Black-billed magpie Pica hudsonia ~ Qalqaruq

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

If you happen to see a large black and white bird on the ground with long tail feathers and a walk that looks like a swagger and a strut, it’s a Black-billed magpie.

Although fifty years ago magpies were seldom seen in the Lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, they are now becoming more numerous where the forest meets the tundra, probably as a result of expansion of the forest edge due to Climate Change.

Their various Yup’ik names give testament to their long-time presence in the region, though. Qalqaraq and Qalqarayak, both loosely mean, “bird that makes animal sounds,” and is also imitative of one of the raspy nasal sounds it makes, yak, yak, yak, or shek, shek, shek. Another name, Neqairayuli, “one that really knows how to steal food,” describes well one of the amazing abilities of these intelligent corvids.

Qalqaruq is not only expanding its range in the LYK Delta. With the warming weather, it’s becoming more abundant throughout Alaska. In Fairbanks, where I live, they are nesting near the city and visiting people’s feeders.

In Anchorage, they are so numerous they have even begun to nest in loose colonies, and are having ill effects on waterfowl and song bird populations. They are such notorious nest robbers of these birds, they have earned the name “bad bird” by bird lovers such as myself. Once, in Fairbanks, after spotting a magpie on one of my own feeders, I told it sternly that the next time I saw it might be its last time! I never saw it again.

That said, magpies are beautiful birds. Their dark feathers sparkle with blue and peacock green iridescence in the sunlight, and white wing patches flash bright in full flight. The peculiar glint in their eyes and unique behaviors tell me they are fully conscious of the world around them, and I would rank them among the smartest birds on the planet.

But let’s talk about some of their interesting behaviors.

Like their raven cousins, Qalqaruq mainly searches for food on the ground, and eats everything from wild fruit and grains to beetles and maggots found in carrion. They will steal meat from foxes and other predators as well as from dog kennels, if they can, and will land on the backs of moose and pick the ticks off them. They often raid birds’ nests for the eggs and young, and kill small mammals such as squirrels and voles. Like Canada jays, they will store food for hard times.

Since male magpies don’t sing, they establish their territories visually by perching on the top of a tree. As with other corvids, they are monogamous and mate for life. In courtship, the female initiates the pair bond by begging for food from the male. For their part, the males, while perched on a rock or tree stump, use a tail-spreading display to show off their iridescent elongated feathers. In the air, they pursue the females while flashing their colors and white wing and shoulder patches. During breeding, the male stands guard near the female to reduce the chance she’ll mate with another male, although this does happen sometimes.

Both male and female choose their nesting site and help build the nest, but if they disagree on the location they may build separate nests and decide which to occupy later. Their nest is generally built in a deciduous tree, such as a birch, about 15-30 feet up in the form of a yard-wide globular stick canopy with entrance holes on either side and a cup-shaped nest made of mud, grass, rootlets and hair in the middle of the structure.

After laying 5-7 olive green eggs with dark brown speckles, the female alone incubates them while the male feeds her. The eggs hatch in about 18 days, and both parents bring food to their nestlings. The young leave home 25-29 days later. The pair have only one brood.

Another interesting behavior of qalqaruq is when the food supply is favorable they may gather in large flocks and nest in loose colonies. They will also band together and mob an enemy. In large groups like this, the males establish dominance through a stretch display in which they raise their bills in the air and flash their white eyelids. They also show aggression towards competitors by flickering or quivering their wings to display their white wing patches, and by spreading, quivering, or flicking their long tail feathers.

Finally, an almost human behavior of this fascinating corvid is the “funeral.” When a magpie runs across a dead bird of its own species, it calls loudly to attract other magpies. The raucous gathering of up to 40 birds can last 15 minutes until everyone has bid their dead friend goodbye, then silently flies back home.

The meaning of the magpie’s scientific name, Pica hudsonia, means Hudson’s black and white bird. The genus Pica is Latin for black and white, and hudsonia refers to the man the bird was named after, Argentine-British naturalist, William Henry Hudson. The bird’s common name is derived from Old French “pie,” from the Latin “pica,” and “Mag,” a nickname for Margaret that was used more than 400 years ago in central and southern England to denote a chatterer.