Black-billed Magpie

Pica hudsonia

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 1999
  • Charles H. Trost

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Black-billed Magpie in North America.

This species often wanders in winter to areas outside the range indicated. This species also breeds in Europe and Asia.

Black-billed Magpie, adult

A strikingly marked and conspicuous bird of the cold, shrub-steppe environment of western North America, the Black-billed Magpie has attracted much attention and had a colorful association with early Americans. It frequently followed bison-hunting Native Americans and lived on the refuse of their hunts (Houston 1977). When Lewis and Clark first encountered magpies in 1804 in South Dakota, these birds were bold, entering tents to steal meat and taking food from the hand (Ryser 1985).

Twelve subspecies of magpies are found throughout northern Europe and Asia, with probable connections via the Bering Land Bridge to Black-billed (P. p. hudsonia) and Yellow-billed (P. nuttalli) magpies in western North America. North American Black-billed Magpies are more similar to Yellow-billed Magpies (e.g., in vocalizations) than to Eurasian magpies.

Eurasian Black-billed Magpies are well known for their ceremonial gatherings in early spring. Interpreted as territorial probings by dominant young birds, these gatherings have never been observed in either of North America's magpie species, probably owing to fundamental differences in the types of territories they hold. Because of the marked differences in social behavior and spacing between North American magpies and those from Europe, Birkhead (Birkhead 1991) has suggested that they should be separated as distinct species, an opinion echoed by Zink et al. (Zink et al. 1995), who examined mitochondrial DNA and suggested that multiple species exist within Black-billed Magpie as presently constituted.

Research on reproductive success and predator interactions of magpies in North America was conducted in South Dakota by Buitron (Buitron 1983b, Buitron 1983a, Buitron 1988). A series of manipulative feeding experiments were done in Edmonton, Alberta, by Dhindsa and Boag (Dhindsa and Boag 1990, Dhindsa and Boag 1992), Dhindsa et al. (Dhindsa et al. 1989a, Dhindsa et al. 1989b), Hochachka and Boag (Hochachka and Boag 1987), and Komers and Boag (Komers and Boag 1988). Further field experiments were conducted in Utah by Reese and Kadlec (Reese and Kadlec 1982, Reese and Kadlec 1984, and Reese and Kadlec 1985). Finally, social dominance and communication has been explored in Idaho by Moholt and Trost (Moholt and Trost 1989), Trost and Webb (Trost and Webb 1997), and Stone and Trost (Stone and Trost 1991b, Stone and Trost 1991a).

Recommended Citation

Trost, C. H. (1999). Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.