Yellow-billed Magpie

California Oak Woodland

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.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.

 

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

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%.

Yellow-billed Magpie. Photo courtesy 10000birds.com

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.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

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.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

Range Map for Yellow-billed Magpie

Range map for Yellow-billed Magpie. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

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93 thoughts on “Yellow-billed Magpie

  1. Thanks for the introduction to this beautiful bird (well, they’re both beautiful).

    I was also surprised to learn that the West Nile Virus has hurt the population so much; I suppose it stands to reason that birds would be hit, as well.

    I’m at the northern end of the Central Valley now, but with the nasty weather we’re putting up with, I won’t be rushing out to search for these gorgeous beings. I’ll have to make do with the stunning pictures!

    • Oh how nice that you’re in the Central Valley, Leah. Yes, when the weather gets better, you might want to go see one of these beautiful yellow-billed magpies for yourself. You can probably look up the local Audubon’s website and there’ll probably be mention of it. Many thanks for your kind message today.

      • I’ll have to leave that idea for another visit. We only have another couple of days here, and the weather isn’t really going to cooperate!

  2. Pingback: Yellow-billed Magpie — Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

  3. I’m familiar with the black-billed but I’d love to make acquaintance with the beautiful yellow-billed someday. I’m glad they’re making a comeback of sorts. Thank you for another illuminating post!

    • Yes, the black-billed magpies are far more prevalent across the western U.S. I’m glad you have seen them, Walt, and I hope you do make the acquaintance with the yellow-billed. My warmest thanks for your visit, always a treat.

  4. So much of Mother Nature has been hurt or injured to the point of extinction due to mankind’s unthinking and uncaring greed. I hope this beautiful bird continues to recover its numbers. Just like the Monarch the species took a huge hit but with time and hopefully people who care, this bird will be seen in numerous numbers again. Thank you, Jet, for another educational post.

    • It’s true, Amy, many people have rallied to save this bird. The bird’s demise was multiple hits, and the West Nile Virus was the hardest hitter. Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks so much.

  5. Very interesting post. Must have been an elated moment when you saw the Yellow-billed Magpie after so many years absence. The effect of the sun light reflecting on their feathers I have seen it happen with the cowbirds too. Years ago I was confused and thought, the blueish-turquoise were different species compared to the black ones! When the sun is bright and perpendicular to the black feathers, they turn color. If you observe any feathers closely, you will find what masterpiece of engineering they are. Thank you my friend. 🙂

    • Yes, HJ, you can imagine how elated we were when those three yellow-billed magpies cruised by. We were right outside a farmhouse and oh my goodness, what a sight we must’ve been! And you summed up the mystery and beauty of feathers so well, they are indeed a “masterpiece of engineering.” My warmest thanks for your visit and thoughtful comment, dear friend.

    • I imagined you would have plenty of the black-billed magpies, montucky, but I appreciate hearing it, confirmation. I’m glad I could share the yellow-billed with you here today, thanks so much for your visit.

  6. Some (strange) people don’t like magpies but I am not one of them. My mother always used to say “Good morning Mr Magpie” when she spotted one – obviously not the yellow billed variety – a reckoned it was unlucky not to greet them. For myself, my best memory of our local magpies was when standing just outside our back door and a pair of them were behind me on a wall just a metre or two away when they both let out their machine-gun like repeated squawks. I jumped out of my skin – they are so loud at close quarters.
    I think they are wonderful birds and it is so good to hear that the yellow billed variety is making a come-back to California. You were lucky to spot them and thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Oh how I enjoyed your comment Alastair. I giggled at the parenthetical “strange,” in reference to those who like magpies. And then enjoyed hearing how your mother would greet them. And I laughed out loud at your memory of them, and jumping out of your skin. Yes, they are very loud. And for a sound man like you, who is sensitive to so many sounds, I can imagine how grating their raucous squawking can be. Glad you could share in our enjoyment of spotting them. And as always, really delightful to hear from you.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed hearing about our experience with the yellow-billed magpie, Sherry. Glad to hear you’re reading about the ravens, too. Ravens are one of my very favorite birds, and such a delight to have on this planet. So smart and beautiful. We have a pair of ravens here on our property who have been doing that flip-flying thing in the winds lately, they flip onto their back as they soar by. Then they make a rattling sound. Magnificent. Happy reading to you! Thanks for your visit today.

    • I so enjoy your versed comments, David, today you have me smiling as I write. Thank you for your thoughtful words, and encouragement and understanding. What a joy to share the magpie experience with you.

  7. What fabulous news! As I was reading my heart kept sinking as the hopes for the unique yellow fellows faded. I am smiling thinking of the birds listening to you and Athena and then as a surprise party they arrived to see your reaction. I hope the next time you go to the area hundreds more arrive for the celebration.

    • Sometimes it does feel like the birds are playing tricks and games on us, as we lose all dignity chasing them down. lol. Your comment got me chuckling, Sue, thinking about the surprise party the magpies concocted. And you know that we will always return to that farmhouse with the row of oaks, hoping to see them there again. I hope the owner doesn’t misinterpret our intentions. So happy you enjoyed the magpie caper, Sue.

  8. What is “pure joy” is to picture you and Athena slamming on the brakes, hopping out of the car with all your gear, and wildly running to the oak trees to revel with the resilient, rowdy magpies. ;>)

    • Oh how I loved your picturing us chasing the magpies, dear Nan. It was quite a scene for a rural back road. We were already filled to the brim with delight having spotted so many cranes the day before, and this discovery just sent us to the moon. Another pure joy to share it with you. Thank you.

  9. I’ve never seen a magpie of any sort. When I lived in their territory, I wasn’t interested, and they’re not interested in living in Texas! So, it’s especially delightful to read of your encounters with them, and to know that you had the experience of seeing the yellow-billed again after a significant absence. What I do know is that “slamming on the brakes” experience. It’s often paired with the expression, “What in the world is that?

    Reading about the magpies, I laughed at the inclusion of ” idle songbird chatter” in the description of their calls. That’s a wonderful phrase, and a perfect way to describe much of what I hear in the woods and prairies.

    • I see by the range maps that TX doesn’t have either the yellow- or black-billed magpies, so that explains why you haven’t seen them there. This surprised me because TX is loaded with so many species of birds. So I am glad I could share the magpies with you here, Linda. And I love it that you looked them up. My warmest thanks to you for your visit today.

  10. Wonderful post and photos and I smiled at the image of you two birding veterans wildly running with excitement to the oak trees! I have experienced that excitement now and it’s wonderful to read it never goes away. Thanks for sharing their history and recovery and hopefully there will be many more roadside sightings.

  11. I hadn’t heard of the yellow-billed ones either. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to capture a good photo of a regular (black-billed) magpie, but they are wary and don’t sit still for long. I love their iridescent blacky-blue feathers.

  12. Thank you for sharing this beautiful bird, Jet! I have never heard of them before, and it is terrible to learn that they have been at the brink of extinction. Hope the efforts to restore their population will work. Imagine how excited you were to see them after all those years.

  13. Thank you Jet for this amazing post about the yellow billed magpie. As amateur and novice birdwatchers we are always excited to see your posts as we always learn so much and enjoy the photos and the explanations. Love the inclusion of the bird call as well, as a necessary added dimension.

    And so great to see that this bird is making a comeback. The steady drum of bad news about disappearing species of wildlife is so loud that reading a post about a possible turn around, is heartwarming indeed.

    Love the delicate tail and beauty of this bird in flight and of course the colour feature is just astounding. Thank you so much for sharing and do keep them coming!! We are big fans.

    Peta

    • Such a lovely and encouraging comment, Peta. I am delighted to hear you and Ben glean bird information from my posts. You visit and reside in such beautiful tropical venues where birds like to be, it’s great that you’re taking an avian interest. My warmest thanks.

    • Yes, we are good scanners, and two sets of eyes with a specific species in mind works wonders. We were so happy about that finding, and happy we could share it. Thanks for taking an interest, Helen.

  14. Oh yes, hoping for recovery! As if we didn’t already provide enough obstacles to our wonderful feathered friends! Thank you for including their call. What a delight it must have been to finally spot the three!

  15. Hey Jet! YAY!!!! I’m so happy they returned. You almost made me cry when I thought they’d been wiped out. What a gorgeous bird! I’ve never seen one. Didn’t even know they existed. Thank You, Cheers and it must be said again…..YAY!!! 🙂

  16. Good grief! I may have created some carpal tunnel just to get down here to let you know you’ve done it again – a new beauty of which I was unaware! Such beautiful markings and enjoyable sounds!! Thanks!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed learning about the yellow-billed magpie. Seeing those three, for the first time in years, was so gratifying. I, too, hope we see many many more. Thanks so much, John.

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