Nesting Black-billed Magpies

Black-billed Magpie with nesting materialBlack-billed Magpie with nesting material – D200, f6.3, 1/1500, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 400mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up

I have mentioned before that the more I know about each species the better my chances are for creating wonderful images of the birds because I can anticipate what the birds might do next on my “about page” and in conversations with other bird photographers. I try to learn as much as I can about a subject I am interested in photographing through bird guides, reference books or on line at BNA (a subscription site) but my powers of observation, the ability to detect certain behaviors  and knowledge about the habits of my target species are also very important skills that benefit my bird photography.

Black-billed Magpie flying towards its nestBlack-billed Magpie flying towards its nest – D200, f6.3, 1/1000, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 360mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up

These images of nesting Black-billed Magpies (Pica hudsonia) would not have been possible without my powers of observation.  Black-billed Magpies are common in Utah, western Canada, the west and southwest US and can range as far north as Alaska. In some places, like Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone magpies can be fairly easy to approach, I don’t find that to be the case in my local parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. Magpies can be very wary of people here.

One day while out on Antelope Island State Park while looking for other birds to photograph from a distance I noticed a Black-billed Magpie in flight and it appeared to have something in its bill. Then I saw it land on a sagebrush and disappear inside the branches. I wondered about it for a few seconds then saw the bird leave the sage brush and it didn’t look at all like it had anything in its bill. Then I saw another magpie fly into the sagebrush with a small twig in the bill. Also from that distance I saw what looked like a nest so I had to get closer.

Black-billed Magpie with its head cockedBlack-billed Magpie with its head cocked – D200, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 320, 200-400mm VR at 390mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up

After carefully getting closer I was able to verify that my observations were correct, the magpies were constructing a nest in the sagebrush.  If I had not been paying attention to the first magpie’s activity and behavior I would have missed the opportunity to photograph these birds and their nesting habits over the next several weeks.

After spotting the nest magpies the first time I did some research and found out that Black-billed Magpies take approximately 40-50 days to construct their nests. The nest I spotted was nearing completion so I will know next spring to look for nesting magpies about 4 weeks sooner to take full advantage of photographing them and their nesting activity.

Black-billed Magpie with a twigBlack-billed Magpie with a twig – D200, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 400mm, 0.0 EV, natural light, not a set up

Black-billed Magpies are loud and in urban areas their calls can be an annoyance to some people. There are some photographer’s who won’t raise their lens to photograph common birds like Black-billed Magpies, exotic European Starlings or the much maligned Brown-headed Cowbird. Not me, if it has feathers I will photograph it and do the best job I possibly can with the image too.

This locally common but striking black and white bird has a beauty all of its own with its long tail and lovely pied plumage. Because of the high contrast between the blacks and the whites of the magpie’s feathers they are challenging to expose correctly, but in my opinion they are well worth the challenge and if I can capture the beautifully iridescent greens, blues, golds and purples of the tail and wings I am extremely satisfied.

Nesting Black-billed Magpies use twigs to create their domed shaped nests then line the bottom with grasses cemented to the nest by either mud or manure from bison and or cows. I’ve wondered if the dome on the top of the nest is to protect the chicks from aerial attacks from predators, it would certainly hide the young birds from a hawk flying overhead.

Because of other photography trips I was not around when the chicks from this magpie nest fledged, I would have loved being there and seeing their first attempts at flight. Maybe next year.

Black-billed Magpie landing with nesting materialBlack-billed Magpie landing with nesting material – D200, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 380mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up

These magpies gave me hours of enjoyment photographing them plus I learned more about the species by observing their behavior. I’ll be even better prepared to take images next time I have them in my viewfinder.


Ethics on photographing nesting birds:

  • Do not approach too closely
  • If the birds show any sign of distress, back away
  • Don’t trim leaves, twigs or branches to get a clearer shot, you may inadvertently attract predators or cause the eggs/chicks to over heat
  • Follow local, state and federal guidelines concerning nesting birds
  • Don’t harass the birds to get an action shot
  • Don’t stay a long time with nesting birds or chicks, that disrupts their normal behavior
  • Always remember that your scent may draw predators to the area of nesting birds or birds with chicks.

For more information on the ethics of photographing nesting birds or chicks check out the Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association.


  1. Karen Bonsell October 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Mia, I don’t even know if you will see this comment since the post is nearly 2 yrs old. I think you did a fabulous job showing the iridescent colors on the tails! I had really hoped to see these when we visited Yellowstone, but unfortunately, I only saw one little flock of them & they were at quite a distance. I also enjoy photographing more common birds! They all have their own unique characteristics that make them special!

    • Mia McPherson October 15, 2012 at 9:06 am

      Hi Karen, I’m notified whenever someone comments on my post no matter how old they are! Thanks for commenting on these images. The iridescent colors on the tails of Black-billed Magpies are just beautiful. I hope that you will get to see more of them soon, they are very commonplace here in Utah.

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