July 8, 2006
With all the nature trails in Utah, and especially in Summit County, it’s difficult not to notice the local wildlife we share our hikes and bike rides with. I’ve all but fallen off my bike more than once to trying to avoid a prairie dog scurrying across the Rail Trail. Numerous bird species have made themselves at home near the streams and trails too.
Others, mainly black-billed magpies, find themselves living comfortably near housing and condo developments throughout Park City and the rest of Utah. Feasting on cookout throwaways and other discarded human food, the magpies won’t hesitate to perch themselves on your back porch while you try to enjoy a nice Sunday brunch.
Black-billed magpies are everywhere, and because most of the time they can be found near dumpsters and road kill, many people have taken a disliking to these creatures. Some Parkites like to refer to these birds as "rats with wings" while tourists from the eastern part of the country marvel at their beauty. It seems everyone has an opinion about magpies.
"They’re quite attractive birds," said Rich Hendron, senior biologist at the Hoogle Zoo. "They’re basically western birds." Aside from Utah, magpies can also be found in Eurasia and western North America including Texas and Arizona, he said. He added that the birds can be anywhere from 17.5 to 22 inches long.
Hendron pointed out that the birds are actually dark blue, not black when you take a closer look. Their stunning size and colors draw an appreciation from out-of-towners.
"I thought they were cool because I hadn’t seen them before," said Lyle Newcomb, a Park City resident of three years who moved to Utah from the East Coast.
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"Now, they’re loud," he said, having become accustomed to the birds. "I see them at the dumpster a lot."
Hendron acknowledged the birds’ foraging nature and insisted that they do good for the environment. They are scavengers, he said. "[The birds] are a good thing to help keep the world clean for us," he said.
National Geographic’s Web site, http://www.nationalgeographic.com, indicates that the magpie’s diet consists mostly of small rodents and insects. Hendron noted that the birds will sometimes go after small cats as well.
Part of the corvid family of birds, black-billed magpies are related to crows, ravens and yellow-billed magpies that can be found in other parts of the country.
Black-billed magpies live in open woodlands, savannas and streamside growth, reports National Geographic. They usually lay six to nine eggs at a time in dome-shaped nests.
Often the birds nest individually, but they can also be found in "loose colonies," reports National Geographic.
"They’re actually very intelligent birds," said Hendron. He noted that black-billed magpies, like parrots, can learn to mimic a human voice. At the Hoogle Zoo, they train magpies to sit on handlers’ hands, he said.
Magpies have also tasted a bit of fame in the past. In the late 1940s, animator Paul Terry created two magpies named Heckle and Jeckle. The two birds became stars on their own cartoon series, and they also appeared on episodes of "The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse" in later years.
On a more serious note, real-life magpies are susceptible to diseases including the Avian Flu and the West Nile virus.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) reports on its Web site, http://www.wildlife.utah.gov, that in 2004 a magpie was found to be infected with the West Nile virus in Grand County. The DWR also provides suggestions for people who come across dead birds, magpies or otherwise. Most importantly, the DWR cautions people to contact the nearest Division of Wildlife Resources either by phone or online.
No magpies have been found to have the Avian Flu in Utah.
Though people my harbor negative feelings toward the black-billed magpies seen scavenging around Park City, the birds are relatively harmless and actually do some good by cleaning up the environment.
"I kind of like magpies. They’re fun," said Hendron.