© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations


Something was really hitting the suet feeder in our backyard. I hadn’t seen any crows around recently. The answer came when I happened to see a magpie (black-billed magpie to be more precise) hammering away on it. They can devour a lot of suet in a short time! They are common in Turtle Mountains, but I seldom see them around our home.

Magpies are opportunists. As such they have a wide-ranging diet consisting of seeds fruits, insects, small mammals, eggs, and such. They commonly rob and scavenge for food. They are also known for occasionally probing (some will say flipping) cow pies for beetles, maggots, and other invertebrates.

Magpies and humans go back a long way. They were well known for their habit of associating with Native American hunting parties on the Plains. All those leftovers from bison hunts and the like were abundant and easy pickings for this opportunistic feeder. But the magpie was new to science when Lewis and Clark first discovered them while on their way up the Missouri River in September of 1804 near Crow Creek near present day Chamberlain, SD.

It is interesting to note that Lewis and Clark mentioned magpies several times in their journals. It was often in relation to their abundance and also their boldness or tameness. Apparently, the magpies would be quite bold in stealing some scraps of food (meat or fat) when members of the crew were field dressing or handling game such as deer and bison.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition even sent four live magpies (along with a prairie dog) to President Jefferson from Fort Mandan. Amazingly all of them made it to St. Louis, but only one survived the entire trip to Washington, DC.

Some of you may have read Hanta Yo, the historical novel by Ruth Beebe Hill from 1970's. It’s an interesting read, and in her book the Mato band of the Lakota had idiomatic phrases for many of the plants and animals. The idiom for the black-billed magpie was “bird who sits smiling at excrement.” Now every time I see a magpie, I have that idiom in my head and visualize a magpie perched on the ground or rock near a bison patty chattering up a storm.

So, the next time you see a magpie, give some consideration to their long association with humans. You may even hear their call, often described as a raspy hatter or perhaps a laugh. Then see what kind of vision or scene you mind conjures up.

~Chuck Lura

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
Related Content