt to possibly come out of the nest and venture around. I scanned the nearby places to look for any sign of a nest but was interrupted by the parents. They did not attack me, but started flying in and around me and landing on nearby shrubs and bushes with constant alarm calls. They were extremely vigilant and that paid off. Being annoyed by their constant calls I decided to get back to my jogging trail instead of searching for their nest. But as I turned back, I was surprised to see that 3-4 adult magpies had joined the two parents and were visibly annoyed with my intrusion into their territory. The hue and cry they raised together as a formidable force pushed me out of the wood into the jogging trail. None of them bombed dive at me or attacked me on the head at any stage, but they did fly from one tree branch to another along my jogging trail for a minute or so following me as if to deter me from ever getting back to their hidden nesting site. The behavior surprised me as I have never seen them ganging up together before and realized that may be a strategy they have learnt to practice possibly from previous experiences where they may have found this combined vigilance of their clustered nesting sites for protection is an effective strategy to ward off intruders.

Continued in Part Two

Article contributed by Saikat Kumar Basu

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