What a bad reputation this bird has. An omen of disaster, a thief of sparkling items and a plunderer of other birds’ nests… Are they really the Peaky Blinders of Fairfield?
The magpie’s boldly contrasting black and white plumage and long wedge-shaped tail make it instantly recognisable even to those who know very little about birds. Up close the plumage has traces of green and blue. Male and female are alike in colour and size, both being about 45cm long including a 22cm tail. They look very clumsy fliers, but the tail gives them good manoeuvrability.
Both sexes are involved with nest building, creating a domed structure of twigs, usually high up in a tree, and lining it with mud and tree rootlets. Four to seven eggs, light green with brown specks, are laid in early May and the female incubates them for about 21 days. Both parents then feed the nestlings, who fledge after about 27 days. There is only one brood per year, and the young remain with their parents for at least a year before flying off to find a mate. Magpies are non-migratory and when they find a partner they pair up for life, which can be as long as eight years. They seldom move more than 10 kilometres from where they were born.
Magpies are omnivorous, eating insects and their larvae, grain, fruit, carrion, bread and at times frogs and snails. In the breeding season they are very territorial, but in autumn and early spring they often gather in large numbers – sometimes known, like owls, as a parliament – and indulge in very loud chatter. Like all corvids they are very intelligent birds and one of the few species that can recognise their own reflection in a mirror.
So what of that bad reputation? Well, they do plunder birds’ nests during the nesting season, but so do all corvids – crows, rooks, jays and even jackdaws will do the same given the chance. Add to that list greater spotted woodpeckers and squirrels (yes, even black ones) and it is hard to see why magpies in particular are vilified. However, mud sticks, and in farming areas where pheasant and partridge are bred for shooting, the magpie and rook are particularly persecuted – both trapped and shot by gamekeepers. Fortunately, little shooting takes place around here so they are relatively safe in Fairfield.