The Magpie is a handsome, long-tailed, black and white bird normally seen singly or in pairs. They are the Al Capones of the neighbourhood and are widely considered to be very intelligent. The Magpie's head and breast are a dull black, the wings a glossy deep blue, while the long wedge-shaped tail is dark with hints of green, blue and purple. It has a big white shoulder patch, a white belly and white wing tips. A true, old style, well-dressed gangster in his spats. They tend to keep their distance, in case you are the 'law', so it is hard to see their wonderful iridescent colours. They have a gravelly, chattering song like an old-fashioned football rattle. Telling you to back off if you know what's good for you.
Like all gangsters, the Magpie has a simple hunting style. They just look around the neighbourhood for something to eat and soon learn the places that will let them eat for free. Being a hard man, they will eat just about anything including insects, fruit, seeds, carrion (dead animals and road kill), eggs, small birds (who haven't paid their protection money), and even dog poo (you don't mess with someone who eats poo!) The Magpie will store food by hiding it and are very good at remembering where it is, and where you live. They walk and hop with a swagger along the ground when looking for food (and victims). Like all mobsters, the Magpie is partial to a bit of bling and will often take shiny things to put in the nest. Their liking for eggs and young birds has not made the Magpie a big fan with gamekeepers.
Both birds help build the substantial domed nest made of twigs, branches and mud with an entrance at the side (well, you have to have a flashy house when you are a big cheese). They position the nest high up in a tree or tall bush and line it with softer material. The 3-9 eggs are laid from late March onwards and hatch after 21 days. The youngsters can fly after 24 days but usually hang around with 'the family' for a month or more.
Magpies generally stay on their patch, not moving far afield into other gang territory. The Magpie is a member of the crow family, but it ends there. They have an ongoing turf war with their brothers, the Carrion Crow, which they hate (even though the Carrion Crow generally wins). In winter, Magpies can form large flocks of up to 100 birds though more typically 5-25 birds called a parliament (or alternatively a mob).
They are a widespread, common resident with about 600,000 pairs in Britain. The oldest known ringed bird (the 'godfather') lived to be 21 years old. The number of Magpies are on the increase as they spread into urban areas for richer pickings.
The Magpie's Latin name is ’pica pica’ which means 'magpie magpie' (just to make the point). The English name comes from 'mag' short for Margaret, an old slang term for a chattering woman, and pie from pied meaning multi coloured. You will swim with the fishes, though, if you ever call them a noisy old hag.