NATURE IN CONTROL
Information about the Magpie
With its noisy chattering, black-and-white plumage and long tail, there is nothing else quite like the magpie in the UK. When seen close-up its black plumage takes on an altogether more colourful hue with a purplish-blue iridescent sheen to the wing feathers and a green gloss to the tail.
Magpies seem to be jacks of all trades - scavengers, predators and pest-destroyers, their challenging, almost arrogant attitude has won them few friends. Non-breeding birds will gather together in flocks.
Many of the UK's commonest songbirds have declined during the last 25 years, at a time when populations of magpies increased.
Why songbirds might be affected by magpies
Most British members of the crow family (including magpies) will take eggs and nestlings. This can be upsetting to witness but it is completely natural. However, some people are concerned that there may be a long-term effect on songbird populations.
To find out why songbirds are in trouble, the RSPB has undertaken intensive research on species such as the skylark and song thrush. To discover whether magpies could be to blame for the decline, the RSPB commissioned the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to analyse its 35 years of bird monitoring records.
The study found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were many magpies from where there are few. It found no evidence that increased numbers of magpies have caused declines in songbirds and confirms that populations of prey species are not determined by the numbers of their predators. Availability of food and suitable nesting sites are probably the main factors limiting songbird populations.
Breeding magpies hold a territory of about five hectares (12 acres) all year round. Because nest sites are limited, between 25 per cent and 60 per cent of magpies in an area do not breed. These non-breeding birds often form flocks with a home range of up to 20 hectares (about 50 acres) and may pair up within the flock.
Magpies usually breed from two years old, although some may breed at one year. They build large, domed nests in thorny bushes or high up in tall trees.
The female lays on average six greenish-blue eggs, heavily spotted with brown, in April, and incubates them for 18 to 19 days. During this time the male feeds her on the nest. Incubation starts in the middle of the laying period, so the earliest eggs hatch first.
The changes in magpie numbers
Until the mid-19th century, magpies were very common in Britain and were popular with farmers because they eat harmful insects and rodents. But from then until the First World War, heavy persecution by gamekeepers caused their numbers to plummet.
Since the Second World War, magpie numbers have increased. Their numbers trebled from 1970 to 1990, since when they have become more stable. Urban and suburban magpies increased much faster than rural populations. In towns they are not persecuted, there is more food available, magpies will nest close to people, which protects their nests from crows, and they can breed earlier in the year because towns are warmer than the surrounding countryside.
Urban magpies will use artificial nest sites and nest materials, and will take food from bird tables, sometimes storing it in man-made structures such as gutters and eaves.
Factors that normally limit magpie populations are lack of nesting territories and high mortality of young birds. The relatively stable population since 1990 suggests that magpies have reached an ecological equilibrium.
The diet of a magpie
Their main diet in summer is grassland invertebrates, such as beetles, flies, caterpillars, spiders, worms and leatherjackets.
In winter, they eat more plant material, such as wild fruits, berries and grains, with household scraps and food scavenged from bird tables or chicken runs, pet foods etc. They will eat carrion at all times and catch small mammals and birds. Occasionally, magpies prey on larger animals such as young rabbits.
During the breeding season they will take eggs and young of other birds. We don't know exactly what proportion of the summer diet of urban and suburban magpies these comprise: estimates vary between 3 per cent and 38 per cent by weight, although most estimates are at the low end of this scale. Studies of urban magpies in Manchester showed a summer diet mostly of invertebrates with some field voles and house sparrows.
When food is abundant, magpies hoard the surplus to eat later. They make a small hole in the ground with their beak, place the food in it and cover it with grass, a stone or a leaf. These caches are spread around their territory or home range.
Facts about the magpie
Magpie numbers in Britain and Ireland have quadrupled in the last 35 years.
The increase has been particularly noticeable in suburban areas.
During the winter the magpie’s diet is largely vegetarian, and in the summer predominately ground invertebrates. Only during the spring, when feeding its young, does it become a major predator, raiding the nests of songbirds for eggs and young.
Opinions differ widely on the impact of magpies on nesting birds. Most studies suggest that their impact is minimal, but where magpies have been removed, breeding success of songbirds has improved.
One of the explanations for the magpie’s booming population is thought to be the amount of carrion from road kills available today, providing a year-round food source.
Magpies can be caught legally in Larsen traps, a live-capture trap that uses a decoy bird to lure others into the trap. Many thousands are caught and killed in this way every year.
A male magpie, attracted to a female decoy, will attempt to court and mate with her unless his mate accompanies him, in which case their joint response is aggressive.
Magpies have always been surrounded by superstition, and there are many versions of the poem that begins: One for sorrow, two for joy...
There was an old rural tradition of raising one’s hat to a magpie; now few people wear hats, the tradition has largely died out.
A magpie looks much bigger than it is: the tail makes up half the bird’s length. Its average weight is only about half that of a wood pigeon’s.
They can be found throughout almost all of mainland Europe, from southern Spain and Greece north to Lapland, but are absent from many offshore islands, including Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearics and Iceland.
Pairs usually remain within their territories, but non-breeding birds wander more widely in small gangs or bands.
They are non-migratory, and it’s rare for one to ever travel more than 10km from where it was hatched.
Though most nests are built in trees, where there are no suitable trees they will build on the ground.
A typical nest incorporates a roof, and may have two entrances, but some populations build open nests.
Long-eared owls often adopt old magpie nests.
The date of the first egg being laid is largely the same throughout Europe, with the peak period mid to late April.
In southern Spain great spotted cuckoos often lay their eggs in magpie nests.
In Britain magpies have relatively few enemies apart from man, but in some parts of Europe they are the favourite prey of goshawks.
Communal winter roosts may hold as many as 200 birds.
The roosting birds have usually departed before sunrise.
MAGPIE LEGAL CONTROL
Larsen trap, a type of cage trap, is designed to catch birds alive and unharmed. It can be baited with food, or with a live decoy magpie, provided all welfare regulations are met. In Scotland, a cage trap must have an identifying tag obtainable from the police Wildlife Crime Officer.
If you suspect that a trap has been set illegally to catch birds of prey, please report this to your local WCO. Gun laws prevent shooting of magpies close to public roads and houses.
The RSPB are not opposed to legal, site-specific control of magpies, nor to the legal use of Larsen or other cage traps, as long as the general licence conditions are strictly adhered to.
It's always open season when it comes to shooting magpies. Unlike game birds, such as pheasant and grouse, which may only be hunted during open season, magpies are grouped with crows and woodpigeons in the category of pest and may be controlled at any time of year.
You don't need to apply for a licence to shoot magpies, as they are covered by general licence issued by government. However, if you don't already know the details, you should familiarise yourself with the licence so you know where you stand. The licence stipulates certain conditions and is a permit to landlords, occupiers, and authorised persons only, so if you are not the owner or occupier, you will need their permission.
The licence allows for the control of magpies to prevent damage to specified items only, which include livestock, crops, timber and fisheries. So quite apart from safety considerations, you'd have some difficulty in justifying shooting magpies in a small town garden. You can find further information about licensing on the Natural England website at www.naturalengland.org.uk.
Once you've established there are magpies in a particular area, find a suitable place to lure them to near to a spot where you can settle down to wait. An ideal place to wait for magpies would be close to trees adjacent to a clearing or open field. Dawn and dusk are when you're likely to see birds displaying bolder behaviour, as it is generally a quieter period in terms of human traffic.
One of the best ways to get a good shot at a magpie is to catch it while it is eating. Entice the magpies to within your range by leaving out a food supply such as a freshly killed rabbit or squirrel. Alternatively, you could make use of a decoy magpie bird. Magpies are highly territorial birds so will often come down to investigate an unknown magpie in their area. Artificial magpie decoy birds are a good option, as they are realistic and easy to transport.
You may need to spend several hours to get a shot at a magpie, so consider using a portable hide. If you plan to shoot early in the morning you might prefer to set up the hide the day before to avoid disturbance when you arrive for shooting. Use a good quality camouflage hide net and peg it down at the base so that it won't rustle in the wind.
It sounds obvious, but make sure you stay on the right side of the law. You must comply with the requirements of the Firearms Act as well as the Animal Welfare Act. If you use live decoy birds, be sure to treat them in accordance with legal requirements. This is an area currently under review by European legislators, so keep abreast of any changes which might be introduced in the near future.
Magpie numbers have tripled over the last three decades and are considered by many to be the vermin of the bird world, but even though they are not the most popular bird, you never know who might take umbrage with seeing them being shot. As with all hunting, be respectful and make sure you kill quickly and cleanly. If you know the law and work within it, you will have no cause for concern when controlling the burgeoning magpie population.