Monday, April 22

Snatch thieves in the bird world


ALL snatch thieves are opportunists, whether escaping on motorbikes in cities and then ‘flying off’, or descending from the air on their wings as seagulls and magpies do.

Yes, I’ve had an ice cream taken from my hand by a hungry seagull at a seaside resort, when on holiday, but did I complain when indulging in a treat? No.

Magpies are a different matter, for most species of the crow family Cordivae not only threaten but also bring omens steeped in folklore. European and Bornean magpies are considerably different in colorations and size but all species work on the assumption that ‘if it glitters, it must be gold’.


The Eurasian magpie is a very domineering bird species.

Eurasian magpie

This black and white bird, because of its colours, has been adopted in football strips from south west to northeast England with such soccer clubs known locally as The Magpies.

With a total length of 44cm, Pica pica looks a formidable bird, but half its length is its long tail. Its head, neck, upper chest and back are jet black, its lower chest and the top of its wings are white.

It is the bluish-green metallic sheen of its lower wings and tail that truly adds to its elegance.

Feeding mostly on insects and seeds, magpies also rob smaller birds’ nests of their eggs and hatchlings and even scavenge dead rabbits on roadsides and urban rubbish dumps.

Gamekeepers abhor these birds when they descend to snatch young chicks. Once found only in the countryside, they are now common birds in suburbs and cities, feeding mostly on household rubbish.

Building a new nest each year, in a dome shape, on the upper branches of trees, the female lays between three to seven bluish-green spotted eggs.

A very domineering bird species, I have seen them driving off much smaller birds, in winter time, on my birdfeeders but my robin family will strut their redbreasts in defiance.

The magpie’s fascination for glittering objects has to be seen to be believed. I have witnessed them pecking at my windows or trying to enter a window, or even attempting to remove a glassy, glittering string of beads that my youngest granddaughter has attached to a tree branch in my garden.

To be fair to this bird, most members of the crow family have hoarding instincts in their nests.

Steeped in English folklore with sayings such as, “One magpie for sorrow, two for joy,” I always look out for a pair and, to date, I’ve not been disappointed.

In parts of the UK, the magpie population has trebled in the last 50 years but these beautiful birds are now seen as pests and the destroyers of songbird numbers. This has yet to be proven.

Iberian magpie

The distinctive Cyanopica cooki is a black hooded, white throated, blue winged and sky blue long-tailed magpie with its breast of greyish buff colourings. It is the shyest of the crow family.

It is smaller than the European magpie and is only 35cm in length. Never seeming to rest, it is frequently seen hopping around in the crowns of pine trees.

It breeds only in Portugal and the western provinces of Spain and thus is a little known European bird. It was once mistakenly thought that its Eastern Asian ‘cousin’, the Azure- winged magpie, an almost identical bird (Cyanopica cyanus), found in China, Japan, Korea and eastern Siberia, was directly related and that these bird populations were separated by the advancing Pleistocene continental ice sheets about 1.4 million years ago.

The Iberian magpie is more gregarious and social than the European magpie. It is often seen in flocks of up to 70. Feeding mostly on acorns and pine seeds, they also devour insects, larvae, soft fruits, berries, and scraps of food discarded in urban parks and gardens.

Their domed nests, with the cups lined with animal fur, may be seen in willow trees and large deciduous trees even in Portuguese city parks. As with the European magpie, eggs are laid in May or June, and this bird’s population is also increasing. Perhaps, with climate change, they may soon be seen in gardens of southwest England.

Borneo’s magpies

There are three distinctive species on the island of Borneo: the black crested magpie, the Bornean green magpie and the short-tailed green magpie. All three species can be seen perching in Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan lowland forests.

Bornean Black magpie

The body and tail length of Platysmurus leucopterus aterrimus approximates that of the European magpie, but its totally black plumage, bill, legs, and feet make it appear more commonly crow-like.

It is the distinctive features of its tall, bristle-like crested head and the red irises of its eyes that set it apart. Seldom seen 300 metres above sea level, it tends to occupy primary forests, scrublands, and peat swamp forests but is also seen in secondary forests and in plantations.

Nesting high up in tree canopies, its dome-like nest is not dissimilar in shape and content to that of the Eurasian magpie.


The Bornean green magpie is seen in Sabah. – Photo by Mike Prince

Bornean green magpie

Formerly Cissa jefferyi was classified as a member of the short-tailed green magpie, but has now been classified in its own right. Apart from its obvious colorations, its whitish eyes distinguish it from other species.

Not a lot is known about this green magpie but to see it nesting in the middle and upper storeys of montane forests and feeding its nestlings, may I refer readers to a video by the research group of Dr Thomas E Martin on YouTube.


Short-tailed green magpie

Smaller than its counterpart the Bornean Green magpie, the Cissa thalassina can be seen in the Mount Kinabalu National Park between approximately 900 and 2,400 metres and beyond, along the Usun Apau plateau and on Mount Dulit.

As its name implies, it has a much shorter tail with narrow greenish-white tips to its feathers and a whitish crown. Its dark reddish-brown eyes clearly stand out. Not a lot of research has been amassed on its nesting and breeding habits, probably because of its inaccessible habitats.

I am sure that Malaysian amateur and professional ornithologists know much more than I do on these Bornean species of magpie.

I believe that we should all get out of our family comfort zones at weekends, and go and explore the natural world wherever we may live, be it in temperate or tropical climates.

The natural world has so many opportunities for species of wildlife, landscapes and seashores to explore and even record.

We need to know more now of the folklore attached to peoples’ sightings of Bornean magpies and the local names, in whatever dialect given to them by grandparents and great grandparents, for tomorrow will be too late.

Magpies are steeped in folklore, for only recently in talking to a local Somerset neighbour, he said, “Look at those two chatterpies munching the leftovers from the grain harvest!”

Sure enough, in my neck of the woods, I learned a new local word for black and white magpies.Indeed, these birds do make chattering sounds.