Backyard Birds

Yellow-billed Magpies

The Yellow-billed Magpie, Urocissa flavirostris is a large bird in the crow family.

Distribution / Range

It is found only in California. It inhabits the Central Valley and the adjacent chaparral foothills and mountains.

Apart from its having a yellow bill and a yellow streak around the eye, it is virtually identical to the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) found in much of the rest of North America. mtDNA sequence analysis (Lee et al., 2003) indicates a close relationship between these two, rather than between the outwardly very similar Black-billed and European Magpies (P. pica); the two American forms could be considered as one species.

However, the Korean subspecies of the European Magpie (P. p. sericea) is more distantly related to all other (including North American) forms judging from the molecular evidence, and thus, either the North American forms are maintained as specifically distinct and the Korean (and possibly related) subspecies are also elevated to species status, or all magpies are considered to be subspecies of a single species, Pica pica.

Combining fossil evidence (Miller and Bowman, 1956) and paleobiogeographical considerations with the molecular data indicate that the Yellow-billed Magpie’s ancestors became isolated in California quite soon after the ancestral magpies colonized North America (which probably happened some 3-4 mya) due to early ice ages and the ongoing uplift of the Sierra Nevada, but that during interglacials there occurred some gene flow between the Yellow- and Black-billed magpies until reproductive isolation was fully achieved in the Pleistocene.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Pica nuttalli
Yellow-billed Magpie, Pica nuttalli

Nesting / Breeding

The Yellow-billed Magpie prefers groves of tall trees along rivers and near open areas, though in some cities they have begun to nest in vacant lots and other weedy places. A pair of birds build a dome-shaped nest with sticks and mud on a high branch. They nest in small colonies. These birds are permanent residents and do not usually wander far outside of their breeding range.

Diet / Feeding

These birds forage on the ground, mainly eating insects, especially grasshoppers, but also carrion, acorns, and fruit in fall and winter.

Ecology / Behavior

Yellow-billed magpie flocks are known to engage in funeral-like behavior for their dead.

This bird is extremely susceptible to West Nile virus. Between 2004 and 2006 it is estimated that 50% of all Yellow-billed Magpies died of the virus.

Gold-billed aka Yellow-billed Magpie, Urocissa flavirostris
Yellow-billed Magpie, Pica nuttalli
Magpie InformationMagpie Species Photo Gallery
Yellow-billed Magpie, Pica nuttalli
Yellow-billed Magpie

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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