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Garden Birds: Are Magpies Really Bad?

One For Sorrow

The magpie actually finds most of its food on the ground, and only rarely raids nests.
The magpie actually finds most of its food on the ground, and only rarely raids nests. | Source

Background

If you are reading this article, you probably already have an opinion on the matter of magpies. Magpies polarise opinion, black or white. If you're on the black side, you may want to have them culled- or even get rid of them yourself. If you're white, you probably harbour a secret admiration for them. If you're in the latter camp, confess it only in your own home, with the door locked.

Magpies excite a remarkable degree of hatred and to an extent it is earned. They are regular killers of the eggs and chicks of some small birds in the garden. They appear to go about their grim business with a certain ruthlessness, and frequently perform their worst in front of horrified householders' eyes. Gardens with resident magpies can appear to have a lower population of birds than gardens without, and the impression gained is that they terrorise the smaller birds into going elsewhere, either in the breeding season or during the winter. If this observation is true then they must be a widespread menace, in part responsible for the widely perceived- and largely real- reduction in small bird populations over the last ten or twenty years. That is the case for the prosecution.

In defending the magpie, one must first hear its confession with an open mind. This is an open and shut case, with only mitigation, not acquittal, as in outcome. Nobody pretends that it leaves other birds alone and wishes them well, it doesn't. It's a bird that has adapted very well to the garden environment, and includes small birds and eggs among its summer diet. The evidence is incontrovertible. Only the wider implications can be open to question.

Have you ever been given a ticket for speeding? If you have, you will probably be satisfied in your mind that you were unlucky to get it. Most of the time you are convinced that you drive as carefully as you can, generally within the speed limit. You are much better than many others. Now that you have been convicted you will have a criminal record, of course, but you are not a criminal.

A Visible Raider

Magpies are perhaps the most visible of the many garden creatures which will take nestling birds.
Magpies are perhaps the most visible of the many garden creatures which will take nestling birds. | Source

Ground Force

If you were then told the magpie spends most of its time in laudable activities such as eating insects and removing corpses from roads, what would you say to that? Over the course of a year some seventy per cent of its foraging is ground-based, and on the ground it is unlikely to come across any offending balls of feathers that it might rip apart. Another percentage of time is spent higher up in trees, where it is still not threatening to its smaller neighbours. The destruction of junior birds, real though it is, is a fringe activity, undertaken for a very short period each season. For the rest of the year, magpies are not in the business of attacking and killing adult birds, because for the most part the smaller birds are too quick for them to catch. The occasional murders do happen but they are rare, if unpleasant, events.

It should also be said that magpies, if you could ever class them as 'criminals,' are very poor ones. They almost always get caught, especially since they target nests and make the owners very distressed and noisy. If magpies are raiding nests in your garden, the chances are you will either see them doing it or strongly suspect them of it. But for every magpie raid, there are other, more subversive ones happening elsewhere. Cats are abundant, dangerous and clandestine killers. Squirrels, rats, weasels and great spotted woodpeckers are all quieter, and lethal in their secrecy.

And what of the charge that magpies reduce songbird numbers in the neighbourhood? Well, if you wish to be empirical about it; when a magpie kills a brood of songbirds, of course it reduces their numbers. But aside from that, many other factors are always working in bird populations at the same time. If populations are declining, it is usually for a variety of reasons. It could be increasing conurbation in the area, more pollution, a greater use of herbicides, or even a natural fall in numbers caused by bad weather conditions in previous months. It could be disease, too. Bird populations are very complex indeed, and are always hard to understand.

In Flight

Magpies are easy to identify in flight, chiefly by the white bands on its wings.
Magpies are easy to identify in flight, chiefly by the white bands on its wings. | Source

When The Hunter Becomes The Hunted

A More Complex Picture

The garden too, is in itself partly to blame. We all spend a lot of time how wonderful they are, but gardens themselves are seldom the top, prime habitat for birds. For example, when blue tits are breeding in healthy woodland they lay an average of about eleven eggs; in the garden, however, where food is much harder to come by, they tend to lay only six or seven. Another problem with gardens is their layout. Most are not substantially overgrown, and their hedges and borders are neatly trimmed. They make rather easy places in which to find nests, even for you and I, so it's not surprising that magpies and other predators can do so too.

So, bearing in mind that bird numbers are delicate and impenetrable things to understand, what of the charge that magpies have affected the bird population at large? This is the only charge that could be used to justify a cull.

What we must do at first is to cut out our own experience of magpies, and allow the scientists free rein. It is extremely easy to see a magpie take the nestling blackbirds from our garden and extrapolate our observation to the whole country. Yes, a magpie has killed birds in my garden- but does that mean it's happening everywhere else? Perhaps you have a stomach ache; perhaps several of your friends have a stomach ache. Does that mean that the whole of Britain's population has been similarly stricken?

There is also a danger in putting two and two together to make five. In recent years there has been a sudden drop in the national population of song thrushes, and at the same time a rise in the number of magpies in gardens. It's tempting to make the link, especially because we know that the latter sometimes prey on the former. However, the link is not necessarily valid. In recent years the number of people killed in road accidents has fallen, while the number of cars on the road has increased. Does that mean we should increase the number of cars to cut road deaths?

As it happens, the decline in song thrushes probably has rather little to do with magpies. The main problem for the thrush seems to be adult mortality, not nestling or fledgling losses, which puts magpies out of the picture completely. For the moment, in the light of reasonable evidence, no link between the magpie and any other songbird population has been proven. The overall case against the magpie, as a decimator of bird populations, is distinctly tenuous.

Of course, if you hate magpies, you'll not care about the scientific argument. That is your choice. If you see a magpie raid and are upset by it, you are being gloriously and unashamedly emotional. Without our emotions we would not feed birds, and put up nest-boxes, and put money and effort into our wild neighbours' welfare. In the end, all the magpie business really shows is actually something very uplifting- that we care.

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Are Magpies Really Bad

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© 2014 James Kenny

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Comments 5 comments

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

I enjoyed your rational arguments in their defense, particularly the one that causes us to recall incidents of speeding (yet not self-identifying as a criminal or as one who deserved the ticket). To me, they are just doing what they do -- no evil intended. But then they don't visit my garden.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

Thank you for this hub ;I have learnt so much more about these beautiful birds.

Voted up and shared.

Eddy.


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 2 years ago

I was reading this article because I love all birds. I did not have an opinion about Magpies because I did not know they were from the UK. I am in the US. You have done a great job explaining them JKenny. I totally understand your views since we have birds that earn 'opinions' over here too. Thumbs up and I shared it.

Kevin


Ann1Az2 profile image

Ann1Az2 2 years ago from Orange, Texas

What a beautiful bird! I enjoyed reading about it. Of course, if they kill smaller birds, I can see why they are not popular. We have a similar situation here with Bluejays. They are also pretty birds, but aggressive toward other birds.

Voted up!


annart profile image

annart 13 months ago from SW England

I've never been too keen on magpies although they're pretty but I know, like crows, they have 'wakes'. You've given us some facts to contemplate here. I was brought up with the rhyme, 'One for sorrow....'etc.

I've read a few of your series on birds and they're all great; your research is always so thorough (as it is on your historical hubs too).

Haven't seen anything new from you for a while so I hope you're still active here.

All the best,

Ann

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