Magpie FAQ


BirdWatch Ireland received more queries about Magpies than any other bird.  Some people love them, some people hate them, but everyone seems to have an opinion about them.  With this in mind, we have decided to answer some of the most commonly-asked questions about this well-known Irish bird here.


⇒ How did the Magpie get its name?


The term “pie” is derived from French, which itself comes from the Latin word “pica”, meaning black-and-white, or pied. Pie forms the basis of most vernacular names for this species. The modern name became established from about 1600 onwards in the midlands and south of England. The species was known as “Piannet” in the north of England at that time. Magpie is derived from “Magot Pie”, which first appeared in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’.


The Magpie is known as the “Pie Bavarde” in French, the “Urraca” in Spanish, the “Elster” in German, the “Gazza” in Italian and the “Snag Breac” in Irish.


⇒ What is the scientific name of the Magpie?


The scientific name of the magpie is Pica pica, a reference to its black-and-white plumage.


⇒ What family of birds does the Magpie belong to?


The Magpie is a member of the crow family, the Corvidae.  It belongs to the genus Pica, which consists of 3 species:


  • the Magpie (Pica pica), sometimes called the Eurasian Magpie, found across Europe, North Africa and Asia.
  • the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) of North America.
  • the Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), which is confined to California.

These species provide a link between the true crows and the jays.


⇒ What does the Magpie look like?


Magpies are familiar birds to most, with their distinctive black-and-white plumage, and they are not easily confused with any other Irish bird.  Seen at close range, the black feathers have a metallic sheen, bluish-purple on the body and green on the tail.  The tail itself is a very striking feature; it is wedge-shaped and very long (about as long as the body).


⇒ What habitat do Magpies live in?


In Europe the Magpie is predominantly a lowland bird of open or lightly wooded country.  Magpies prefer areas which provide the opportunity to forage on the ground, nest, roost and find cover.  Magpies will inhabit both broad-leaved and coniferous woodland.  In the recent past a notable development has been their spread into urban areas, including large cities.


⇒ What are the habits of the Magpie?


The Magpie is a very social and conspicuous bird.  It is normally observed in pairs or family parties.  However it is not unusual to see small flocks or communal roosts.  Some pairs maintain a territory throughout the year while others abandon their territory outside the breeding season.  It is not unusual to see non-breeding birds within a pair’s territory; it may well be that they are the offspring of a previous year.  They are often seen close to humans and can appear to be quite bold, though always very wary.  Magpies have a “confident” demeanour and may be seen strutting about with their tails held high.  They will readily take to driving off predators such as birds of prey or domestic cats.


⇒ What do Magpies eat?


Magpies are omnivorous. They feed mainly on the ground, eating a wide range of food, e.g., beetles, seeds, berries, small mammals, small birds and their eggs, nestlings and even reptiles. They may be often observed searching the roads early in the morning for road kill. They will often scavenge around homes, parks etc. searching out scraps.


⇒ What are the breeding habits of the Magpie?


The Magpie is a solitary nester.  The nest is a dome of thorny twigs with a side entrance placed high in a tree.  The inside is lined with hair, wool, etc.  Normally a new nest is built each year, and both partners take part in the building of the nest.  Usually 5–7 eggs are laid; these are usually bluish-green and are incubated for up to 3 weeks.  The young remain in the nest for a couple of weeks following hatching while being fed by the parents.  The fledglings remain close to the nest for a few days.  When the Magpies abandon the nest it is frequently used by other species, e.g. Kestrel, Long-eared Owl.


⇒ What is the worldwide range of the Magpie?


The Magpie’s range extends throughout much of the biogeographical region known as the Palearctic.  It is found throughout Europe, excluding Iceland, and parts of western North Africa, extending eastwards through most of central and southern Siberia to the Pacific.   There is also an isolated population in SW Arabia.


⇒ What is the history of the Magpie in Ireland?


Magpies were apparently first recorded in Wexford in 1676: a report of a flock of a dozen flying in over the sea.  Breeding in Dublin was first noted in 1852.  Magpies have shown a marked increase in numbers over much of the country since the late 1940s.  A dramatic fall in the species population in the late 1950s and early 1960s seems to have been the result of certain agricultural chemicals.  Following the withdrawal of organochlorine pesticides used as seed dressings, Magpie numbers have increased.  There has been a notable spread into urban areas, and they now breed in inner Dublin.


⇒ What is the status of the Magpie in Ireland today?


The current Countryside Bird Survey has revealed that the magpie is the 8th most widespread species in the Republic of Ireland, having been recorded in 85% of the survey’s 1-kilometre squares.  However, despite the apparent abundance the average count per survey square is only 5.  This is far less than, e.g., the Blackbird with 13 or the Wren and the Swallow with 14.


⇒ Are Magpies destructive towards small birds?


It is true that Magpies will take the eggs and the young of other birds. However this predation is restricted to a relatively short period, and for most of the year they take other foods. A recent survey on urban Magpies showed that eggs and young birds form a small percentage of their diet. It is probably fair to say that Magpies may sometimes be blamed for predation by domestic cats, squirrels or rats, and are often used as scapegoats when the real reason for a local decline in small birds is habitat destruction, the biggest threat of all to our birdlife. Detailed census work has shown no major decline in the populations of small birds that may be attributed to Magpies. A fluctuation in the numbers of small birds is more usually associated with habitat change or severe winters. Normally, predators do not control the numbers of their prey: the predator population cannot increase beyond a level which the prey can support. A partial predator such as the Magpie is unlikely to have any lasting effect on small birds and their hatchlings.


⇒ What is the legal position in relation to the control of Magpie numbers?


Largely because Magpies eat the young of intensively reared gamebirds, the law states that an authorised person may kill them at any time of the year or destroy their nests.  An authorised person would be the landowner or someone acting with the permission of the landowner.  The use of poison is illegal in most cases and is not recommended as a method of control for Magpies, particularly in suburban circumstances.  Care should be taken to ensure that it is indeed Magpies that are occupying a Magpie’s nest that is to be destroyed, as they are often used by other species.


⇒ What effect have control measures on the population of Magpies?


Where Magpies are common, control measures are unlikely to be effective, as new birds will quickly move in to replace those which have been killed.  As the main predation of nests takes place when Magpies are feeding young, preventing them from hatching their eggs may better reduce the problem.  However, this would only be necessary in very extreme circumstances.


⇒ What may be done in gardens to better protect small birds from Magpies?


In gardens, thick cover provided by dense hedges, bushes and creepers in which small birds nest may diminish the level of Magpie predation.  Particularly good are evergreens such as laurel, yew and ivy, especially when they are close to the house.

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