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EGGS! 12 CENTS A DOZEN!

By Nic.Korte

Regular readers of this blog know that I put in a lot of time monitoring Western Screech-Owls. An unexpected benefit of that program has been the wonderful people with whom I’ve become acquainted. One is a lovely elderly lady who was raised in a pioneer ranching family in Northwest Colorado. I’m talking the far Northwest, as in Brown’s Park. I always ensure that I have a little time for a conversation when I visit her home to check on her Screech-Owl boxes.

Lily has told me some great stories over the years such as having to shoo the Sage Chickens (referring to Sage Grouse) from the family chicken feed. “Nic,” she said, “there were so many, they would darken the sky.” Imagine, as Sage Grouse continue to be the source of such controversy in Colorado and other western states, here is a lady who has memory of a sight no one will ever see again—no matter which side prevails in the current dispute.

The other day we happened to discuss Magpies, and she reminded me that Colorado, as many western states, formerly had a bounty. One way to collect it was to bring in their eggs. I’m not sure who the eggs were taken to, but she recalled the bounty being 1c/egg. Most of us are familiar with Magpie nests. They tend to be 6-10 feet off the ground, but in awful tangles. Plus, these birds are aggressive, very loud and have long pointed beaks. 

Nonetheless, a few pennies was a lot of money, and money for a five or six year old rancher’s daughter was not easy to come by. Lily was determined and received permission from her mother to take one of the horses to ride out and collect some eggs. She found the nests easily but remembers being frightened of the birds and becoming all scratched and bloody. Nonetheless, she did retrieve some eggs. Then she had a dilemma. She had forgotten to bring anything for carrying the eggs. She tried her pockets. The results were predictable. She arrived home, bloody and scratched with pockets full of broken eggs. She remembers crying over the loss of revenue. “My mother felt so bad for me,” she said, “she gave me the pennies herself.” [There are no more bounties—Magpies are protected under the Migratory Bird Act.]

This leads to an interesting question. Magpies are abundant in our area. Despite their long tails and iridescent feathers, almost no one likes them. What good are they?
There are reasons for their unpopularity. They will predate other birds, particularly their eggs. (Note: One reference I consulted says their reputation for eating other birds and eggs is overstated.) They are extremely noisy. Having a brood in a nearby tree will drive most nearby humans crazy with the loud early morning squawking.
(photo by Jackson Trappett.  Would you consider this a beautiufl bird if it was rare?)
On further consideration these reasons for hating Magpies are shallow. Almost everyone loves our local owls. Some of them eat lots of birds, including young and eggs of smaller owls. Maybe owls receive a pass because of their human-like face and secretive habits. A Magpie might be spotted taking the eggs from a Robin’s nest, but an owl snatching one of the young, after dark, won’t be noticed. The Magpie will be blamed. And, that same Robin may awaken you by singing outside your window in the pre-dawn.

I suspect Magpies are also unpopular here because they are so abundant. Familiarity does breed contempt. I was bemused a few years ago when I visited the local zoo in Kansas City, Missouri. They had Magpies on display as an example of western wildlife. Zoo visitors were stopping and looking at them in the cage as if they were an exotic rarity. 

Similarly, on a visit to Northern Minnesota this winter, my birding guide received a call and turned to me and said excitedly, “Someone has just spotted a Magpie a mile or two from here. Do you want to chase it?” Before I could say anything, he registered the look on my face and said, “Oh, I guess they are common where you live aren’t they?” Yes, as an extreme rarity anywhere in the Midwest, birders who travel to MN for winter owls often ask their guides to find them a Magpie.

In reality, I’m just as bad. You see, our Magpies are Black-billed Magpies. Did you know there are Yellow-billed Magpies? They are a distinct species that are almost identical to our common Magpies, except for the bill color. This species lives only in a narrow area in oak savannas in Central and Northern California. When I found myself nearby, there I was out hunting for them until I finally got to see a Yellow-billed Magpie. 

We do have to give Magpies one very important credit. They build their own nests. Long-eared Owls do not.(Long-eared Owls need Magpie nests.)

In Western Colorado, most Long-eared Owls rear their young in last year’s (or much older) Magpie nests. No Magpies—no Long-eared Owls.

Everything has a place. The great biologist E.O. Wilson was once asked about an insect, “What good is it?” His response? “Well, what good are you?” That is as good an explanation as any for our love-hate relationship with Magpies.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, check our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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