Wednesday, June 25, 2008 ANIMAL TRACKER
By Rowan Hooper

Japanese name: Kasasagi

Scientific name: Pica pica

Description: Members of the crow family, magpies have an unmistakable black-and-white plumage, though if you see one close up you’ll notice that the black actually has an iridescent blue sheen to it, and the long tail is slightly black-green. They are bold and noisy and are often thought of as arrogant birds. Their bills are strong and sharp; their bodies 40-50 cm long.

Where to find them: All over Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Magpies nest in trees but also commonly on utility poles in Japanese urban areas. A study has found that nesting success is greater when on a utility pole than in a tree — which might account for the recent expansion of the bird’s range in Japan, as at one time magpies were only seen in northern parts. This expansion is also likely due to the increased availability of food in urban areas.

Food: Most things. Magpies are omnivorous scavengers, and eat anything from berries, beetles, worms and household scraps to dead mammals and even living ones, such as voles and young rabbits. They have also been blamed for eating the eggs and nests of songbirds. While they do eat smaller birds from the nest, this has always happened and the reason for the decline in songbird numbers is more likely due to the increased use of chemicals in agriculture which has resulted in fewer insects and weed seeds for them to eat and feed their chicks with.

Special features: Magpies are highly intelligent, like all members of the crow family. When they have surplus food, magpies they hoard it for later, digging a hole in the ground with their powerful beaks and covering the food with a stone or twigs. They lay six eggs in April, and the chicks hatch before May. Both parents provide food, and chicks fledge after about 28 days, but are fed by the parents for another month before they become independent. They breed every year and may live until they are 20. They are known to gang up and “tease” cats, probably because cats are potential predators. In Europe, magpies are sometimes regarded as ill omens, but in Japan and China they are said to bring good luck.

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