Magpies: Urban birds with people problems

Sean Doogan

Walk around Alaska's largest city for any amount of time and it soon becomes evident: Anchorage has a lot of full-time feathered residents. And if you take a stroll or hike in the spring or early summer, chances are you will soon see a small black, blue and white bird with long tail feathers. It may even be coming after you with anger in its eyes and a loud squawk exploding from its gaping beak. Meet your neighbor: The black-billed magpie.

As intimidating as they can be, magpies' aggression is more understandable if you look at their lives from a human perspective. They have marital disagreements, sometimes even getting divorced. They try to provide for precocious and often disobedient offspring. They struggle to make ends meet and protect their families in a world full of competition and danger. Simply put: Black-billed magpies are urban birds with people problems. And who among us has not wanted to, at one time or another, run screaming at an unwanted interloper into our otherwise calm but complicated lives?

Biologists with the Alaska Bird Treatment and Learning Center believe there are as many as 180,000 magpies, or Pica hudsonia, living in Alaska, with untold thousands calling Anchorage home. They are resourceful, intelligent and social, members of the corvid family, which also includes ravens, crows and jays. But the little magpie -- adults rarely grow bigger than 20 inches in length and 8 ounces in weight -- has an outsized attitude when it comes to protecting its young or its territory. That sometimes-dark demeanor can lead to harrowing encounters with the people who share the birds' urban digs.

Most of the time, magpies are harmless, but loud, neighborhood birds. They use about a dozen different calls and can belt them out at a volume that is surprising for their size. Magpies are very social birds that spend much of the day in the treetops looking for bugs to eat or playing with other magpies. But each year, as the white winter cloak of snow and ice begins to release its grip, the birds can become a handful -- or a faceful -- for passing walkers and bicyclists.

Spring is when the magpies build nests and lay eggs. The eggs hatch by late May, and magpie chicks leave their nests for the first time in mid-June. It is during this period -- when the magpie fledglings are at their most vulnerable -- that the birds' character can change from aloof but loud to just plain hooliganism.

"I have been swooped, like anybody else," said legendary animal wrangler and now-retired Alaska Department Fish and Game wildlife biologist -- and Alaska Dispatch contributor -- Rick Sinnott. "But it's just a brief period, and you don't need to kill a bird just because it is defending its young."

When protecting fledglings -- young birds that have leaped away from their nest but don't quite know how to fly properly -- the little magpie can become a big problem for people and pets. Adults are watchful parents, and anything that gets close to their young usually endures at least a loud squawking, or in some cases, even a full assault with wings, claws and beaks. And it is hard to avoid the birds in the big city.

That's because magpies like to build elaborate nests in middle-aged birch and spruce trees. Older trees don't have enough branches on them and younger ones can't support the magpies' hefty living space (which can reach 22 inches in diameter and weigh as much as 50 pounds), Sinnott said. And one of the best places to find middle-aged trees is in a big city where older trees are cut down because of disease or the danger their leaning trunks pose to people, electrical lines and homes. Magpies also like city living because it provides a lot of dinner options and few natural predators. The birds will eat just about anything and human trash is a big draw for them when they can't find easy access to their favorite foods: bugs, berries and other birds.

Sinnott said the best thing to do when confronted by an angry magpie is to simply walk away, and avoid the area for a few days. Fledgling birds usually learn how to fly within a week of leaving the nest, making their parents much less aggressive to any perceived threats.

But if you or your pet is trapped inside a home by raucous and angry magpie parents, there are a few options for going outside without getting scratched or scared.

"You should wear a wide-brimmed hat or carry an umbrella," Sinnott said.

Despite the occasional attack on humans or pets in Anchorage -- attacks that rarely leave more than a scratch and frayed nerves -- things could be worse. The Australian magpie, native to both Australia and New Guinea, is a much more fearsome and frequent attacker of humans. Things have gotten so bad for walkers and cyclists in some parts of New South Wales, Australia, that many use a mobile phone app to tell them which areas to avoid.

But most of the time, the "attack" is just a bluff, Sinnott said; the birds will usually just fly at the back of your head, hoping you will get the message to get lost. The bird's loud calls and its persistent protection of its young make the magpie a bit of a villain in the western U.S., where it is found from California to the Interior of Alaska. Sinnott said the birds get a bad rap.

But the magpies' intelligence, curious nature, loudness, and prevalence in urban areas has led to more pejorative and comical descriptions.

"People who know nothing about birds can describe them as smart-ass birds and be right," said musician, entertainer and Alaska Audubon Society president Mr. Whitekeys.

Believe it or not, magpies and their corvid cousins are songbirds. But the songs they sing aren't music to most people's ears. The constant squawking can make some people lash out at the birds.

Willow is an 8-year-old male magpie who has felt the wrath of angry people. He is blind in his left eye and has a damaged skull, the result of rocks thrown at him by kids when he was just a few weeks old. Willow lives in the care of his handler, Bird TLC volunteer and magpie expert Lisa Pajot.

Pajot takes Willow to local schools to teach kids about magpies and hopefully make them a little more understanding of the birds' sometimes-annoying behavior. But it isn't attitude that attracts Pajot to magpies; it is their intelligence.

Magpies live in complex social groups, usually consisting of several mating pairs. The most dominant male in an area can be easily recognized because he will have longer tail feathers and a darker mouth than other birds in the same neighborhood. As with wolves, his mate will usually be the most dominant of the females.

The males attract mates in a variety of ways, with offerings of food, dances and nest building skills, but unlike many other birds, young eligible magpie males like to show off in dangerous ways to prospective mates.

"They will sometimes swoop down to try to peck the ear of a wolf or other large animal so that any nearby females might see it and think, 'hey, that guy looks pretty good,' " Pajot said.

But as with people, magpie relationships don't always last. Many magpies mate for life, but others get "divorced" and find new mates. It usually begins with a disagreement over nest building, Pojot said. But magpie marital problems go beyond the decision of where to put the house. Magpies follow the 1950s version of the nuclear family: Mom stays in the nest at all times when the chicks are young, and Dad goes out to bring back food for the whole family. But June and Ward Cleaver they are not. If one magpie parent doesn't think the other is doing a good enough job, the marriage can fizzle.

Even when things are going well, the magpies' world is filled with danger. Despite attentive parenting, only about 10 percent of hatchlings live until the fall after their birth. Predation from other birds and attacks by cats are the leading causes of their demise in urban areas.

Despite the dangers, magpies' numbers are growing in Anchorage. According to the Audubon Society, the number of magpies counted in Anchorage from 2004-2013 averaged about 600 birds -- about double the number counted 25 years ago.

"They are smart enough that wherever there are humans, there will be a lot of food, so they tend to follow us around," Pajot said.

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