Magpie Wars

Dear Readers, ever since I’ve been putting live mealworms in the garden I’ve been ‘adopted’ by a pair of magpies. Goodness, what pirates they are! They terrorise the collared doves by swooping into the tree in a most menacing way, though I’ve never seen them actually attack one. I do suspect that they sometimes take an unsuspecting tadpole, and so far the starling fledglings have gone unmolested.

Then yesterday there was a ridiculous amount of noise coming from the front of the house. I strolled out to the front door (almost locking myself out in the process) and saw two pairs of magpies facing off on the roof opposite. I remembered that when magpies are in a tree, the most dominant one (often the one with the longest tail) sits at the top, and I wondered if this was the case here too, with one pair claiming the ‘roof line’.

However, as I watched I came to the conclusion that the roof line was maybe the boundary between the territories – ‘my’ magpies seemed much happier once the other pair had departed back the way they’d come. After all the cackling and chuckling there was a return to calm, with ‘my’ magpies popping back into the garden to check out the mealworms again.

I’ve been reading a bit about magpie territorial behaviour, and it seems that a pair in residence will be ‘tested’ by non-breeding males on a regular basis. Often, as soon as battle is commenced a great flock of other magpies will turn up to watch the fun; it’s thought that this gives them an opportunity to review the strength of the combatants without putting themselves at risk, though by the level of excitement on such occasions I suspect the non-participants are having as much fun as primary school children when a ‘rammy’ breaks out. If a male fancies his chances, he’ll be back later to ‘have a go’. This makes me wonder if what I was seeing was not a fight between two pairs, but between a pair and two males, one fighting, one watching.

There’s a very interesting article about all this stuff online, by David Holyoak. Most of his observations were of rural birds (the data relates to the 1960s) but clearly, magpies were ever bit as rambunctious and noisy then as they are now. Holyoak wonders if the wide range of vocalisations (compared with crows) might indicate that, like jays, magpies were once birds of dense woodland, who needed auditory rather than visual signals to communicate. Certainly if there’s a magpie about, you know it.

Another study looked at the quality of territories. Generally, in towns territories tend to be smaller, because there’s more availability of food, especially for an omnivore like a magpie who eats everything from tadpoles and mealworms to chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I suspect that my garden has the advantage of availability of food, and the disadvantage of lots of cats and people, though as you’ll remember, one of the magpies thought nothing of challenging a sparrowhawk so I suspect a mere cat would be as nothing. What it doesn’t have is any very large trees (though the whitebeam is starting to get a bit unruly), but then there’s Coldfall Wood across the way for nesting purposes. A study of territories by Anders Pape Møller graded territories as High Quality to Low Quality, and found that birds in a High Quality territory could be there for 8-10 years. Looks like the magpies and I will have lots of time to find out about one another.

7 thoughts on “Magpie Wars

  1. Anne

    What an interesting read! The strident calls of the hadeda ibises here (about half an hour before sunrise!) harks back to these forest-birds having become happily urbanised too.

  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Very interesting. We don’t get many magpies around here, though this year there does seem to be more. We do have lots of Jays though. They don’t seem to exhibit the same behaviour as your magpies, at least not against each other. Though the smaller birds do tend to disappear when they are around. (Our bird is still on the nest btw).

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I loved your nest photo! At least it looks as if there will be lots of insects around in your part of the world. Apparently magpies don’t like it at high altitude, so that’s why you don’t see them. Are they Eurasian jays or those nutcracker chappies?

      1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

        I would imagine they are expecting the crickets to be around. We have loads every year though I cannot hear some of the species as the pitch is too high for my aging ear drums (which is maybe a good thing 😊). The Jays are ‘proper’ Eurasian Jays. (They will be searching for Tit nests no doubt). The Spotted Nutcrackers tend to live higher up and in the forests and we don’t normally see them here in the summer.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      They are pirates, aren’t they – I’ve watched a pair of magpies chase a tom cat up a tree and keep him there for an hour by pecking his tail whenever he tried to come down. And then there was the one trying to steal the sparrowhawk’s kill in the garden a few weeks ago…..


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