Summer Brings the Screech of Magpie Parents on the Alert

Juvenile magpie. Phil McIver / Flickr
Juvenile magpie. Phil McIver / Flickr

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

It’s summer in Kodiak, which means the flowers are abloom, the salmonberries are ripening, and there might be a magpie screeching outside your door.

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A magpie sounds the alarm every time I leave my house.

This has been going on for a couple of weeks now. It yells at me on my way off the porch in the morning, and sometimes it follows me down the street.

And it just hates my landlady’s dog.

So, what’s going on?

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Avian Biologist Robin Corcoran says most birds in Kodiak breed in the spring.

”When they’re first laying eggs and incubating, they can be pretty mellow, but once those eggs hatch, they’ve got a lot invested in the young, they’re feeding the young, and then right around when the young fledge and they are out of the nests, the adults can be really aggressive around the nests.”

She says some may attack if they perceive you as a threat.

“There’s definitely species differences and then there’s also individuals within a species, there’s differences. The corvids, which are the ravens and the crows and the magpies and the jays, they’re a family of birds, and they tend to more aggressive.”

The magpies in Alaska aren’t even the most extreme example. Australian magpies will often aim for the heads of passerby during breeding season. And sometimes do damage.

As for Kodiak’s black-billed magpie, Corcoran says the male and female are identical in appearance, but you may be able to spot a fledgling if you look closely enough.

“Sometimes they have poofs of down, and they also have yellow – it’s called a lore – they have more fleshy… the base of the bill, at the corners of the mouth, basically, will be a little bit yellower and fleshy.”

It’s not just magpies that are on the alert against predators and threats to their offspring.

“There are Arctic and Aleutian terns that nest at the heads of the bays along the road system in these colonies, and people are probably familiar with them because they nest on the ground, and if you’re anywhere near those eggs that are on the ground, particularly the Arctic terns are very aggressive and they’ll come in and they’ll hit you, they’ll tap you on the head, but right before they do, they’ll usually let out a little screech that really startles you.”

Corcoran says many terns are nesting at Kalsin Bay, and asks that people enjoying the area keep that in mind.

For anyone waiting for the magpie parents to stand down, Corcoran says they should be more relaxed in a few weeks, but juvenile magpies may stay in a family group throughout the fall.

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