Magpies have lived in
close association with humans for centuries. They are
found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and are a
common bird of tales and superstitions. Magpies and
their many brash behaviors are the basis for the cartoon
characters Heckyl and Jeckyl.
Magpies are members of the
corvid family, which also includes ravens, crows, and
jays. They are easily distinguished from other birds by
their size and striking black and white color pattern.
They have unusually long tails (at least half of their
body length) and short, rounded wings. The feathers of
the tail and wings are iridescent, reflecting a
bronzy-green to purple. They have white bellies and
shoulder patches and their wings flash white in flight.
Like other corvids, they are very vocal, even
boisterous. Typical calls include a whining “maag” and a
series of loud, harsh “chuck” notes. Where magpies are
not harassed, they can be extremely bold. If hunted or
harassed, though, they become elusive and secretive.
Two distinct species are
found in North America, the black-billed and
yellow-billed magpies (Fig. 1). They are easily
separated by bill color, as their names imply, and by
geographic location. Black-billed magpies average 19
inches (47 cm) in length and 1/2 pound (225 g) in
weight. They have black beaks and no eye patches.
Yellow-billed magpies are somewhat smaller (17 inches
[42 cm]) and weigh slightly less than 1/2 pound (225 g).
Their bills and bare skin patches behind their eyes are
Magpies are found in
western North America. Ranges of the two species do not
overlap. Black-billed magpies are found from coastal and
central Alaska to Saskatchewan, south to Texas, and west
to central California, east of the Sierra-Cascade range.
They migrate in winter to lower elevations, and in
northern parts of their range, south to areas within
their breeding range. Occasionally they wander to areas
further east and south of their normal range.
Yellow-billed magpies are
residents of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys of
central California and range south to Santa Barbara
County. They do not wander outside of their normal range
as often as black-billed magpies, but they have been
found in extreme northern California.
Magpies are associated
with the dry, cool climatic regions of North America.
They are typically found close to water in relatively
open areas with scattered trees and thickets. The
black-billed magpie inhabits foothills, ranch and farm
shelterbelts, sagebrush, streamside thickets, parks, and
in Alaska, coastal areas. The yellow-billed magpie
inhabits farmlands, stream groves, and areas with
scattered oaks or tall trees. Their range coincides with
a few species of mistletoe that are often used in
building their nests.
Magpies are omnivorous and
very opportunistic, a characteristic typical of other
corvids. They have a preference for animal matter,
primarily insects, but readily take anything that is
available. Congregations of magpies can commonly be seen
along roadsides feeding on animals killed by cars or in
ripening fruit and nut orchards. They also pick insects
from the backs of large animals and were historically
associated with large herds of bison. Their diet changes
during the year, reflecting the availability of foods
during the different seasons.
The black-billed magpie’s
diet typically consists of over 80% animal matter:
insects, carrion, small mammals, small wild birds,
hatchlings, and eggs. The remainder of its diet consists
of fruits and grains. The yellow-billed magpie’s diet is
about 70% animal matter and 30% fruits, nuts, and
grains. Nestling magpies are fed a diet of mostly animal
matter, primarily insects.
Magpies often store or
cache food items in shallow pits that they dig in the
ground. This behavior is commonly observed in winter,
but can be seen throughout the year.
General Biology, Reproduction, and Behavior
Magpies, like other
corvids, are intelligent birds. They learn quickly and
seem to sense danger. They are boisterous and curious,
but shy and secretive in the presence of danger. They
mimic calls of other birds and can learn to imitate some
human words. They have readily adapted to the presence
of humans and have taken advantage of new food sources
Magpies are gregarious and
form loose flocks throughout the year. Pairs stay
together yearlong, but mates are replaced rapidly if one
is lost. Nest building typically begins in early March
for black-billed magpies and earlier for yellow-billed
magpies. Black-billed magpies build large nests,
sometimes 48 inches (125 cm) high by 40 inches (100 cm)
wide, made of sticks in low bushes or in trees usually
within 25 feet (7.5 m) from the ground. The nest chamber
is a cup lined with grass and mud, and normally enclosed
by a canopy of sticks. Two entrances are common.
Yellow-billed magpies build similar nests, but theirs
often resemble mistletoe clumps, which are common in
trees where they nest. Magpie nests are usually found in
small colonies. Magpies nest once a year, but will
renest if their first attempt fails. Other species of
birds and mammals often use magpie nests after they have
Black-billed magpies lay 6
to 9 eggs, whereas yellow-billed magpies lay 5 to
8. Incubation normally
starts in April, except further north where it may begin
as late as mid-June. The incubation period is 16 to 18
days and young are able to fly 3 to 4 weeks after
hatching. Young forage with the adults and then join
other groups in summer to form loose flocks. Winter
congregations may include more than 50 individuals.
Yellow-billed magpies, though, may form nightly roosts
of 50 or more soon after nesting.
Magpies are not swift
fliers. They elude predators and danger by flitting in
and out of trees or diving into heavy cover. They
usually stay near cover, but often forage in open areas
on the ground. Like other corvids, magpies walk with a
strut and hop quickly when rushed. They are found close
to water, using it for drinking and bathing.
Damage and Damage Identification
Magpies have come into
conflict with humans in North America for quite some
time. Poisons were used extensively in the 1920s and 30s
to resolve serious depredations and livestock predation.
During this time, magpie populations were greatly
suppressed. Today, however, no toxicants are currently
registered and populations have increased. Magpies cause
a variety of problems, especially where their numbers
are high. Most problems occur in localized areas where
loose colonies have concentrated in close proximity to
Magpies can cause
substantial damage locally to crops such as almonds,
cherries, corn, walnuts, melons, grapes, peaches, wheat,
figs, and milo. Their damage is probably greatest in
areas where insects and wild mast are relatively
unavailable. Typically, other birds such as blackbirds
and robins cause more damage to growers in fruit
orchards and grain fields because of their greater
Magpies are often found
near livestock where they feed on dung-and
carrion-associated insects. They also forage for ticks
and other insects on the backs of domestic animals.
Perhaps the most notorious magpie behavior is the
picking of open wounds and scabs on the backs of
livestock. If they find an open wound, such as that from
a new brand, they may pick at it until they create a
much larger wound. The wound may eventually become
infected and, in some instances, may kill the animal.
Magpies, like ravens, may peck the eyes out of newborn
or sick livestock.
Magpies rob wild bird and
poultry nests of eggs and hatchlings. Typically, that
does not affect wild bird populations except in local
areas where limited habitat makes nests easy to find.
They can be very destructive to poultry, however,
especially during the nesting season when magpie parents
are gathering food for their young.
Magpie roosts can be a
nuisance because of excessive noise and the odor
associated with droppings. During winter, magpies may
congregate in loose colonies and form nightly roosts of
hundreds after they have migrated southward and to lower
elevations. They typically roost in dense thickets or
Magpies are protected as
migratory nongame birds under the Federal Migratory Bird
Treaty Act. Under the Federal Codes of Regulation (CFR
50, 21.43) it is stated, however, that “a Federal permit
shall not be required to control . . . magpies, when
found committing or about to commit depredations upon
ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops,
livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in such
numbers as to constitute a health hazard or other
nuisance. . . .” Most state or local regulations are
similar, but consult authorities before taking any
Damage Prevention and Control Methods
generally not feasible to protect crops from magpie
depredation unless crops are of high value or the area
to protect is relatively small. Nylon or plastic mesh
netting can be used to cover crops, but netting is
expensive and labor-intensive, making it uneconomical to
use in most situations. Netting can be used to protect
individual trees and is most appropriate in small areas
where depredation is extreme.
Exclusion is an ideal
method to keep magpies from livestock when it is
economical to do so. Poultry nests and young kept in
fenced coops and feeding areas (maximum 1 1/2-inch
[3.8-cm] mesh) are relatively safe from magpies. Lambing
pens can reduce the incidence of eye pecking. Livestock
with open wounds or diseases can be kept in areas that
exclude magpies until they are healthy.
poultry often increases during magpie breeding season.
Raids of increasing intensity can often be tied to a few
offending breeding pairs with young. Removal of their
nests can effectively reduce predation. If removal takes
place early in the nesting season, magpies may renest,
often in a completely new area.
Clear low brush to reduce
nesting habitat in areas where several black-billed
magpies are regularly concentrated and cause significant
yearly damage. This method reduces habitat for all
wildlife, however, and should be carefully considered
Removing or thinning roost
trees will force magpies to find new roost sites. The
primary factor to consider is the number of trees that
need to be removed to satisfactorily reduce cover so
magpies will relocate. Usually, the removal of only a
few trees will discourage magpies.
devices are effective for reducing magpie depredations
to crops and livestock. Several methods are used to
frighten birds and are explained in greater detail in
the chapter on Bird Dispersal Techniques in this manual.
A combination of human presence, scarecrows,
pyrotechnics (fireworks), and propane cannons provide a
good frightening or hazing program and can reduce
depredations significantly. The cost of using each of
these techniques must be compared to determine the most
effective combination to obtain the greatest
benefit-cost ratio. The success of these devices varies
greatly with location, availability of alternate food
supplies (such as insects and wild mast), and how the
techniques are used.
In a hazing program, the
periodic presence of a person is important because it
reinforces most techniques. The mere presence of a
person will normally keep magpies at a distance,
especially where magpies have been hunted.
Frightening devices such
as scarecrows and other effigies, eye-balloons, hawk
kites, and mylar (reflective) tape are used to deter
magpies. Most are effective for only a short time, but
their effectiveness can be extended by moving them
regularly. The human scarecrow is still one of the most
effective frightening devices. Painted eyes on both
front and back of the head and arms made of flaps that
blow in the wind will increase its effectiveness. Place
scarecrows at regular intervals in the threatened area
(one for every 2 to 10 acres [1 to 4 ha]) along with a
combination of other frightening devices.
Pyrotechnics or fireworks
can be used to repel animals. These explode, whistle, or
scream after being ignited. Typical pyrotechnics are
shellcrackers, rope firecrackers, and racket and whistle
bombs. These can be purchased from suppliers, but some
states require a permit from the state fire marshal.
Shellcrackers are probably the most widely used and are
shot from a 12-gauge shotgun, travel about 75 yards (70
m), and then explode. The 15 mm pistol launcher,
however, is more economical, easier to carry, and allows
reports and whistle and racket bombs to be shot. The
variety seems to be more effective for magpies. The
projectiles travel from 35 to 70 yards (30 to 65 m)
depending on the style. These can be shot whenever
magpies are seen in the damage area, but conservative
use will reduce acclimation. Check state and local laws
Propane cannons fire loud
blasts at timed or random intervals. A variety of styles
are available. Conceal cannons in threatened areas, move
them every 3 to 5 days, and use sparingly to avoid
habituation. For magpies, the blast interval should be
no greater than one every 2 minutes and the interval
should be varied. Shooting a few magpies with a shotgun
and using pyrotechnics will increase the effectiveness
of propane cannons.
chemical repellents are available for magpies.
effective in reducing local magpie populations and
damage where they have concentrated in high numbers
because of food availability or winter conditions.
Several trap designs have been successful in capturing
magpies. Traps made of weathered materials are most
successful, but still require time for magpies to become
accustomed to them. Traps are most effective in areas
frequented by magpies or along their flight paths into
damage areas. Consult federal, state, and local laws
An effective trap design
commonly used for capturing magpies is the modified
Australian crow trap (Fig. 2). This is an inexpensive
decoy trap that becomes more effective after the first
birds (decoys) are caught. The standard measurements in
figure 2 can be modified to facilitate transportation
and storage, but the dimensions of the ladder openings
or slots must remain the same. The trap can also be
built to fit onto a trailer for transporting from one
site to another.
The modified Australian
crow trap has been used effectively in Washington and
Oregon by baiting the trap with a red-colored, dry dog
food. Initially, place dog food on the middle slat of
the ladder until the first magpies are caught. Inside
under the slots, place 10 pounds of dog food and water.
Carrion, such as a chicken carcass or a road-killed
rabbit, can also be used as an attractant. Check the
trap daily, remove all but two magpies, and replace bait
and water as needed. Nontarget birds that are captured
should be immediately released unharmed. This trap can
take several magpies, but it does require some time and
expense to maintain properly.
Another trap design that
has been successful for trapping magpies in Alberta is a
circular-funnel trap (Fig. 3). Prebait the area to be
trapped. After magpies start feeding, place the trap
nearby where they can adjust to it. To attract magpies
into the trap, place a line of bait leading into it.
After the first birds are caught, remove all but one or
two decoys and any remaining prebait. Keep trapping an
area until most magpies are caught and then move the
trap to a new location. This trap is probably not as
efficient as the crow trap for catching large numbers of
birds, but it is not as cumbersome and may be more
effective at trapping magpies prone to feeding on the
Padded-jaw pole traps can
also be used to take a few offending magpies. These are
leghold traps, No. 0 or 1 coil or jump spring, placed on
5- to 10-foot poles that are erected in threatened areas
(Fig. 4). They can also be placed on routinely used
perches. Traps do not have to be covered. The jaws need
to be well padded with foam rubber or cloth and wrapped
with electrician’s tape to allow the leg to be snugly
caught without breaking it. Run a heavy-gauge wire
through the trap chain ring and staple the wire to the
top and bottom of the post, allowing magpies to slide to
the ground and rest. Both sides of the trap should be
anchored with fine wire or thread to give the trap some
stability. Other perches that cannot have traps placed
on them should be removed or covered with tack board or
porcupine wire to prevent magpies from landing. Traps
must be monitored frequently and placed in areas where
nontarget capture is highly unlikely. Be sure to check
all laws regarding the use of pole traps.
Fig. 2. Modified
Australian crow trap for magpies: a) entrance ladder
(top view); b) side panel; c) top panel; d) end panel
with door; and e) assembled trap. Materials Needed:
28 8 foot, 2 x 2-inch
Cut these into:
12, 8 feet; 10, 6 feet; 4,
4 feet; 4, 34 inches; 6,
30 inches; 2, 22 inches;
17, 12 inches
1 8 foot, 1 x 6-inch board
56 feet of 4-foot-high, 1 x 2-inch wire mesh 24 4 1/2
inch bolts with wing nuts and 2 washers
2 small door hinges
1 door hook latch or
3 1/2 inch nails, staples,
Construct the entrance
ladder. Cover both ends with wire-mesh pieces 7 x 16
inches. Make two side, top, and end panels. One end
panel is constructed with a support beam in the center
(as pictured in the assembled trap) and the other with a
door. Cut and tightly staple wire mesh to the inside
walls. Cut or file any sharp projections that will
protrude into the cage. Assemble the trap, holding it
together with baling wire. Drill 10 holes in the end
panels (shown in d) and through the adjacent panels. Put
bolts through these holes with washers on both sides and
secure with wing nuts. The side panels and entrance
ladder can be snugly held to the top panels with haywire
Fig. 3. Circular-funnel
magpie trap: a) assembled trap; b) wire mesh cut for
funnel; c) shaped funnel. Materials Needed:
1/4-inch reinforcing rod 12 2/3 feet long 1
1 2 foot 6 inches x 12
foot 8 inches piece of 1-inch welded-wire mesh
2 2 foot 6 inches x 4 foot
wire mesh (cut to fit top) 1
1 2 foot 6 inches x 3 foot
6 inches wire mesh (cut and tapered for funnel)
3 stakes about 10 inches
long with ‘U-shaped’ heads
Bend the 1/4-inch rod in a
circle and weld. Attach the 12-foot 8-inch wire mesh
piece to the rod with haywire and crimp the ends of the
wire mesh around the rod. Cut out the funnel, shape, and
attach to the ground-side, inside wall with haywire. Cut
out the wall according to the size of the tunnel
opening. Cut out the rectangular opening (12 x 16
inches) on three sides opposite the funnel, but leave
the fourth side as a hinge for a door to remove magpies.
If light-gauge wire is used, an additional reinforcing
rod around the top and on the sides may be needed to
make the trap sturdy. Cut out the top and attach. Stake
down the trap in the area to be trapped.
Fig. 4. Padded-jaw pole trap.
Shooting can be
an effective means to eliminate a few offending magpies
or to reduce a local population. Shotguns are
recommended for shooting. Magpies can be stalked or shot
from blinds under flight paths. They also can be lured
with predator calls. Magpies, though, quickly become
wary and learn to avoid hunters. Shooting in conjunction
with a hazing program provides greater control of damage
than does shooting alone. Consult local, state, and
federal laws on shooting.
Economics of Damage and Control
Magpies benefit agricultural producers by consuming
thousands of insects and by scavenging, but they can
also have a negative local impact that can turn severe.
Losses are greatest where nesting magpies are in close
proximity to poultry producers or concentrated in
numbers that constitute a problem. Damage may increase
dramatically when wild mast and insects are relatively
Each producer in the range
of magpies should develop a management plan before
magpies become a problem. Preparedness enhances the
success in decreasing depredation. The cost of the
different options for control should be weighed and
compared with the success in controlling the problem.
Long-term solutions should be implemented wherever
possible, but be prepared to take remedial control
measures when necessary. Prior to the depredation
season, an estimate of the magpie population and the
availability of alternate food sources should be
determined to make preparations accordingly.
I thank Mike Dorrance
(Alberta Agric., Edmonton), Michael Pitzler
(USDA-APHIS-ADC, Washington), Edward Shafer
(USDA-APHIS-ADC, Denver Wildlife Research Center), and
the authors of the articles used to gather the
information. I would also like to thank the reviewers
for their comments, especially Alan Foster
(USDA-APHIS-ADC, Colorado) who provided a detailed
review of this article.
Figure 1 by the author.
Figures 3 and 5 courtesy
of US Dep. Agric.
Figure 4 courtesy of
For Additional Information
Alberta Agriculture. 1983. An improved magpie trap.
Alberta Agric. Print Media Branch. Agdex 685-3. 3 pp.
Bent, A. C. 1964. Life
histories of North American jays, crows and titmice.
Dover Pub., Inc., New York. 495 pp.
Birkhead, T. R. 1991. The
magpie: the ecology and behavior of black-billed and
yellow-billed magpies. Poyser Popular Bird Books,
Academy Press. 300 pp.
Kalmbach, E. R. 1927. The
magpie in relation to agriculture. US Dep. Agric. Tech.
Bull. 24. Washington DC. 29 pp.
Kalmbach, E. R. 1944.
Local control of magpies through destroying nests and
roosts and through trapping. US Fish Wildl. Serv. Wildl.
Leaflet 252. 4 pp.
Linsdale, J. M. 1937. The
natural history of magpies. Pacific Coast Avifauna No.
25. Cooper Ornith. Club Publ., Calif. 234 pp.
McAtee, W. L. 1933.
Protecting poultry from predacious birds. US Dep. Agric.
Leaflet 96. 6 pp.
Scott E. Hygnstrom Robert
M. Timm Gary E. Larson
PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF
WILDLIFE DAMAGE — 1994
Division Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of Nebraska -Lincoln
United States Department
of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service Animal Damage Control
Great Plains Agricultural
Council Wildlife Committee