Is the Magpie Really a Thief?
WHEN the 19th-century Italian composer Rossini wrote the opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), in 1817, he certainly believed that the magpie was a thief. And others have a similar opinion of this extrovert of a bird. “Pesky rogues, magpies are among the playful bad boys of the West,” says the Book of the North American Birds. These black-billed magpies, while known elsewhere, were discovered in the United States during the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06 that opened up the West. Members of the group said that magpies entered their tents and stole food.
If you live in Europe, Asia, Australia, or North America, you might get to identify your local magpies. It is usually a large bird, up to 22 inches [56 cm] long, with a clearly defined black-and-white design on its wings and body. It has a long iridescent green tail and strong beak. Magpies often live in groups and stoutly defend their territory, even against people.
The British magpie may at first glance appear to be just black with white belly and wing bars, but it has some brilliant yet subtle colors. There is an iridescent purple and green sheen to the body and the long tail feathers, which also have some bronze near the tips. Its tail accounts for more than half of its length.
Australian magpies are a delight to hear as they warble and carol their melodic call. The calls of the magpies and the kookaburra, called laughing jackass, are one sure sign that you are in Australia. Apart from the magpie’s distinctive song, you can identify it by the white patches on its glossy back, rump, wings, and under the tail.
So is it really a thief? The book Song and Garden Birds of North America states: “In the western United States the black-billed magpie has long been despised as a thief and a scavenger.” Yet, in that last barb, there is a compliment. Why? Because scavengers clean up the dead bodies of other animals and birds. Whether derided or appreciated, the magpie is yet another of the 9,300 species of birds that enhance and beautify our earth.