Tom Ross: Magpies rule my neighborhood
December 7, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Can you imagine how sassy magpies would be if they could talk smack? It's not out of the question; there's a reason some folks in Northwest Colorado refer to magpies as timber parrots.
Even when they aren't speaking English, the fact that they are gossiping among themselves is unmistakable. And their tone sounds darned insulting.
I did some research after hearing my parents relate that they knew of a captive talking magpie while growing up in the Ochoco Valley of Central Oregon. I searched YouTube and found a video of a magpie in Australia that repeated the phrase, "What choo want?" again and again, as well as another video of a British magpie saying "Hello."
I'm happy to report that I was unable to find any video clips of Colorado magpies saying, "Broncos stink!" or "Eat my dust!"
The reason I have magpies on my birdbrain this week is that I spent part of Saturday morning watching a trio of timber parrots eating our expensive bird food. We spent $9 for 8 pounds of birdseed mix that includes dried cherries, cranberries and blueberries.
The manufacturer strongly suggests that dried fruit and sunflower seeds help attract desirable bird species like woodpeckers and nuthatches. I sprinkled a little on my granola and it wasn't half bad.
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To be clear, we purchased a bird feeder that has proven successful at discouraging magpies. And we were cautioned that it can take as many as several weeks before desirable birds find a new feeding station.
Just as advertised, the magpies have been unable to land on our new birdfeeder. But in an anxious moment we sprinkled some of the good stuff on the deck rail to see if it would bring in a downy woodpecker. The magpies swooped in and danced the dirty bird on my deck.
I don't know why I'm antagonistic toward magpies — they're actually kind of beautiful, with coloration that vaguely evokes flying killer whales.
Unlike orcas, Magpies are omnivorous. I watched a magpie searching for food outside our office window last week. It was digging in the snow until it found dried aspen leaves, then flipped them over with its beak and probed for bugs.
Magpies are members of the Corvid family of birds that includes crows, ravens and jays. They are as happy to feed on carrion as they are to snack on peanuts. They even have been known to pick at open sores on the backs of livestock (gross, I know).
I swear, magpies can anticipate trash day in our neighborhood. It's the equivalent of crashing a tailgate party. If I step outside in the morning, it's never a surprise to see a magpie whitewashing the hood of my car. What's even more irritating is when they stand their ground and taunt me with a raucous cackle.
The only time I really appreciate magpies is when I see them sweeping my yard of grasshoppers.
I've been known to launch a small stone in the general direction of a tribe of scolding magpies. But it's never really with deadly intent. I learned that lesson in 1999 when a Rifle city councilman was convicted of shooting five magpies with an air gun. They had been eating his dog food.
Here's the deal magpies can't sing a lick and don't migrate. But they are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We have to live with them.
If the magpies eyeing my bird feeder would attract some juncos, I'd be content.
As it is, I'm thinking of purchasing a digital bird caller to attract some real songbirds to my rear deck.
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