By Diane Tipton
Photo by Kristi DuBois
The black-billed magpie, a flashy song bird in the
corvid family, is under rated by the public but fascinating
to those who study birds. It is the magpie’s
easily observed scavenging skills that helped tarnish
its image in the first place.
Now, studies around the globe are revealing that
this sleek, distinctively marked black and white
bird is so much more than previously known. The
magpie possesses an impressive package of skills,
intelligence and genetics shared to one degree or
another by other members of the corvid family that
includes ravens, crows and jays.
These birds are not only skilled, instinctual survivors.
They are extremely intelligent. Studies show
they can use tools, recognize themselves in a mirror
and exhibit “theory of mind.” Theory of mind
means that individual birds in studies have demonstrated
that if they themselves steal food they are
able to conceive of other magpies doing the same
and then take precautions to protect their caches
from theft.
Magpies are very vocal. They often make a variety of
chatter-like calls. If you listen regularly to magpies,
you might be surprised at what you hear. They
frequently mimic bells, horns, engines, other birds’
calls and even human words. They also carry on
well-punctuated “conversations” with cadence and
even exclamations.
A 2007 study of vocal mimicry in
birds in Europe could find no evidence
mimicry evolved for an essential
purpose. While we still have a lot
to learn about magpies, it is possible
that they, and other birds with this
skill, mimic sounds because they may
like the sound, or the attention their
mimicry attracts.
Beneath the magpie’s sleek exterior
lies DNA that appears to stretch back
to an identifiable lineage of dinosaurs.
Amazing as it sounds, a majority of
experts in paleontology say that today’s
birds, including the magpie, are genetically related
to certain dinosaurs. A recent story in Smithsonian
magazine describes how a fossilized dinosaur skeleton
found in Montana in the 1960s undermined
the assumption that birds and dinosaurs didn’t have
much in common. Deinonychus stood about 11 feet
from head to tail and had characteristics found in
today’s birds.
Paleontologists and other scientists began looking
for additional anatomical links between birds and
dinosaurs—the most obvious gap was evidence that
dinosaurs had feathers. That evidence from 125
million years ago was found in a volcanic area in
Liaoning province in China. It enabled experts to
confirm that there indeed was a dinosaur species,
Maniraptorans, with feathers and other signature
characteristics in common with today’s birds. Based
on these and other studies, it is no stretch to say that
magpies and other modern birds are living representatives
of the Maniraptoran lineage of dinosaur.
So, if you feel a need to renew your sense of wonder
in 2011, getting to know your local magpies may be
a good place to start. Or, check the 2010 Montana
income tax form next to the flying eagle to contribute
to Montana’s Nongame Wildlife Program
managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Your
contribution helps fund nongame wildlife management
and activities that encourage public awareness
of these wildlife species, including birds.
Diane Tipton is Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Statewide Information Officer.