The Rare Yellow-billed Magpie, Only In California

by Larry Jordan on October 26, 2008

Yellow-billed Magpie all photos by Gail West

These gregarious members of the Crow (Corvidae) family can only be found in California.  I am fortunate to live in the foothills of Northern California where the Yellow-billed Magpie is a common site.  As I drove to town from home the other day, a flock (tidings) of Yellow-billed Magpies flew over the road and I was able to see their distinctive wing pattern from below.

There must have been at least 20 of these beautiful, iridescent birds heading to the top of another huge oak tree farther up the hillside opposite the large open field they were abandoning at that moment.

Being endemic to the coast ranges and central valley of California, the Yellow-billed Magpie prefers oak savanna woodland and other areas with large trees scattered across open country or farmland.  They are also found in residential areas though, needing only water, large trees for roosting and nesting, and adjoining fields or grasslands to feed.

These flashy birds, with their iridescent black and white feathers long tapered tail and yellow beak, are easy to spot as they roost and feed in flocks.  They also nest in loose colonies, the nest being a large domed affair, a three feet across, made of sticks and mud, lined with hair, grass or bark.

They build these huge nests high up (30 to 80 feet) in large valley oaks, sycamore, cottonwood or coast live oaks.  They are so large, the nests are sometimes mistaken for hawks nests.

The Yellow-billed Magpie will eat almost anything, foraging mostly on the ground for insects and worms, they will also catch flying insects on the wing and eat small mammals and carrion.  Acorns are an important food source for them in the fall as well as fruits and berries.

I you are lucky enough to see a flock of Yellow-billed Magpies you may want to grab your binoculars and observe their antics for awhile as they are truly fun to watch.  If you have never been to California, come on out, if for no other reason than to see these beautiful iridescent birds that you can find nowhere else in the world!

I want to thank Gail West for her wonderful photos of the Yellow-billed Magpie.  You can see her other photos by going to her Flickr page.

Update to this post: I have discovered an important upate to this post regarding the status of the Yellow-billed Magpie and West Nile Virus.  Please read the report from the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) on this bird and its possible reclassification to the red list.  The ABC’s Bird News Network is updated as news breaks and you can find it on my Birds In The News page.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Arija October 26, 2008 at 5:57 am

What a magnificent bird! Your photos display its beautiful colours from all angles to perfection. The shot in flight with spread feathers is superb.

Arijas last blog post..SkyWatch *10


Bobbie October 26, 2008 at 7:10 am

What an interesting bird – very pretty. I have never seen one, even when visiting my daughter in northern CA. Wonderful pictures.

Bobbies last blog post..Shadow Shot Sunday #23


Larry October 26, 2008 at 8:33 am

@Arija the photos are all from Gail West and I agree they are superb

@Bobbie next time you visit California, look for them in large trees near open fields or in parks in the cities


sandy October 26, 2008 at 11:03 am

These pictures are phenomenal. We are really at a loss not to be able to see this bird. In flight shots exquisite Sandy

sandys last blog post..Camera Critter# 29- Let’s go pick some limes


Larry October 26, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Thanks Sandy, I hope Gail knows how good she is!


Gallicissa October 27, 2008 at 9:02 am

A tidings of those would be a good sight for sure.
It reminded me of our Sri Lankan Blue Magpie.

You are right that they are fun to watch.
Super photographs – especially the one in flight.

Gallicissas last blog post..Macro Monday


Tina October 27, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Wow and you saw 20 of these magpies at one time!! What a thrill that must have been to witness that! Approx. how big is one magpie? …and they build a nest 36 inches wide… that’s impressive. Definitely something to see if one was to visit northern Ca.
Thanks for visiting my blog. I appreciate you taking the time! No, I am not a member of a blue bird society, yet! I really have just started birding…still quite a novice but I’m having fun.
I just joined Pabirdlist and will post your info on that site. Thanks for sharing those pictures! Amazing! 🙂


Klaus October 28, 2008 at 8:03 am

Excellent post and my compliemts to Gail!


Larry October 28, 2008 at 4:58 pm

@Tina you take some great photos for your blog and I love your narrative too. Keep up the good work!

@Klaus thanks for stopping by and I will pass your compliments on to Gail


Thomas October 28, 2008 at 9:49 pm

Stunning series of images of this beauty, the 2nd shot, the flight shot is just incredible

Thomass last blog post..Birding in India @ Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary


Mike October 31, 2008 at 8:54 am

I love your photos. This Californian endemic is a beautiful bird!

Mikes last blog post..I and the Bird #87


Larry October 31, 2008 at 11:11 am

@Thomas thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment

@Mike thanks, kudos to Gail on the photos. After finding out that these YB Magpies are having problems with West Nile Virus I hope they survive.


The Zen Birdfeeder November 2, 2008 at 6:12 pm

Beautiful bird and great photos by Gail. That tail is wonderful!!!

The Zen Birdfeeders last blog post..Wild Birds Unlimited Bird of the Month – Chickadee


E.R. March 15, 2009 at 8:31 pm

You are not correct to state they are “only found in California”. I saw a flock at Red Butte Arboretum at north side of Salt Lake City today 3/15/09.


yardbird May 27, 2009 at 1:49 pm

I work at California Medical Prison in Vacaville California and have the privilege of seeing a pair of these beautiful birds almost every day. They are truly beautiful birds.


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