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Eurasian magpie

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Title: Eurasian magpie  
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Subject: Pica (genus), Magpie, Corvidae, Western jackdaw, Iberian magpie
Collection: Animals Described in 1758, Birds of Asia, Birds of Europe, Birds of North America, Pica (Genus), Tool-Using Tetrapods, Urban Animals
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Eurasian magpie

Eurasian magpie
Nominate subspecies in Toulouse, France
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Corvidae
Genus: Pica
Species: P. pica
Binomial name
Pica pica
(Linnaeus, 1758)
  • P. p. asirensis
  • P. p. bactriana
  • P. p. bottanensis
  • P. p. fennorum
  • P. p. hemileucoptera
  • P. p. kamschatisa
  • P. p. leucoptera
  • P. p. mauritanica
  • P. p. melanotos
  • P. p. pica
  • P. p. sericea
     leucoptera      melanotos      pica      fennorum      asirensis      bactriana      hemileucoptera      sericea      bottanensis      kamschatisa      mauritanica

The Eurasian magpie, European magpie, or common magpie (Pica pica) is a resident breeding bird throughout Europe, much of Asia and northwest Africa. It is one of several birds in the crow family named as magpies, and belongs to the Holarctic radiation of "monochrome" magpies. In Europe, "magpie" is used by English speakers as a synonym for the European magpie: the only other magpie in Europe is the Iberian magpie, which is limited to the Iberian peninsula.

The Eurasian magpie is one of the most intelligent birds, and it is believed to be one of the most intelligent of all animals.[2] The expansion of its nidopallium is approximately the same in its relative size as the brain of chimpanzees, orangutans and humans.[3]


  • Taxonomy and systematics 1
    • Etymology 1.1
  • Description 2
  • Behaviour and ecology 3
    • Reproduction 3.1
    • Intelligence 3.2
      • Grieving rituals 3.2.1
  • Relationship with humans 4
    • Traditions and symbolism 4.1
      • Europe 4.1.1
      • Asia 4.1.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Cited texts 7
  • External links 8

Taxonomy and systematics

Maghreb magpie (P. p. mauritanica), Marrakech, Morocco

There are numerous subspecies. The northwest African race differs in having a patch of blue bare skin around the eye, no white patch on the rump and an unglossed tail. The southwest Arabian race differs in being smaller, with dull black plumage lacking iridescent tones, and minimal white in the wings. The Siberian races have more extensive white in the wings, and brilliant green iridescence; Korean birds have a purple gloss instead and relatively longer wings and a shorter tail.

Analysis of mtDNA sequences[4] has indicated that the Korean race, P. p. sericea, is very distinct from the other Eurasian forms, and may be a separate species. The North American black-billed magpie, which looks almost identical to the Eurasian form and was previously considered conspecific is genetically closer to the yellow-billed magpie. The main Eurasian lineages of this astoundingly variable species have not been sufficiently sampled to clarify the status of such forms as the northwest African race, Maghreb magpie (P. p. mauritanica) and the southwest Arabian race P. p. asirensis, which could also be distinct species.

A larger palaeosubspecies of the European magpie was described as Pica pica major.


Magpies were originally known as simply "pies". This comes from a proto-Indo-European root meaning "pointed", in reference to either the beak or the tail. The prefix "mag" dates from the 16th century, and comes from the short form of the given name Margaret, which was once used to mean women in general (as Joe or Jack is used for men today); the pie's call was considered to sound like the idle chattering of a woman, and so it came to be called the "Mag pie".[5]


The Eurasian magpie is 44–46 centimetres (17–18 in) in length—in the adult over 50% of this is tail—and a wingspan of 52–62 centimetres (20–24 in).[6] Its head, neck and breast are glossy black with a metallic green and violet sheen; the belly and scapulars (shoulder feathers) are pure white; the wings are black glossed with green or purple, and the primaries have white inner webs, conspicuous when the wing is open. The graduated tail is black, shot with bronze-green and other iridescent colours. The legs and bill are black.

The young resemble the adults, but are at first without much of the gloss on the sooty plumage. The male is slightly larger than the female.[6]

Behaviour and ecology

In flight

The Eurasian magpie is a distinctive species with pied plumage, long 20–30 centimetres (8–12 in) graduated tail, and loud chatter. When passing in open country they rapidly move their wings and chatter. Upon landing the long tail is elevated and carefully carried clear off the ground.

Like other corvids such as crows, the magpie usually walks, but can also hop quickly sideways with wings slightly opened.

The magpie is omnivorous, eating young birds and eggs, insects, scraps and carrion, acorns, grain, and other vegetable substances.

In Turtuk Village, Ladakh

Magpies are common in suburban areas[7] but tend toward shyness and caution in the country. They only avoid humans when harassed.

Young bird

In winter, magpies often form groups, feeding and roosting at night.


Eggs, Collection Museum Wiesbaden

Magpies are territorial and stay in their own all year, even in the north of the species range. The pairs are monogamous and remain together for life, finding new partners from the stock of yearlings if one is lost.

Mating takes place in spring. In the courtship display males rapidly raise and depress their head feathers, uplift, open and close their tails like fans, and call in soft tones quite distinct from their usual chatter. The loose feathers of the flanks are brought over the primaries, and the shoulder patch is spread so the white is conspicuous, presumably to attract females. Short buoyant flights and chases follow.


Magpies prefer tall trees for their bulky nest, firmly attaching them to a central fork in the upper branches. A framework of the sticks is cemented with earth and clay, and a lining of the same is covered with fine roots. Above is a stout though loosely built dome of prickly branches with a single well-concealed entrance. These huge nests are conspicuous when the leaves fall. Where trees are scarce, though even in well-wooded country, nests are at times built in bushes and hedgerows.

Eggs are typically laid in April, five to eight is normal though as many as ten have been recorded. Small for the size of the bird, they are typically blue-green with close specks and spots of brown and grey, but show much variation in ground and marking. Only one brood is reared unless disaster overtakes the first clutch.


The Eurasian magpie is believed not only to be among the brightest of birds but among the most intelligent of all animals. Along with the jackdaw, the Eurasian magpie's nidopallium is approximately the same relative size as those in chimpanzees and humans, significantly larger than the gibbon's.[3] Like other corvids, such as ravens and crows, their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to most great apes' and cetaceans.'[8]

A 2004 review suggests that the intelligence of the corvid family to which the Eurasian magpie belongs is equivalent to that of great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas) in terms of social cognition, causal reasoning, flexibility, imagination, and prospection.[9]

Magpies have been observed engaging in elaborate social rituals, possibly including the expression of grief.[10]

  • Pica pica in the Flickr: Field Guide Birds of the World
  • Pica pica on Avibase
  • European magpie videos, photos & sounds on the Internet Bird Collection
  • Ageing and sexing (PDF; 2.9 MB) by Javier Blasco-Zumeta & Gerd-Michael Heinze
  • Feathers of Eurasian magpie

External links

Cited texts

  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b Comparative vertebrate cognition: are primates superior to non-primates?, By Lesley J. Rogers, Gisela T. Kaplan, page 9, Springer, 2004
  4. ^ Lee et al., 2003
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ Leszek, Jerzak (2001). Synurbanization of the magpie in the Palearctic. W: Avian ecology and conservation in an urbanizing world. Boston:Kluwer Academic Publishers, p. 403–425. ISBN 0-7923-7458-4.
  8. ^ Birding in India and South Asia: Corvidae. Retrieved 2007-NOV-10
  9. ^ The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes, Science 10, December 2004: Vol. 306 no. 5703 pp. 1903-1907
  10. ^ Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: Grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants, M Bekoff - Emotion, Space and Society, 2009 - Elsevier
  11. ^ Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Harmony Books, 2009), 149.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Meet the Magpie, (AuthorHouse, 2010) By Joyce Robertson, page 5
  14. ^ Magpies grieve for their dead (and even turn up for funerals) By DAVID DERBYSHIRE FOR MAILONLINE, UPDATED: 01:57, 24 October 2009
  15. ^ Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: Grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants Emotion, Space and Society xxx (2009) 1–4, Marc Bekoff
  16. ^ Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: Grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants Emotion, Space and Society xxx (2009) 1–4, Marc Bekoff
  17. ^ Magpies have a dubious reputation because they are a bit of both. Over the years they have been lumped in with blackbirds."Why are magpies so often hated?, By Denise Winterman, BBC News Magazine
  18. ^
  19. ^ Brewer, E. C. (1970); p. 674
  20. ^ Brewer, E. C. (1970) Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; centenary ed., rev. by Ivor H. Evans. London: Cassell; p. 674
  21. ^ Opie, Iona & Peter (1959) The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford: Clarendon Press; p. 217
  22. ^ Brewer (1970); p. 674
  23. ^ store norske leksikon;
  24. ^ Predation and songbird populations CHRIS STOATE1 & DAVID L. THOMSON2, British Ornithologists Union
  25. ^ Magpie Pica pica and Songbird Populations. Retrospective Investigation of Trends in Population Density and Breeding Success, S. Gooch, S. R. Baillie and T. R. Birkhead, Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Dec., 1991), pp. 1068-1086
  26. ^ Magpies have a dubious reputation because they are a bit of both. Over the years they have been lumped in with blackbirds."Why are magpies so often hated?, By Denise Winterman, BBC News Magazine
  27. ^ 春蚕、喜鹊、梅花、百合花有什么象征意义?


See also

The European attitude is starkly contradicted by Korea, where the magpie is celebrated as "a bird of great good fortune, of sturdy spirit and a provider of prosperity and development".[26] Similarly, in China, magpies are seen as an omen of good fortune.[27] This is even reflected in the Chinese word for magpie, simplified Chinese: 喜鹊; traditional Chinese: 喜鵲; pinyin: xǐquè, in which the first character means "happiness".


Magpies have also been attacked for their role as predators, which includes eating other birds' eggs and their young. However, scientific studies have contradicted the view that they affect total song-bird populations, finding "no evidence of any effects of [Magpie] predator species on songbird population growth rates. We therefore had no indication that predators had a general effect on songbird population growth rates".[24] Other studies have found that songbird populations actually increased in places where magpie populations were high, and that they do not have a negative impact on the total song-bird population.[25]

In both Italian and French folklore, magpies are believed to have a penchant for picking up shiny items, particularly precious stones. Rossini's opera La gazza ladra and The Adventures of Tintin comic The Castafiore Emerald are based on this theme. In Bulgarian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Slovak and Swedish folklore the magpie is also seen as a thief. In Sweden it is further associated with witchcraft.[22] In Norway, a magpie is considered cunning and thievish too, but also the bird of huldra, the underground people.[23]

Hopscotch game with the magpie rhyme

In Britain and Ireland a widespread traditional rhyme, One for Sorrow, records the myth (it is not clear whether it has been seriously believed) that seeing magpies predicts the future, depending on how many are seen. There are many regional variations on the rhyme, which means that it is impossible to give a definitive version.[20][21]

In Europe, magpies have been historically demonized by humans, mainly as a result of superstition and myth. The bird has found itself in this situation mainly by association, says Steve Roud: "Large blackbirds, like crows and ravens, are viewed as evil in British folklore and white birds are viewed as good," he says.[17] In European folklore the magpie is associated with a number of superstitions[18] surrounding its reputation as an omen of ill fortune. In the 19th century book, A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, a proverb concerning magpies is recited: "A single magpie in spring, foul weather will bring". The book further explains that this superstition arises from the habits of pairs of magpies to forage together only when the weather is fine. In Scotland, a magpie near the window of the house is said to foretell death.[19]


Traditions and symbolism

Relationship with humans

Magpies have been observed taking part in elaborate grieving rituals, which have been likened to human funerals, including laying grass wreaths.[14][15] Marc Bekoff, at the University of Colorado, argues that it shows that they are capable of feeling complex emotions, including grief.[16]

Grieving rituals


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