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Another state first! Black-billed Magpies building a nest

By Ryan Brady
DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Biologist

Rare. Elusive. Unchaseable. That’s how most birders view the Black-billed Magpie in Wisconsin. A species of the West, this attractive corvid occurs only once or twice a year in Wisconsin and has never been known to breed here. Often the sighting is a one-off, and even when one sticks around it’s rarely refound by anyone actually trying to find it. The result? Most Wisconsin birders haven’t seen one here.

On April 6, a local citizen spotted two birds at Bark Bay in far northern Bayfield County. Given most sightings are of one bird, her find was already notable. But then two days later the birds were respotted on nearby Bark Point, and two days after that an amazing three birds were discovered, with two of the birds associating very closely with each other.

How long would they stick? A narrow peninsula sticking into Lake Superior, Bark Point is known to trap vagrants for extended periods in spring, including Canada Jays and Boreal Chickadees in the recent past, as well as thousands of migratory Blue Jays each May. Or would the fleeting nature of magpie movements win out?

As a testament to the species’ uncooperative history, most of the state’s avid listers were on scene within days of the sighting. Although some of them have observed 375 to 400 species in the state, Black-billed Magpie was not among them. Until now. The birds continued through mid-April, though no more than two birds were seen, and both rarely offered more than a brief glimpse to most observers.

With the birds lingering in the same vicinity, two birds closely associating, and their breeding range not too far off in Minnesota, thoughts turned to the unlikely possibility of nesting. On April 20, I visited the site seeking evidence of just that, and in short order discovered one of the birds carrying a large stick into a dense conifer!

Magpie nesting photo 5 22

Photo by Ryan Brady
Black-billed Magpie in Bayfield County carrying nesting material.

Soon after, I found the other bird carrying a clump of grass and mud at the same site. Over the course of the next several hours, at least one bird repeatedly visited the ground for nest material and returned to the same spot in the conifer at least 10 to 12 times. Although it was too dense to see what the material was, it was very clear the birds were nest building! This marks the first documented nesting attempt by Black-billed Magpies in state history and appears to be the easternmost breeding record in North America.

Black-billed Magpie now joins Mountain Bluebird (hybrid pair with Eastern Bluebird), Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow (hybrid pair with House Sparrow) as outstanding footnotes to our second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas project. All were confirmed breeding since the project concluded field work in 2019, and interestingly, all represent first state breeding records.

Time will tell how this magpie story unfolds. It will be important that Wisconsin’s birders do their part to ensure a happy ending. Visitors should respect this nesting location by avoiding audio playback and staying on public roads and parking lots as all land on the point is private. By being still, quiet and patient, you’ll have a good chance of spying this unusually obliging couple, and with some luck, eventually its offspring too.

Magpie range map 5 22

Typical year-round range of the Black-billed Magpie

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Another state first! Black-billed Magpies building a nest

By Ryan Brady DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Biologist Rare. Elusive. Unchaseable. That’s how most birders view the Black-billed Magpie in...