As spring gradually overcomes winters chilly grip, one of the first vermin species to pair off and start to prepare for breeding is the magpie. Having spent the harshest of winters weather scavenging in groups (the largest I have ever seen comprised eighteen birds) this normally territorial corvid gets all romantic around Valentines Day as the groups divide into pairs. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed any courtship display in magpies. They just seem to end up with each other, cackling or complaining like a pair of partners in an ‘EastEnders’ script and just as ugly in their habits.
Nest building often starts while the trees are barely budding and so the construction project can often be easily viewed … and it’s well worth watching to the end. The magpies nest is a work of art involving hundreds and hundreds of trips to the woodland floor to collect dead twigs for the main body of the nest. Then the pair collect lining material such as mud, horse hair, lambs fleece, moss and leaves. Finally they source living, pliant twigs from tree-tops which they wrestle off with their strong, sharp beaks. These are used to weave a roof over the nest with an entrance, sometimes two. Amazing, genetically inherited design and construction. The result is a fortress nestling at least fifteen feet (often much higher) off the ground and impenetrable to all but the most agile of egg predators … such as the squirrel or the jackdaw.
That breeding strategy, too, is an evolutionary master-stroke, which prompts an interesting point. I own over thirty bird books, some written at the turn of the last century and only a couple mention that the magpie breeds from March onwards. The rest say ‘April to June’, which is an important error or oversight. In my experience … and my experience in culling magpies is considerable … they mostly lay in the early weeks of March. This gives them and their brood a few weeks head-start on their prey. For the magpie (though birders and their charities try to either ignore or deny it) is a master at locating other birds nests and raiding both eggs and chicks to feed their own young. Their huge advantage is their vigilance and intelligence. Like most corvids, they have the ability to ‘reason’. They watch the comings and goings of other species and quickly deduce where their nests are, usually raiding while the adult birds are away from the nest, such is their cunning. Magpies are particularly adept at following ground nesting species to the nest from above, hence the attention from gamekeepers and shooters like me. Once found, a nest will be plundered to extinction whether blackcap, blackbird or black-cock.
Of course, the magpie is a useful natural cleaner. A little British vulture, picking clean the bones of road-kill victims and (like the carrion crow) clearing the detritus from farm and field. The placental waste from the birth of calf and lamb. The dead rats left on the midden pile. The remains of the sparrowhawk or fox kill. What a pity it doesn’t stop there. Over the years (in my books) I have recalled several unusual encounters with magpies. Culling a mother and two young who were eating an old cow alive, stripping the raw meat from her tail abscess. A three year stalk of an old magpie matriarch. Meetings with a tail-less magpie that bobbed along like a jay but survived my gun and (I’m guessing) the cat or fox that took the tail?
Like all Natures creatures, the magpie must have a purpose. Yet, like the brown rat, that purpose seems self sufficient and antagonistic. Like the brown rat, the grey squirrel and the woodpigeon, the magpie has naturally taken the opportunity to expand its presence in the absence of resistance. Which is where songbird lovers and shooting conservationists like me come in. Because conservation isn’t about saving every living thing. It’s about ensuring balance.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015