Foam Lake Birding No. 134


No. 134

            One good thing about the winter is that there are far fewer different species of birds around than in the summer which allows us to get more familiar with the birds that we do have.   In fact, this is the key to becoming a knowledgeable birder.  When one becomes very familiar with the "common" birds then, when a strange bird appears, it is instantly noticed as being different.  After that, it is simply a matter of recording field marks and referring to a bird book for identification.  If the bird vocalizes it makes identification all the easier. 

            This week's featured bird really does not need any lengthy description as everybody, and I mean everybody, knows it on sight.  The Black Billed Magpie, or simply Magpie to us, is one of only a few tropical looking birds that one can see locally.  The sharply contrasting colours and very long tail really do make the magpie stand out as something special, although, most people do not look at it in that way.  In addition,  its blue-green reflections in good light definitely make it look very exotic.  Just think about it, there are only four long tailed birds in all of North America and only one in Canada.  In my humble opinion this definitely qualifies it as extraordinary.  One of the other long tailed birds, a very close cousin of the Black Billed Magpie, is the Yellow Billed Magpie of north central California in the Santa Barbara region.  The two birds are almost identical save for the colour of the bills.  As in all corvids (crow family) the males and females are the same. 

            The Magpie's nest is a rather large affair, often reused, made of coarse sticks stuck together with mud and grass.  The nest is remarkable in that it is one of only a few that has a roof over it which provides good protection from the weather. 

            The magpie has a rather interesting history.  Being a bird of the plains that needs trees in which to build nests it is not found in deep forests only in prairie areas with good stands of poplar bluffs or in trees along waterways (riparian forests).  Prior to European settlement, magpies followed buffalo herds, but when the buffalo were almost exterminated the magpie retreated from the Canadian prairies to the USA.  However, with the introduction of cattle the magpie returned.  Another bird, the Prairie Chicken, did much the same but left Canada completely when grain was no longer threshed but combined. 

            Although magpies are common getting a picture of one is not easy.  Ask anybody who has tried to shoot one.  The only places where it is relatively easy to get good photos of a stationery magpie is in a nature preserve or in the city where the birds are more confiding.  This week's photo was taken in Calgary and even so with some difficulty.  Just as I would get one in focus in my camera it would move to a different location, until  finally, one landed on the roof our daughter's house where it stayed put long enough for me to get some good pictures.