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[This information was originally produced by Beverly Skinner, wildlife biologist at Innoko
National Wildlife Refuge (in west central Alaska), for radio broadcast on Public Radio stations
Black-billed magpies are one of interior Alaska's more striking and interesting birds. With their
long tail and black and white colors, they are an easy bird for even young children to recognize.
This winter as well as in past winters, I have noticed a pair of magpies hanging around McGrath.
Although flocks of up to 40 magpies normally travel and roost together in the winter, McGrath
is probably too small a town to support more than a couple of birds all winter long.
Magpies are primarily insect and invertebrate eaters. They also eat carrion (dead animals) and
about 15 percent of their diet is made up of seeds and fruits such as berries left hanging on
bushes. Magpies will also cache food when they find more than they can eat at one sitting. In
this way they are able to take advantage of storing food away for times when it is more scarce.
In some ways it is hard to believe magpies are able to survive our cold, snowy weather but by
visiting the McGrath dump and cruising around area houses looking for dog food scraps, our one
resident pair seems to do all right each year. One has to remember that although staying in
McGrath for the winter has it's problems, migrating south also has it's own dangers.
Magpies are actually members of the Crow family. This family of birds, which also includes
ravens, jays, and nutcrackers, has evolved the highest degree of intelligence among birds.
Members of this family have learned to count, can solve puzzles, and can quickly learn to
associate certain noises and symbols with food.
I'm sure most interior Alaska residents have heard the typical rapid nasal magpie call. Often
times you hear them long before you see them in the shrub thickets they seem to prefer.
Magpies are also capable of mimicking sounds uttered by other birds, animals, and even humans.
Magpies are usually gregarious, which means they like to live in groups. They breed in small
colonies with scattered bulky dome shaped nests. These nests are often reused from year to year.
Magpies will repair the old nests or even build a new nest on top of the old one. During spring
courtship displays, male magpies strut before their potential mates flashing their wings before
finally chasing them around. Once established, these pair bonds can last all year or even for a
For Alaska Naturally and the Innoko NWR, this is Beverly Skinner. Like
many wildlife residents of interior Alaska, magpies have their own story. They are members of
a complex and intelligent group of birds, and have been prominently mentioned in traditional
stories from many different cultures. Although killed by the thousands in the early 30's by
people who felt they were pests, magpies have managed to survive and thrive in Alaska. Leave
out a scrap of meat by your bird feeder this week and maybe a Magpie will come to call.
Note: This is the MapCruzin.com archive of the FWS Arctic National Wildlife Refuge website. In December, 2001 FWS took this website offline, making it unavailable to the public. It includes 90 plus pages of information and many maps. As of 2006 the important information contained in this, the original "unsanitized" version of the FWS website, has yet to return to the internet, so we will continue to maintain it here as a permanent archive to help inform activists and concerned citizens. If you find any broken links, please report them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will attempt to make the repairs. January, 2008 update - A small part of the original information that was present in 2001 has made it back into the current ANWR website. There is also an archive that contains a small amount of the original information, but it is not readily available from the main website.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. Potential impacts of proposed oil and gas
development on the Arctic Refuge’s
coastal plain: Historical overview and
issues of concern. Web page of the Arctic National
17 January 2001. http://arctic.fws.gov/issues1.html
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