A Mischief of Magpies


Black-billed Magpie - Jeff Wendorff PhotographerMagpies are really very smart birds and I find them to be a bit of a challenge to photograph. They usually flee as soon as they spot a human and that is normally at a long range. One way that has worked in the past was to visit an area where there are campers that either feed the birds on purpose or accidentally and this will habituate the birds to human presence. You can get close enough for some nice photography this way.

When I was trying in vain to get a nice shot of the “wild” Black-billed Magpies at the King Ranch, I thought about their habituated cousins and decided to lure them in range. I put some chopped up peanuts on a boulder and then left for a while. When I checked back an hour or so later there were 3 or 4 magpies feasting. So, I set my camera up and put out some more peanuts. Of course the birds flushed during the setup and the re-feeding. I left them alone with the food and my camera on a tripod and they were back very quickly. Now that I had them “trained”  it was time to go to work.

During my training session, I noticed that the the greedy birds were filling their mouths with as many peanuts as it would hold, no problem as I had a lot, but it made for a very ugly picture and I really didn’t want to photoshop the peanuts out of the image. This time I put just a few peanuts out and to put them on the places that I wanted the magpies to perch. Someplace with the right light and the right background. Photograph and repeat! After a short time the birds were not flushing very far and were often back on the perch and eating the peanuts before I could even get back to the camera!

Using food to get the birds where you want them is a great technique for photographing birds. The “trick” is to not put the food out all over the place. Use food to bring the birds to the perch and background of your choosing and not theirs.

My usual fact section courtesy of What Bird…HERE.

  • The Black-billed Magpie spends up to 40 hours building nests with domes on top.
  • In the past, they have been considered vermin (due to their feeding on poultry eggs and orchard crops) and farmers have placed bounties on them. They are now protected in the U.S.
  • Unlike most birds, they can use scent to locate food.

And this was interesting as well: A recent study at Goethe University in Frankfurt shows that magpies can recognize themselves. Helmut Prior place colored dots on the bird’s necks. When mirrors were place in front of them they would try to remove the dots, indicating they recognized the image in the mirror. This is the first time this type of intelligence has been shown in non-mammals.

I use iBird Pro for ID help and to occasionally and sparingly call birds. It is the perfect bird photography companion and you can see some of these images on there as well. Buy it….HERE.

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As with the hummingbirds the King Ranch is off limits to the public…

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