The “thieving” magpie still deserves a place in your garden. Find out all there is to know about male, female, and juvenile Eurasian magpies as well as where the birds breed and what they eat.
Mean, thieving, predatory – that is how the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), also called the common magpie, is often portrayed. Yet these corvids are extraordinarily intelligent and anything but vicious. They display very complex social behaviour and can even distinguish individuals from each other. These characteristics, as well as the ability to find hidden food, highlight the Eurasian magpie’s intelligence. In Asia, these elegant birds are even considered to bring good luck and in Native American cultures they are spirit beings connected to humans. You can find more fascinating information in this fact sheet, where we try to cast old prejudices in a new light and tell you everything there is to know about the common magpie.
- Eurasian magpie: key facts
- How to identify the Eurasian magpie
- Help the magpie!
- When the magpie is not a welcome guest in the garden
Eurasian magpie: key facts
|Size||Up to 51 cm|
|Weight||Around 200-230 g|
|Lifespan||Up to 15 years|
|Habitat||Open landscapes, woodland, parks, settlements|
|Food preferences||Omnivorous: insects, amphibians, mice, fruits, carrion, seeds etc.|
|Threats||Hunting and poisoning by humans|
How to identify the Eurasian magpie
The Eurasian magpie is unmistakable with its black and white plumage, metallic blue markings and long, dark, shiny green tail. Even the layman cannot confuse the Eurasian magpie with any other bird, which is why these corvids are a great introduction to birdwatching. Male and female magpies unfortunately are not visually distinguishable.
What does the magpie song sound like?
The song of the magpie consists of a throaty chatter without a pattern and is heard only very rarely. The intelligent corvid is much more easily recognisable by its call which sounds like a sharp, quick “Tscha-ka!” and becomes wild and loud in case of danger: “Tscha-tscha-tscha-tscha”.
How to recognise a juvenile magpie
Young magpies look very similar to the adults, so they can be easily identified as a magpie from an early stage. But the juvenile birds do differ from the adults in a few details: the tail is shorter, the white patches on the shoulder and belly are often a more dirty-grey and the plumage is mostly still lacking the metallic blue sheen.
What does a magpie egg look like?
The Eurasian magpie usually lays between 4 and 7 eggs in a nest made of twigs and roots, padded with leaves, grasses or clay. The eggs themselves are up to 3.4 cm in size and have a pale green base colour covered with darker, olive-green to brown speckles.
What is the magpie’s ideal habitat?
Magpies are very versatile when it comes to their choice of habitat. They can settle in forest edges and open landscapes with plenty of structures, settlements and city edges or parks and gardens. But they can also be found in smaller wooded areas and even in mountainous regions. Breeding pairs defend their territories vehemently against competitors and attackers. Unpaired birds, on the other hand, often gather in smaller groups, go foraging together and form roosting bands.
Where does the magpie build its nest?
The parent birds build their nests together in tall trees. The spherical nest made of twigs can be up to 80 cm in height. A hood-like structure is often attached above it to protect the nest from birds of prey and other predators. If the nest is captured or destroyed by birds of prey or if the magpies feel otherwise disturbed in their nest-building, they abandon the nesting site and start again in another place.
When is the magpie’s breeding season?
Magpies breed between April and June. During this time, they usually raise just one brood. However, if they lose their first clutch, the birds may make a second or even third attempt. The breeding period lasts 17 to 22 days, during which the female incubates the eggs alone and is supplied with food, guarded, and defended by the male. After hatching, the young birds are fed in the nest for 30 days. Then they make their first explorations out of the nest, but still stay close by. After another two weeks, the young magpies start looking for food on their own, although the caring parents do continue to support their young with food for up to 8 weeks after flying the nest.
Where do magpies spend the winter?
Magpies are considered resident birds throughout Europe, which means that they spend the winter in their breeding grounds. Unlike during the breeding season, however, the birds do not travel in individual breeding pairs, but in small and large groups of up to 50 birds that form roosting communities to go in search of food together. Magpies also create hiding places for food throughout the year to feed from during the barren winter months.
Help the magpie!
Even though magpies are extremely intelligent creatures and usually know how to look after themselves, they do run short of food in winter. Here you can find out how to help the elegant birds during the cold season and what you can do to support magpies throughout the year.
What do magpies eat?
Magpies are real omnivores, so they enjoy both plant and animal food. Their diet ranges from insects, worms, and spiders to smaller vertebrates such as amphibians, voles, young birds, and eggs as well as fruits and seeds. They search for food on the ground, under leaves, and in low grass. But they also display more advanced ways of foraging, for example, turning over stones in search of insects or communal raiding of other birds’ nests – looking for nestlings, eggs, or the prey caught by birds of prey.
Magpies also like to help themselves to nuts and seeds from bird feeders, especially in winter. They are not particularly fussy and will eat pretty much any scattered food. However, they are particularly fond of larger seeds, such as sunflower seeds.
Which nesting boxes are suitable for magpies?
First thing’s first, magpies actually have no use for classic nesting boxes. They prefer to build their own bulky nests. If you want to support the birds in this endeavour, you can create suitable nesting sites by not cutting back trees too much. Magpies like to use strongly branched and high treetops as nest sites. And if you do have branches and other cuttings in your garden, leave them out in the open for the birds. Such building material is always needed in spring and also provides shelter for lots more garden wildlife in winter.
What else can you do to support magpies?
Magpies like to forage in short grass or lawns, so it can be helpful to keep this kind of open space in your garden. Blackbirds and other thrushes also use these environments to search for worms and insects in the soil. But note: a beautiful green lawn is not guaranteed to support a hub of garden life. Make sure to refrain from using chemical sprays. Also, do not cut your lawn too often or too short to provide a habitat for other creatures and to protect the soil from drought in summer.
When the magpie is not a welcome guest in the garden
Often magpies are not welcomed kindly in the garden. They have gained quite the reputation for stealing other birds’ babies as well as food and destroying our painstakingly planted vegetable beds. For this reason, corvids are still hunted, poisoned, and driven away. However, studies show that magpies do no lasting damage to our songbird populations. The occasional nest robbery is part of the natural food chain and is also committed by many other animals, such as jays, martens, and domestic cats. The increasing loss of food and nesting opportunities due to the intensification of agriculture and the use of toxic pesticides poses much more of a problem for songbirds today.
Fact: The idea that magpies like shiny objects and steal them deliberately is a myth. Researchers have found that the clever birds have no particular interest in jewellery or aluminium foil. Of course, sometimes magpies may happen to carry away small objects instead of nuts. Based on these observations, a prejudice has quickly developed among people. However, these cases remain an exception. In studies, magpies have even been found to be extremely critical of foreign objects.
So, take some time to consider whether the magpie really is a nuisance in your garden or whether you are just clinging to old prejudices. And please bear in mind that private individuals do not have the right to destroy a magpie’s nest or actively attack the birds. If the animals really do become a nuisance, it is better to adopt a preventive rather than a confrontational approach. Make sure that there is no food lying around in the garden to attract the magpies. If you are worried about your freshly sown bed, cover it with a close-meshed net. And if you want to offer your songbirds a little more protection, grow thorny and densely growing shrubs where the little birds can find refuge.