Friday, December 14, 2012

The Yellow-billed Magpie: Our Endemic Virus-Battling Bereaver


California, due to the virtue of its size and location, is blessed with a number of birds that are difficult to find outside of the state. This helps make it the prime birding location that it is, but that's not all we have. We can also boast not one but TWO true endemics that are neither found in Mexico or any other states. How many other continental states can claim this? Florida, with its own scrub jay? I think that's it.

Yellow-billed Magpie is the endemic of the day, since I haven't seen Island Scrub-Jay in years. Magpies can be found pleasuring birders (strictly visually and audibly, of course) from Santa Barbara County north to Shasta County. Unlike their Black-billed relatives who dwell in the lands of snow and sage, Yellow-billeds are closely tied to low elevation oak woodlands and select agricultural areas.


Although still common in many areas, it is suspected that West Nile Virus has killed off a huge number of these birds, as much as half of their entire population at one point. We can only hope this endemic epidemic does not escalate.


Both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Magpies are known to participate in "funeral behaviors", where members will congregate at the body of a recently deceased bird, preen the deceased's feathers, make a lot of vocalizations and even deposit fresh vegetation next to the corpse. Chimps and elephants are also known for funeral behaviors (which they do differently, of course), but its pretty cool that our humble magpie is known for its expression sessions.


I have no doubt that, if it were able to, a Yellow-billed Magpie would pour out a 40 oz. for a fallen flock member.


It has been extirpated in some parts of its range, but magpies have had a stable population for decades until West Nile arrived in California. Hopefully the remaining birds are more resistant to the virus. The peak of their decline was in 2004-2006; things seem to have mellowed for them in the following years. Think of all the magpie funerals that went down back then...whole flocks must have gone to forage to that Great Oak Tree In The Sky.


All photos were taken on the western edge of Davis, CA.

16 comments:

  1. I love the lemony yellow bill these magpies have but I find the yellow beneath the eye infinitely interesting!

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  2. Great pics as always! Never seen these beautiful friends before. Excited to get my chance this weekend!

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    1. Good luck! If you take Hwy 5 up/down you can get them as flyovers. They don't get too close to the coast.

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  3. Great images Seagull; it's a stunning bird.

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    1. Thanks Laurence, they are good creatures. Nice to see them while I wasnt on the freeway for once.

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  4. Beautiful birds. They almost look comical. Nice shots!

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    1. Thanks Dina! Maybe the sun will be out next time.

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  5. 4th from the top is the best. Why are these guys so awesome? I need. How far from the bay area? How far from the Falcated? (I am going to do this every time you post a bird in cali that I have yet to see between now and the end of January).

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    1. We could prolly fit them in on a Falcated trip. They are between the bay and Falcated.

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    2. Ooh. Awesome. I warned my friend already that we had to go see a duck while I was there. She was like yeah, I figured.

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  6. Beautiful pics of a true California character. You likely know this, but there's a fun story to the naturalist history of this species... A bunch of early explorers/naturalists that came to CA from Europe and the East Coast to collect completely overlooked the species. Menzies, Douglas, Coulter... It wasn't until 1836 that Thomas Nuttall noticed the yellow-bill on an April visit to Santa Barbara. Hence Pica nuttalli.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. That's a funny bird to overlook, I hadnt heard that story. Thanks for the insight RT.

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    3. Perhaps I should clarify - they saw them, but didn't notice the yellow and thus assumed it was Pica hudsonia, which they had seen many times before, and at that time was also thought to be the same as Pica pica, the Euro species. A missed oppty for naming-hungry CA collectors. And a rarity to boot! :)

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  7. "I have no doubt that, if it were able to, a Yellow-billed Magpie would pour out a 40 oz. for a fallen flock member." Love it.
    I started seeing these birds on my runs through Morgan hill. It's a sight to see their bright yellow bills and blue feathers. My favorite.

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