Niwot’s Neighbors: Magpies

Violet Oliver, Columnist

In the late weeks of November, it is not uncommon to see black-billed magpies on fence posts or in cornfields around dawn or dusk. Although unassuming with their black-and-white plumage, these birds have gained a reputation for their colorful personalities and clever trickery. 


Magpies are Corvids, relatives of crows and ravens, a family of birds known for their brains. Indeed, magpies have demonstrated their intelligence to scientists quite well. They have aced the mirror test, a benchmark test for consciousness, by being able to recognize themselves in the reflection of a mirror. Magpies use tools for obtaining food, and have also been known to use self-made utensils to portion food for their young. 


Their smarts are not limited to the bare necessities of survival. These birds are hopeless romantics and have been known to mate for life, although “divorces” have been reported among flocks. When a bird dies, magpies have been known to host “funerals”, forming a huddle around the dead bird and squawking in grief. 


Perhaps their most surprising achievement of all is the magpie’s ability to imitate human speech, much like parrots of the tropics. One magpie named Jake, living on Second Avenue in Niwot, was even able to learn a few swear words from his owner. Whenever a hunter would shoot at birds, Jake would scream curse words at his persecutors – he never got shot. 


The moral of the story? Never underestimate a magpie. While they may look ordinary, these birds certainly know how to pack a punch.