Magpies belong to the family Corvidae, which also contains the crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers. There are four genera of magpies, although magpies in the genus Pica are most well known. These birds are known for being mainly black and white in color and reside in temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and western North America. Magpies in the other three genera are generally blue and green in color and are usually found in South to East Asia.
Magpies are known to be very intelligent animals. They were once popular as cagebirds and are known for their songs. Originally, they were known as simply “pies”. This is thought to derive from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “pointed”, in reference to either their beak or perhaps their tail.
The prefix “mag” dates from the 16th century and comes from the short form of the given name Margaret, which was once used to mean women in general. This was used as their call was considered to sound like the chattering of a woman, and so it came to be called the “magpie”.
Magpies can range is size depending on the species. For example, an Australian magpie can measure only 37 cm in length, while a black billed magpie can measure 60 cm. Their wingspan can also vary, as can their weight. One characteristic of magpies is that their tail is often almost as long as their body, and it is wedge-shaped, which adds to their long and slender appearance.
The color of magpies also depends on their species. Magpies in the genus Pica are black and white, while magpies in the genera Urocissa and Cissa are predominantly green and blue. All species have small, dark eyes, although some have a colored red ring around them. Their feet have three thin toes pointing forward and one pointing backward, again which can be either black or a bright red.
Generally magpies live to around 25 years of age, although they have also been known to live up to 30 years old.
Magpies are not picky about the food they eat. They are known to eat beetles, flies, caterpillars, spiders, worms and leatherjackets, and will also eat plant material such as wild fruits, berries and grains. They will also sometimes steal eggs and even chicks from the nests of other birds.
In the summer they tend to eat more animal based foods, while in the fall and winter, they will eat more plant matter. This, of course, depends largely on where the magpie resides.
Magpies use their excellent hearing abilities to obtain food, but will also use their sight and smell. When they are on the ground, they can hear the faintest of sounds – even other animals chewing underground. They then use their beaks to pierce the ground and drag out their prey.
Magpies gather in flocks. Flocks are usually made up of a mating pair of magpies and their babies, so there are roughly eight members in a flock. However, in colder parts of the world, flocks can contain a large number of magpies. This helps them to keep warm, and also protects them from predators.
Magpies are often noted for their interesting gait. They take long, slow steps and seem to be strutting instead of just walking. They have also been witnessed landing on deer, elk, and other animals to eat ticks from their fur.
These birds can be very aggressive and some species will attack anything they think is invading their territory. However, some species are also very social and can form bonds with humans.
Magpies are known for their for calls and songs. These can vary based on the species.
Magpies are known for being very intelligent animals. One species in particular, the Eurasian magpie, is one of the most intelligent birds in the world, and in fact one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
They have shown the ability to make and use tools, imitate human speech, grieve, play games, and work in teams. Other examples of their intelligence include when one of their own kind dies, a grouping will form around the body for a “funeral”, and to portion food to their young, magpies will use self-made utensils to cut meals into proper sizes.
These magpies have also passed the “mirror test,” which proves an organism’s ability to recognize itself in a reflection. Aside from humans, the only other species to have passed the mirror test include common chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins and elephants.
Magpies breeding season can vary based on the species. These birds usually meet and then mate for life. However, if a male is killed while the young are in the nest, the female will take a new partner.
Magpies build nests that are made from sticks and twigs which are held together with mud. Magpies nests are dome-shaped and often contain an additional mud-lined cup inside them. They generally prefer to nest in trees and thorny bushes where they can keep themselves and their young hidden and safe from predators.
Females will typically lay between three and five eggs which are greenish-blue in color and will sit on them for roughly three weeks until they hatch. During this time the male feeds her on the nest. Incubation starts in the middle of the laying period, so the earliest eggs hatch first.
These birds are born blind and without feathers. Once the young are hatched, they are fed worms and insects by their parents. The male magpie defends the nest while the female is responsible for feeding the babies. Baby magpies stay for 24 to 30 days in the nest before moving out. Their parents still feed them for a further four weeks after leaving the nest. Baby magpies don’t go far though, they stay within their parent’s territory.
Magpies usually breed from two years old although some may breed at one year.
Magpie Location and Habitat
Magpies can be found throughout the world. Those in the genus Pica are found in Europe, Asia, and western North America, while magpies in the genera Urocissa and Cissa are found in South to East Asia.
Their habitat preference generally changes based on the region that they live in. They have been found in forests, meadows, savannas, sagebrush, woodlands and meadows, usually near rivers and streams so they don’t have to stray too far when feeding their young. They are generally found in temperate regions.
Magpie Conservation Status
Magpie species are, for the most part, not endangered and listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. In some countries, their population is large and they are very widespread. However, some species of magpie, such as the Asir magpie, the yellow-billed magpie and the Sri Lankan blue magpie, are considered to be vulnerable or endangered.
The biggest threat to magpies is not actually predators, but loss of habitat due to climate change or human development.
Magpies are preyed on by a range of other animals. They are mostly taken by coyotes, foxes, dogs, monitor lizards, and cats. They can also be eaten by other, larger birds, such as eagles, hawks, ospreys, and owls.
Magpies are known to be quite aggressive animals, and will defend their family and young. This is especially important for injured and young magpies because they are often more of a target to the predators.
Magpie Cultural Importance
In many cultures, the magpie is an important symbol. In East Asian culture, the magpie is a very popular bird and is a symbol of good luck and fortune.
In European culture, the magpie is has a reputation for collecting shiny objects such as wedding rings and other valuables. Specifically in England, there is a superstition that the sight of a single magpie is said to bring sorrow or bad luck, the sight of two magpies is said to bring joy or good luck, and spotting more than two magpies is said to determine the sex of a future child.
What is the difference between a crow and a magpie?
Crows and magpies both belong to the family Corvidae, and, although they are very similar and are both very intelligent, there are some differences between the two animals. Crows are bigger than magpies and are black all over (usually), without any markings. Magpies have a very long tail and can be black and white in color or green and blue. Another distinguishing characteristic is that crows migrate whereas magpies do not.
Are magpies always black and white in color?
No. Some species of magpies, predominantly in the genus Pica are black and white in color. Depending on what part of the world you live in, these may be the only species of magpie you are seen.
However, other magpies, especially those in the genera Urocissa, Cissa, and Cyanopica are actually not black and white — but can be quite bright green or blue in color. They can also have red markings, red beaks and red legs and feet.
How many species of magpie are there?
There are at least eighteen species of magpie, split into four genera. We have included some more detail about each species below.
Are magpies dangerous birds?
Magpies are not dangerous to humans, but they are territorial. If you enter their territory at the wrong time, they may exhibit swooping, in which they may try to scare you away. With other animals, a flock of magpies will chase an intruder away, especially if its means protecting their young.
How intelligent are magpies?
Magpies are very intelligent animals. In fact, the Eurasian magpie is one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Their brain-to-body-mass ratio is outmatched only by that of humans and equals that of aquatic mammals and great apes. They exhibit very intelligent behavior, such as imitating human speech and using tools. They are also one of only a few animals that have passed the “mirror test”.
Within the Corvidae family, there are four genera of magpie: Pica, Urocissa, Cissa, and Cyanopica. Magpies in the genus Pica are a Holarctic species with black and white coloration, and is probably closely related to crows and Eurasian jays. Magpies in the genera Urocissa and Cissa are found from South to East Asia with vivid coloration, which is predominantly green or blue.
There are only two species in the genus Cyanopica. The azure-winged magpie and the Iberian magpie were formerly thought to constitute a single species, but have actually been shown to be two distinct species.
- Eurasian magpie (Pica pica)
- Black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia)
- Yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli)
- Asir magpie (Pica asirensis)
- Maghreb magpie (Pica mauritanica)
- Oriental magpie (Pica sericea)
- Black-rumped magpie (Pica bottenensis)
- Taiwan blue magpie (Urocissa caerulea)
- Red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha)
- Yellow-billed blue magpie (Urocissa flavirostris)
- White-winged magpie (Urocissa whiteheadi)
- Sri Lanka blue magpie (Urocissa ornata)
- Common green magpie (Cissa chinensis)
- Indochinese green magpie (Cissa hypoleuca)
- Javan green magpie (Cissa thalassina)
- Bornean green magpie (Cissa jefferyi)
- Azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus)
- Iberian magpie (Cyanopica cooki)
There are also some species of birds that are confused for magpies. The black magpies, belonging to the genus Platysmurus, are actually treepies, but look very similar to magpies.
The Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen), although similar in appearance to a Eurasian magpie with a black and white plumage, is actually a member of the family Artamidae and not a corvid. Magpie-robins, which are members of the genus Copsychus, have a similar black and white appearance, but are again not actually magpies and are instead Old World flycatchers.
There are at least eighteen species of magpie, split into four genera. Here is some more information about each species in further detail.
The Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), also known as the common magpie, is found throughout the northern part of the Eurasian continent, from Portugal, Spain and Ireland in the west to the Kamchatka Peninsula. It is one of only two magpies found in Europe — the other is the Iberian magpie (Cyanopica cooki), which is limited to the Iberian Peninsula.
This magpie is usually around 44 to 46 cm (17 to 18 in) in length, of which more than half is the tail, although females are smaller than males. They have a wingspan between 52 and 62 cm (20 and 24 in). The head, neck and breast are glossy black with a metallic green and violet sheen, the belly and shoulder feathers are pure white, and the wings are black, glossed with green or purple.
The Eurasian magpie is believed not only to be among the most intelligent of birds but among the most intelligent of all animals. It is the only bird known to pass the mirror test, along with very few other non-avian species.
There are six subspecies of the Eurasian magpie, and it is almost identical in appearance to the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia). The subspecies of this magpie can differ in size. The bird is currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, with a large range and between 7.5 and 19 million breeding pairs.
The black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia), also known as the American magpie, is found in the western half of North America, from Colorado, to southern coastal Alaska, to Central Oregon, to northern California, northern Nevada, northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, central Kansas, and Nebraska. In Canada it is found in far Western Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Yukon.
This magpie measures 45 to 60 centimeters (18 to 24 in) from tip to tail, with males being larger and heavier than females. It is black and white, with black areas on the wings and the tail has iridescent hints of blue or blue-green. The black-billed magpie can be distinguished from other magpies by its dense plumage, shorter and rounder wings, longer tail, and the iridescent blue feathers. Despite this, externally, this magpie looks almost identical to the Eurasian magpie.
The black-billed magpie is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. They have a wide range and a generally stable population. In the United States, they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli) is found only in the state of California, in the Central Valley and the adjacent chaparral foothills and mountains. This magpie is virtually identical to the black-billed magpie, although has a yellow bill and a yellow streak around the eye.
This bird is classed on Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with the population mainly threatened by West Nile virus. Between 2004 and 2006 it is estimated that 50% of all yellow-billed magpies died of the virus. They also only have a limited area of distribution and are threatened by habitat loss.
The Asir magpie (Pica asirensis), also known as the Arabian magpie, is endemic to Saudi Arabia, found in the country’s southwestern highlands, in the Asir Region. This bird is about 45 to 60 cm long, and has a weight of around 240 g. Its head, neck, back, front chest, and feet are all black, but its shoulders and underside are milk white. Its tail is black with bronze-green metallic sheen.
The Asir magpie is highly endangered, with only 135 pairs (270 mature individuals) known to survive in the wild. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The biggest threats to this bird are habitat destruction, climate change and tourism development.
The Maghreb magpie (Pica mauritanica) is found in North Africa from Morocco east to Tunisia. This bird looks similar to the Eurasian magpie, but can be distinguished from it by a patch of blue skin behind its eye, its narrower white underside, its shorter wings, and its longer tail.
The Oriental magpie (Pica serica), also known as the Korean magpie and the Asian magpie, is found from south-eastern Russia and Myanmar to eastern China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan (Kyushu) and northern Indochina.
This magpie looks similar to the Eurasian magpie, but is somewhat stockier, with a proportionally shorter tail and longer wings. Its back, wings and tail have a purplish-blue sheen. It is the largest of all species of magpie.
The Oriental magpie has been adopted as the “official bird” of numerous South Korean cities, counties and provinces.
The black-rumped magpie (Pica bottanensis) is found in central Bhutan to west-central China. It is often found in the same areas as the Oriental magpie, but can be distinguished by its reduced gloss in plumage and stouter bill.
Taiwan blue magpie
The Taiwan blue magpie (Urocissa caerulea), also known as the Taiwan magpie and Formosan blue magpie, is endemic to Taiwan, residing in broadleaf forests at elevations of 300 to 1,200 m (980 to 3,940 ft).
This magpie measures around 63 to 68 cm (25 to 27 in) in length and weighs 254 to 260 g (9.0 to 9.2 oz). Its tail measures around 34 to 42 cm (13 to 17 in), and its wings are 20 cm (7.9 in) long. Its head, neck and breast are black, its eyes are yellow, and its bill and feet are red. The rest of the plumage is mostly blue.
Taiwan blue magpies are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List and their population is said to be stable. Because they are not afraid of people and can be found in human-populated areas, their biggest threats are being hit by cars or captured by humans.
Red-billed blue magpie
The red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha) is found from the western Himalayas eastwards into Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and through central and eastern China to southwest Manchuria.
This bird measures around 65 to 68 cm (25.5 to 27 in) in length and weighs between 196 and 232 g (6.9 and 8.2 oz). It is about the same size as the Eurasian magpie, but has a much longer tail, in fact one of the longest of any corvid.
There are five subspecies of the red-billed blue magpie. It is currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Yellow-billed blue magpie
The yellow-billed blue magpie (Urocissa flavirostris), also known as the gold-billed magpie, is found in the northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent including the lower Himalayas, with a disjunct population in Vietnam.
This bird has a full length of around 66 cm (26 in), and a tail length 46 cm (18 in). Its head, neck and breast is black, with a white patch on the nape. The rest of the lower plumage is white with a faint tinge of lilac, while the upper plumage is purplish-blue.
The yellow-billed magpie forms a super-species with the Taiwan blue magpie and the red-billed blue magpie. It is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
The white-winged magpie (Urocissa whiteheadi), also known as the Hainan magpie, has two subspecies. The nominate whiteheadi is found in Hainan and xanthomelana is found in southern China, northern Vietnam, and north and central Laos.
This bird is black and white and lacks the blue plumage other magpies in the genus Urocissa have. There are few of these species left in the world, and they are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Sri Lankan blue magpie
The Sri Lankan blue magpie (Urocissa ornata), also known as the Ceylon magpie, is found exclusively in Sri Lanka, in tall, undisturbed forest. It is adapted well to hunting in the dense canopy.
This magpie measures 42 to 47 cm in length and is noticeable because of its color. Its plumage is bright blue, with a reddish-brown or chestnut head, neck, and wing. It also has a long blue tail with a white tip, and its bill, legs, feet, and featherless eye ring are all vibrant red.
The Sri Lankan magpie is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The main threat to this species is habitat loss due to forest being cleared for agricultural land, mines, logging, and human settlement.
Common green magpie
The common green magpie (Cissa chinensis) is found from the lower Himalayas in north eastern India in a broad south easterly band down into central Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra and northwestern Borneo in evergreen forest, clearings and scrub.
These birds usually have a length of around a length of 34–35 cm (13–14 in), the same as the Eurasian jay, although can be smaller. They are a bright green color with a thick black stripe from the bill, through the eyes, to the nape. Its eye rims, bill and legs are all red. Compared to other species in its genus, it has a long tail.
There are five subspecies of common green magpie recognized. Currently, this bird is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Indochinese green magpie
The Indochinese green magpie (Cissa hypoleuca), also known as the yellow-breasted magpie, is native to mainland southeast Asia (Indochina) and adjacent China. These birds have russet colored wings, with green shoulders, back, head and tail. They also have a thick black band marking from the bill, all the way round the head. The beak, legs and eye rings of this species are a vivid red, while their eyes are a very dark brown.
The Indochinese green magpie can be distinguished from other species in its genus by its yellow underside. As with other Cissa species, their green plumage comes from the pigment lutein, which will fade to blue if the bird has an insufficient diet or is exposed to direct sunlight. This is due to the fragility of the pigment.
Javan green magpie
The Javan green magpie (Cissa thalassina) is found in the montane forests on the Indonesian island of Java. It has a bright green plumage and a red beak.
This magpie is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. There may be as few as 50 individuals of this species still in the wild. Captive breeding programs have been introduced for this species, and it is now thought at least 50 individuals reside in captivity.
Bornean green magpie
The Bornean green magpie (Cissa jefferyi) is endemic to the montane forests on the southeast Asian island of Borneo. Like other members of its genus, it has a green plumage. However, it is unique amongst them in the fact it has whitish eyes. This species is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
The azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus) is found in most of China, Korea, Japan, and north into Mongolia and southern Siberia. It is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
It measures around 31 to 35 cm in length and has a glossy black top to its head and a white throat. Its underparts and back are light grey-fawn in color, and its wings and tail feathers tail are azure blue. The tail measures around 16 to 20 cm in length. Overall, the azure-winged magpie has a similar overall shape to the Eurasian magpie but is more slender with proportionately smaller legs and bill.
The Iberian magpie (Cyanopica cooki), also known as the Iberian azure-winged magpie, Cook’s azure-winged magpie, and the Spanish azure-winged magpie, is found in southwestern and central parts of the Iberian Peninsula, in Spain and Portugal.
This bird measures 31 to 35 cm (12 to 14 in) in length and has a glossy black top to its head and a white throat. Its underparts and back are a light grey-fawn in color, and its wings and tail are azure blue. Its tail measures around 16 to 20 cm long.
The Iberian magpie is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.