Wildlife Column: Maybe our least appreciated bird?

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A member of the crow family, or a corvid, the magpie is one of our most stunning and striking bird species.

Yet because of its habits of predating young birds and eggs for example, and it also being a relatively common place and everyday bird to see, it really is under-appreciated. Indeed, I suspect that if it was a rarity then birders would queue to see them.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of general acclaim the magpie is bold, brash, incredibly colourful when seen close up – with blues, greens, reds, and bronzes suffusing the strong black and white plumage.

Furthermore, the magpie is highly intelligent and boasts sophisticated communal behaviour, and noisy calls and other vocal communication. They build nests – either with or without a roof – and then each pair defends a territory during the breeding season and this is vital to their survival and success in producing offspring. All the while, there are unpaired birds without territories just waiting in the wings to oust and usurp the residents.

Much of the life-time of a magpie, especially during the breeding season, is one long struggle to establish, hold and defend a good territory. So-called magpie marriages – the massed gatherings of sometimes up to ten or more squabbling adults, are due to territorial boundary disputes or incoming young birds desperate to carve out a niche.

Until relatively recently magpies were ruthlessly persecuted, in the wider countryside by gamekeepers, and in towns by park-keepers.

Both would shoot or trap adults and shoot out the highly visible nests. Along with jays, the magpie was suppressed and birds when they occurred were often (quite reasonably!) nervous and unapproachable. Today this situation gardens and garden-feeders for example. Next time you get chance to see a magpie close up then do take chance to admire the positive attributes of these entertaining and quite remarkable birds. Because of their striking looks and complex behaviour, magpies feature strongly in folklore and in literature, and I will return to this theme in a future column. Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.