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Cruising up Gastineau Channel last week, I saw one of the sure signs of fall. A striking, black-and-white bird with a long, iridescent tail was perched on a limb, overlooking a carcass washed up on the beach - a magpie.
With the coming of fall, many birds abandon Southeast Alaska and head for milder climates to the south. But for northern magpies, this is south. Magpies that nest and summer in the Yukon arrive in the Juneau area around Labor Day and spend the winter here, heading north again around April Fool's Day. Last winter I watched large flocks of magpies roosting, fussing and foraging in the Dredge Lakes area, along the shores of Fish Creek Ponds and out the road near Eagle River.
Magpies are corvids, closely related to ravens, crows and jays. They are intelligent, social birds, and like ravens, magpies mate for life. Pairs group into small family flocks, and in winter flocks of magpies may grow to include 50 or more birds. They communicate with a wide range of vocalizations. Melodic whistles, jay-like squawks, and raspy chuk-chuk-chuck calls are most common, but magpies can also imitate the calls of other birds, and like parrots, they can be taught to mimic human speech.
Magpies are omnivorous. They probe the soil for bugs and worms, catch flying insects in mid-air, steal eggs and baby birds from other birds' nests, and scavenge for carrion. Magpies will also land on the backs of animals such as deer and moose, and domestic cows and sheep, and pick off ticks and other insects.
Their opportunistic dietary habits have long brought them into contact with people. Magpies are featured in traditional Native American stories and legends, and were known to follow Native buffalo hunters and feed on the scraps.
Magpies don't nest in Southeast Alaska, but growing up in eastern Oregon, their distinctive domed nests were a common sight. The nests can be massive - elaborately assembled stick and mud structures two-to-four-feet high, covered by a woven roof, with an entrance on the side. The magpies' quirky fondness for shiny objects and odd scraps can be seen in their nest building. Like packrats, they will incorporate bones, foil and bits of litter into the matrix of their nests. The male and the female work together to build the nests, and they will use the same nests year after year, adding to the structure.
Magpies are found throughout the Rocky Mountains and Western Great Plains, and their range extends north to Interior and Southcentral Alaska, and west out into the Aleutians. A yellow-billed subspecies is found in California, and the related European magpie is found throughout the old world. Australians call an intelligent, vocal, black-and-white bird the magpie as well, but their magpie is related to butcherbirds and currawongs, not corvids.
Historically, magpies were unknown east of the Rockies. On their epic exploration of the American West, Lewis and Clark were the earliest white naturalists to describe magpies in America. They first documented the birds on Sept. 16, 1804, in South Dakota, 200 years ago. In April 1805, they sent four live magpies to President Jefferson in a shipment from Fort Mandan, their winter refuge on the Missouri River.
Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation. For more information on Alaska wildlife see www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov.