Identification

With their strikingly bold markings, magpies are one of the most distinctive birds in our gardens and well-known to all.

Magpies are members of the crow family. They are white on the flanks, shoulders and wingtips, and appear black all over the rest of their bodies; however this black has an iridescent sheen, with a blue gloss to the back and green on the tail feathers. Magpies are also easily distinguished from other corvids by their long tails which are roughly the same length as their bodies.

The alarm call of the magpie is a harsh, cackling sound and is quite commonly heard.

Size

40-51cm (16-20 1/2in) long, of which 20-30cm (8-12in) is the tail.

Distribution

Magpies can be found across most of the UK, except for the Scottish Highlands. In fact they are typically scarcer in Scotland, found in localised populations rather than the wide distribution they have across the rest of the UK. They are resident across their range.

Status

Magpies are not threatened, and are in fact often considered to be a pest. They are sometimes accused of causing damage to crops or livestock, and many believe them to be a threat to small bird populations. Due to this many are killed by landowners, operating under general licence from the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is also legal to destroy magpie nests. Their villainous reputation is questionable, there is little evidence that they are a particularly harmful species.

Habitat preference

A wide range of habitats will host a magpie: they can be found in moors, fields, parks, gardens, villages and towns. Mostly they favour areas with both trees and wide open spaces, and can often be found breeding around farmland.

Where to find them in the garden

Magpies are social birds and you will probably spot several at a time, there is of course a popular rhyme for counting magpies, with several different versions. Look for them perched in trees, or foraging on the lawn. It is not uncommon for them to nest in garden trees and shrubs.

Role in the garden

The magpie's reputation as a contributor to the British decline in small birds is questionable, as various studies have found that declines occur in areas with or without magpies, and are likely to be caused by other factors. However magpies are perhaps the second biggest predator of small birds in our gardens (after the domestic cat) as they do frequently take chicks and eggs during the breeding season. This is a natural part of the predator-prey relationship.

For most of the year magpies feed on insects, other invertebrates and vegetable matter. They can be very useful in controlling garden pests.