Magpies Begin Courtship Early

Although park staff try, as a rule, not to anthropomorphize about wildlife, Valentine week of 2003 tidbit was unabashedly romantic in tone.

The park's headquarters conference room is not a place normally associated with flirting, but it featured a bird's eye view of the pair bond being established between two black billed magpies (Pica pica). These handsome black and white birds with long tails (body length about 19 inches; tail length about eight inches) often catch the eye of visitors from further east where magpies don't occur.

The species is a year-round resident of the park's montane zone. Reference books describe them as nesting from March to June. However, these magpies did not read the book as they began courting during the mild days of January. The unusually warm weather (highs in the 50's) during the that month may explain their behavior. Or perhaps the fact that this couple used a nest they occupied the previous year put them in the mood early.

The nest, a dense pile of sticks 18 inches wide and 24 inches deep, was in an alder tree about two feet from the building. The birds were very conspicuous as they perched near the window, twitching their tails and making cack, cack calls. In mid-January the presumed female sat in the middle of the nest clucking quietly while her partner circled solitiously nearby. Every now and then she cast an endearing peck in his direction. A third magpie, likely an offspring from the previous year, was repeatedly chased away and told to get a job and find his own apartment.

Snow and colder temperatures didn't seem to dampen the pair's ardour. The park's research administrator reported that the birds were running under cars and squealing when she arrived at work. Hopefully the birds "cooled it" and delayed egg laying until much later in the spring, while continuing to provide an interesting diversion to anyone attending a meeting.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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