I started birding in the 1990s, and there were always places we could reliably find the yellow-billed magpie. They like the oak trees in California’s Central Valley, and could easily be found in oak woodlands and pastures. As non-migratory birds, they don’t stray far from their communal roosting spots.
We have 673 bird species in California. Only two are endemic, i.e. unique to California. This bird is one of the two endemics. It occurs nowhere else in the world. (Island Scrubjay is the other). Range map below.
A large bird in the Corvidae family, Pica nutalli make a splashy appearance with a tail longer than its body, and a bright yellow bill. Their black and white markings exhibit a flashing effect in flight. In addition, when they perch just right in the sunlight, the light changes their black wings to turquoise.
The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.
The magpies are raucous, much like their cousins the crows and jays–squawk a lot. They are easy to spot because of their big size, flashy colors, and vocal presence. Click here to listen to one.
But then in 2003 a mosquito-transmitted disease, the West Nile Virus, struck the North American corvid family and other bird species too. Humans and horses were also victims. (One percent of humans develop severe symptoms.)
Many birds suffered a precipitous decline, especially in the years 2004-2006. The yellow-billed magpie population fell by 49%.
After a few years, some bird species made a comeback, built immunity. But others, including the yellow-billed magpie, continued to decline.
For years whenever we were in the Central Valley, we repeatedly returned to the same oaks with hopes of finding our old friends the yellow-billed magpies. But there were none.
You can imagine the plethora of scientific studies and surveys that were conducted for this unique, endemic bird. There were heightened efforts to understand and turn around the decline of this rapidly disappearing bird; they still continue today. Their conservation status is listed as Vulnerable, some say it should be Endangered.
Last month, while birding in the Central Valley, we did our usual cruising around the oaks looking for the yellow-billed magpies where we formerly saw them. We have been doing this every year, to no avail, since the early 2000s.
And guess what?
Three flew into the oak tree just as we were driving by. They only stayed for about five minutes, but it was enough time to slam on the brakes, hop out of the car with all our gear, and go wildly running to the oak trees.
It was pure joy to see this rowdy bird again. They flew in as if nothing had ever happened.
A showy bird, found only in California, one that can change colors from black to turquoise merely by standing in the sun. Add to their remarkableness, their declining population is making a recovery.
That’s an incredible bird. Now let’s just hope they can continue recovery.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.