The yellow-billed magpie, so common to central and southern California, is found nowhere else in the world. It is “endemic” or restricted to a certain place.
West Nile Virus wiped out almost half of the population, almost 90,000 birds, in just two years. But the magpie has shown signs of rebounding.
As you might guess, this bird has a yellow bill. Its 16-18 inch body is boldly colored black and white, has a 9-10 inch long black tail, a yellow bill and a yellow ring around the eyes. In the sunlight, the black wings and tail are really an iridescent blue-green. It is part of the Corvid family along with crows, ravens and jays. They walk with one foot in front of the other rather than hopping.
Their proper name, Corvus nutalli, is in honor of Thomas Nuttall, an ornithologist who collected specimens near Santa Barbara.
Yellow-billed magpies mate for life. Raising their wings, mated pairs will bow to each other to strengthen this bond. The male feeds the female while she incubates.
It likes to nest in the mature oak trees in the central valley of California. Magpies eat the acorns from those trees along with insects it finds on the ground, small fruits, seeds, carrion and occasionally a small rodent. They will peck insects off of mule deer. They cache acorns and other foods in trees to consume later. Some acorns are buried and contribute to maintaining the oak woodlands of California.
They build a domed nest to keep out predators. The nests of twigs and mud are usually about two feet across but have been found up to seven feet in width. They line the interior with soft roots and animal hair. After the nesting season is over, other birds and even other mammals may use the abandoned nest. Four young house cats have been reported to have lived in an abandoned magpie nest. Magpies lay 4 to 7 eggs, are incubated by the female for 16-18 days, and will fledge in 30-35 days. Both the male and female feed the young.
They like to roost in large numbers during the non-breeding season; sometimes as many as 800 or more. This close proximity contributes to the spread of West Nile Virus. Though many scrub jays, a related species, were able to survive the disease and develop antibodies to protect themselves, magpies that did survive did not develop antibodies. The population continues to be at risk.
In 2009, the Yellow-billed Magpie was voted Audubon California’s Bird of the Year. The oldest recorded magpie was a female and at least 9 years, 11 months old.
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.