As one of only a handful birds completely endemic to the continental United States, the yellow-billed magpie is a highly coveted species for birders to see. This member of the Corvidae bird family is not widespread, but it can be easy to see for birders who know where to find it, what field marks to identify, and what special behaviors to watch. This fact sheet can help birders do all three to add the yellow-billed magpie to their life list!
- Scientific Name: Pica nutalli
- Common Name: Yellow-Billed Magpie
- Lifespan: 7-10 years
- Size: 16-21 inches
- Weight: 5-6 ounces
- Wingspan: 23-25 inches
- Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Yellow-Billed Magpie Identification
These are bold, conspicuous birds with glossy black-and-white plumage. They can look similar to many other corvids, including crows, ravens, grackles, and blackbirds, but their larger size, long tail, and the bright yellow bill instantly set them apart. Males and females look alike, with an iridescent blue-black head, breast, back, wings, and tail. The wings will show bright blue glossiness in good light, and the long tail may show a greenish gleam. The abdomen, shoulders, and flanks are plain, bright white, and there is a broad white patch in the wings as well that is most visible in flight.
While the yellow bill always stands out, birders should also look for bare yellow skin that extends from the bill to around the eyes. The size and extent of this skin patch can vary, however, and on some birds may only be minimally visible. The bill, however, is always boldly yellow and easy to see.
Juvenile birds look similar to adults but may appear duller with less iridescence, and may show a slight brownish wash on the head, wings, and back.
These birds can be noisy with a harsh, raspy “wok-wok-wok” or “weer-weer” call that may be repeated for several syllables in a quick sequence. Nesting females use a high-pitched whining call to attract their mates’ attention and call for food. Yellow-billed magpies are also accomplished mimics and may incorporate a variety of unusual sounds and calls into their vocabulary.
Yellow-Billed Magpie vs. Black-Billed Magpie
These two birds look very similar, but the difference in their bill colors immediately makes them easy to distinguish. The yellow-billed magpie is also slightly smaller than its black-billed cousin, and because the yellow-billed magpie is only found in California, range is another good clue about these birds’ identities. Black-billed magpies, however, can also occasionally be found in the yellow-billed magpie’s range, but the bill color is an immediate and definite clue about which bird is which. Yellow-billed magpies are also somewhat more social than black-billed magpies, and may gather in much larger flocks.
Yellow-Billed Magpie Habitat and Distribution
These distinctive corvids are found only in California, and only within the central valley of the state. They prefer chaparral habitats and agricultural areas, including orchards, often in drier regions but near bodies of water such as rivers, streams, and ponds. Areas with scattered groves of mature oaks, cottonwoods, and sycamores are especially preferred, as these trees provide essential roosting and nesting areas. These birds are also occasionally seen in suburban areas, particularly on the fringes of agricultural regions.
Yellow-billed magpies do not migrate. They may wander slightly in winter, however, but do not usually leave their typical range or preferred habitats.
These are gregarious birds that roost together in the evenings, often gathering in large flocks to rest. While breeding season groups are naturally smaller, flocks in the fall and winter can be as large as 750 birds or more.
Yellow-billed magpies are intelligent and curious, and may engage in playful games to sharpen their foraging skills. When one bird dies, the rest of its closely associated flock tends to gather nearby and exhibit mourning or funeral behavior, and while ornithologists don’t yet understand this behavior well, it may serve as a warning about fatal conditions or hazards to other birds.
Diet and Feeding
These are omnivorous, opportunistic birds that eat a wide range of foods. While insects, grubs, and grasshoppers make up a large part of their diet, yellow-billed magpies will also eat grain, fruit, and nuts, scavenge for carrion, rob other birds’ nests for eggs, and pick through scraps at landfills and trash dumps. They will feast on roadkill or hunting carcasses, and will occasionally hunt small rodents or lizards.
While foraging, these birds generally stay on the ground, walking about as they peck at different foods, or sometimes hopping to surprise their prey. These magpies will also flip over cow pies to seek out insects underneath. They have been known to hide food to save it for later, particularly acorns in late fall. They can also be thieves and will still food from other animals, including other magpies.
These are monogamous birds that may mate for life. Male yellow-billed magpies court females by bringing them food, demonstrating their ability to provide for nesting mates, as well as with strutting displays where they fluff their feathers to show their strength and health. These birds are loosely colonial and will build a large, bulky, dome-shaped nest in a tall tree, situating the nest 40 to 60 feet above the ground. Both parents work together to build the nest using sticks, twigs, and mud, lining it with finer materials such as fur, hair, rootlets, and grasses. A nesting colony may have just a few pairs of birds, or as many as 25 to 30 pairs.
Eggs and Young
There are five to eight blue-green, olive, or buff-colored eggs per brood, and the eggs show brown or greenish spots and specks. The female parent does the majority of the incubation for 16 to 18 days, and the male brings her food during that time so she does not have to leave the nest. After the young chicks hatch, both parents will feed them for 25 to 30 days until they are mature enough to leave the nest. Even after the young birds are more independent, they may still return to their parents for occasional feeding.
Only one brood is raised each year.
Yellow-Billed Magpie Conservation
Because these magpies have such a limited range, they are vulnerable to numerous threats. They are especially susceptible to West Nile virus, which can be fatal and easily wipe out large numbers of yellow-billed magpies during extreme outbreaks, particularly since these birds are so social. The overuse of pesticides are also a concern in their largely agricultural habitat, since they can quickly build up.
Tips for Backyard Birders
While these birds are not common in backyards, they may visit suburban or rural yards with more native landscaping and just a few large trees for convenient perches and roosts. They can be attracted to ground-feeding areas with cracked corn or spilled seed as well. Providing ground bird baths or other water sources such as a cattle trough can also attract yellow-billed magpies.
How to Find This Bird
Though these birds have a very restricted range, they can be relatively common and easy to spot within that range. Visiting agricultural and rural areas in central California is the best option for finding yellow-billed magpies, and these birds will often perch on the tops of tall trees or on fences as they watch for food. The very long tail and bright yellow bill are both easy to see from a distance and can confirm the identification for different sightings.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Corvidae bird family is one of the most intelligent and widespread bird families, with more than 130 species of magpies, crows, ravens, treepies, and jays. Other fun birds related to the yellow-billed magpie include:
Be sure to check out our other wild bird profiles to discover more amazing facts about all your favorite birds!