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Magpie (pica pica)

Magpie ( pica pica )

Order : Passerines (Passeriformes)
Subordination : Songbirds (passeri)
Superfamily : Corvoidea
Family : Corvids (Corvidae)
Genre : Real Magpies ( Pica )
Type : magpie
Scientific name
Pica pica
( Linnaeus , 1758)

The Magpie ( Pica pica ) is a species of bird in the family Corvidae . It populates large parts of Europe and Asia as well as northern North Africa . In Europe it is especially common in settlement areas . Due to its characteristic black and white plumage with the strikingly long tail feathers , it is also unmistakable for the ornithological layman.

In Germanic mythology , the magpie was both the messenger of the gods and the bird of the death goddess Hel , so that she got the reputation of the harbinger of doom in Europe. As a “thieving” magpie, it was unpopular as a witch beast and gallows bird in the Middle Ages . In contrast, it is traditionally considered a good luck charm in Asia and the North American Hudson's elk ( Pica hudsonia ), which has long been a subspecies , is a spirit being among the Indians who is friends with humans.


Magpie in flight

The basic colors of magpies of the nominate form are black and white. The tail is tiered and often as long as the rest of the body, but definitely longer than the wings. The belly, flanks and shoulders are white, and the wings are predominantly white. The rest of the plumage is black with a metallic sheen. The tail feathers and the outer flags of the wing feathers shimmer in metallic green, blue or purple, depending on the light conditions. In spring the colors become dull and less dazzling. They are almost completely lost on the outer flags of the hand wings. Birds that are several years old, especially the males, are most dazzling shortly after moulting . The male and female magpies do not differ externally from each other, but males are slightly heavier than females with an average of 233 g (average 203 g). Magpies can reach a body length of about 51 cm, the wingspan is about 48–53 cm.

Young magpies, which have a bright red throat , are almost as colored as adult birds, the differences are very small. The tail is dull and shorter. The outer shoulder feathers are often not pure white, but rather gray. The white areas on the inner flags of the outer hand wings do not extend as far to the feather tip as in the adult magpies. The arm wings show a blue sheen only in the middle area. The outermost arm swing almost always has a white spot, sometimes the second or third subsequent feather.

Annual magpies start moulting a little earlier than perennial birds. They change the whole plumage. In Europe, annual and perennial birds begin to moult in June, and full-fledged birds in July at the earliest and by the end of August at the latest.

The locomotion of the magpie on the ground is mostly done hopping. But she is also able to walk. The magpie moves very skillfully in the branches of trees. It has a wavy flutter flight .


Voice example of a magpie

Most often, the magpie lets you hear the "chatter" or "chatter". It consists of more or less quickly successive series of calls with slightly croaking "schäck-schäck-schäck". The chatter is a warning and alarm call and serves to defend the area. Non-breeding magpies only use it when there is danger. The excitement of the animals is particularly great when the chatter is fast and choppy. So they face the danger when they shudder slowly, but flee when they shout quickly.

To strengthen the partnership, couples can hear a quiet chant. This varies greatly in time and individually. It can be rhythmic as well as arrhythmic. They often contain soft trills and high-pitched whistles. Individual birds imitate other animals. Most of the time, however, the singing consists of a gurgling, ventriloquism chatter with whistling sounds.

Territory marking call of a magpie

To mark their territory, couples let out a call that sounds like “kia”, “kjää” or “kik”. Often they appear in the middle of the area on the highest branches of a tree.

Nestlings beg with a high-pitched screeching "twiit". Young birds three to four weeks old report to the adults by a two-syllable call. It sounds like "jschiejäk", "tschjuk" or "tschjuk-juk". The contact call of the female is similar to the location call of the young birds.

The magpie often emits a long drawn out "tschark", "tschirk", "tschirrl" or "tschara". Depending on the intonation (soft, hard, long, short) this call has different meanings. In addition, the magpie can also make nasal and stretched sounds such as "gräh" heard.

Urs N. Glutz von Blotzheim does not rule out the fact that wild magpies sometimes imitate foreign bird species , but it is neither the rule nor completely guaranteed; Glutz von Blotzheim formulates vaguely: " Some individuals also incorporate vocalizations that sound like imitations (e.g. star , song thrush , locust chirps) ".


Distribution areas. Each color represents a subspecies of the magpie.

The Elster populates large parts of Europe and Asia as well as North Africa . In Europe, the distribution is extensive and ranges from the North Cape in Scandinavia to the southern tips of Spain and Greece. It is only missing on some Mediterranean islands. In addition, parts of the coastal areas of Morocco , Algeria and Tunisia are populated in northern Africa . The magpie is a resident bird , but also a line bird in Scandinavia .

In Eastern Europe the Elster is widespread up to about 65 ° N, in the Middle East its habitat extends over Turkey and parts of Iran to almost the coast of the Persian Gulf . In the Far East, the northern limit of the distribution to the south to the Sea of ​​Japan recedes to about 50 ° N. In Asia the Elster populates areas as far as North Vietnam . The north-west of Mongolia is also populated by magpies. An isolated population is found on the Kamchatka Peninsula. In addition, a small population on northwest Kyushu is protected as a natural monument.


External system

In general, ornithologists assume that the genus Pica originated in the Old World and probably reached the North American continent via the Bering Strait in the late Pleistocene . However, since a fossil was found in Texas that bears more resemblance to Pica pica than to the yellow-billed catfish ( Pica nuttallii ), it is also possible that P. pica originated in the Pliocene .

According to recent DNA -Untersuchungen the formerly regarded as a subspecies in is California occurring yellow-billed magpie ( Pica nuttallii ) treated as a separate species. The previously regarded as a subspecies, occurring in Alaska and the central North American black-billed magpie ( Pica hudsonia ) has probably the Pleistocene from in Asia occurring Pica pica developed. However, other ornithologists suspect that Pica hudsonia did not originate in Eurasia. Recent DNA analyzes indicate that Pica hudsonia is also its own species and has more genetic similarities to Pica nuttallii than to the Eurasian subspecies.

Internal system

The subspecies differ in size and weight, in the size and pattern of the wing feathers and in the color of the lower back zone. In addition, some parts of the skeleton and the pigmentation of the tail feathers differ, which can vary between blue, violet, copper, brass, purple and green. The darkest subspecies are common in the south, the lightest in the northeast of Eurasia . This particularly affects the color of the lower back. As a rule, the southern forms are larger and have shorter tail feathers than the northeastern ones. It is assumed that the species split into a yellow and a black-billed variant much earlier than the differentiation of the black-billed subspecies.

Pica p. mauritanica
Pica p. sericea
  • Pica p. pica is the nominate form .
  • P. p. galliae has a darker lower back than P. p. germanica and the Scandinavian magpies. The wing hem is wider at the hand wings. Its distribution area is in France , Belgium and Rhineland-Palatinate . In Switzerland it has been partially eradicated since 1915.
  • P. p. melanotos has a black lower back with an occasional rump band. The tail is shimmering yellowish green. The wing length in males is 181-197 mm. She lives on the Iberian Peninsula .
  • P. p. mauritanica is the smallest and darkest subspecies (wing length in males 152–172 mm). The wings shimmer dark green and purple. The rump is always black. Behind the eyes there is a clearly visible bare cobalt blue patch of skin. It inhabits northwest Africa ( Morocco , Algeria , Tunisia ). Some researchers consider them a species of their own.
  • P. p. germanica is smaller and shorter-winged than the nominate form. She lives in the area from Thuringia to Lower Lusatia . Since most ornithologists count them to the nominate form, the position of this subspecies is controversial.
  • P. p. fennorum has longer wings (wing length in males 190–221 mm) than the nominate form and a light gray rump that is lighter than the nominate form. It settles in northeast Scandinavia , Finland and the northern European parts of Russia.
  • P. p. bactriana is lighter than the nominate form . It has a narrower wing hem and a more intense greenish sheen on the inner arm wings. It is also characterized by large wing coverts and a bronze-colored, not blue iridescent tail. It is found in the central to eastern former USSR , in the river basins of the Volga and Don and in eastern Ukraine . It also lives on the shores of the Sea of Azov east to Astrakhan , in the North Caucasus , in Transcaucasia and in Transcaspia and in West Turkestan . But it also populates the middle Kyrgyz steppe , Semei , Afghanistan and Balochistan .
  • P. p. asirensis has a black back and dark blue arm wings. In addition, the tips of the innermost feathers are greenish in color. It is common in the Asir Mountains . It is controversial whether she also lives in southern arabia . Some researchers consider them a species of their own.
  • P. p. hemileucoptera is larger than P. p. bactriana and has greener arms. The tail shimmers yellowish and greenish. The first hand swing does not have a black end mark. It settles in Central Siberia , Altai , the Sayan Mountains , Northwest Mongolia , East Turkestan , Soviet Turkestan, the western Tian-Shan , Talas-Alatau and the Altai Mountains .
  • P. p. leucoptera is larger than P. p. hemileucoptera and has even more white in its wings. Your lower back is white. Its distribution area is south of Lake Baikal , in northeastern Mongolia and in northwestern Manchuria .
  • P. p. jankowskii has a green tail with bluish iridescent tones. The blue of the arm wings is purer and less purple than in P. p. sericea . Its distribution area is located in South ussurien in Sidemi and in the eastern Manchuria .
  • P. p. Kamchatica is the lightest and greenest subspecies. The wings of the hand are white on the entire inside flag. There is an extensive white spot on the first arm swing. The arms and tail are shimmering green. It populates the Anadyr region and Kamchatka .
  • P. p. japonica is characterized by arm wings and wing covers with violet-blue shimmer. The beak is short and thick. She lives in Kyushu , north of Ariaki Bay in Japan .
  • P. p. sericea has a shorter tail than the nominate form. The wings and tail also have a stronger purple-purple iridescence. The lower back is gray and not white. It populates the Amur region and Ussuriland , Korea , east China , Alan-shan , northern Ningxia and Gansu as well as Annam , Taiwan and Hainan .
  • P. p. bottanensis is the largest magpie with the relatively shortest tail and has a black lower back. It is widespread in Bhutan , Sikkim and the neighboring areas of Eastern Tibet .

DNA studies have shown that P. p. sericea has great genetic differences to the Eurasian forms, so that it could be a species of its own. The subspecies P. p. mauretanica and P. p. asirensis are also considered by some researchers as a separate species.


The magpie occurs both in the lowlands and in the mountains. It can be found worldwide at altitudes of up to 2500 m. The subspecies P. p. asirensis , P. p. bottanensis , P. p. hemileucoptera are exceptions. This is how P. p. bottanensis up to an altitude of 4,000 meters and searches for food up to an altitude of over 5,500 meters.

The Elster mainly populates well-structured, partly open landscapes with meadows , hedges , bushes and individual groups of trees . It also lives on the edges of forests , near bodies of water and in swamps with reeds, willow bushes and scrub. It is seldom to be found in narrow strips of forest, small forest parcels, extensive forests and in wood-free meadows and arable landscapes. Steep slopes, narrow, deeply cut valleys as well as rocky and snowy regions are avoided. Only the exceptions mentioned above live in the mountains, sometimes even beyond the snow line. It is estimated that more than half of the population in Europe now breeds in and on the edge of built-up areas. It settles in particular in single-family house areas with short lawns, as well as parks, avenues, cemeteries and large house gardens. In the past, however, it was a characteristic bird of the agricultural landscape in Europe with hedges and woods, avenues or old orchards.

Magpie in its predominantly achromatic colors.

Food and subsistence


A magpie eats from a dead rabbit.

Magpies consume both animal and vegetable food all year round. The food consists of insects and their larvae , worms , spiders and snails . In addition, small vertebrates up to the size of a field mouse , for example amphibians , lizards , small mammals , nestlings and eggs, as well as smaller birds, are part of their food. They also eat carrion all year round . Fruits , seeds and mushrooms form part of their diet, especially in autumn and spring. Indigestible food is excreted in the form of spits .

Half of the diet of European magpies is of animal origin. In the breeding season they cover 95 percent of their food needs. In spring and summer, birds in Europe live mainly or exclusively on animal food. In autumn and winter, the food there increasingly consists of plant components. In Europe there are also remains of vertebrates in a proportion of five to ten percent in the spitting balls .

The magpie mostly looks for food on the ground. When hunting insects and spiders in low vegetation, she walks a bit, stops, stands up and looks around. If a prey is discovered, it runs or hops quickly towards it and grabs with its beak. If the magpie is looking for food in higher vegetation, it strides around without pauses and runs towards the prey. Small animals are captured in a similar way. To collect insects, she jumps up tall ears of grass or herbs. Other techniques include poking around in the ground and scratching, which involves throwing leaves or earth aside with her beak. Turning over small stones (up to approx. 10 cm in size) or tufts of grass is particularly ingenious. The magpie also picks berries. Especially in America, it often picks parasites from sheep or cattle . Fish are also occasionally caught.

The magpie usually devours insects as a whole, but wasps are first thoroughly crushed with their beak. She usually holds larger animals with her feet on the ground. The killing takes place by beak lashes, usually against the trunk or by hurling the prey against hard objects. The magpie plucks small birds neatly before eating.

Magpies create food stores all year round, which are usually emptied within ten days. In order to forestall looting crows , they take turns depositing the supplies in different places. They collect seeds or carrion, especially in autumn. In a suitable place they punch a small hole in the ground with their beak, put the food in there and then cover the hole again with soil and plants. When food becomes scarce in winter, full food stores can be vital, especially in the mountains.

Nutrition in the urban area

In populated areas, Stadtelstern search piles of compost and rubbish and eat leftover meat, bread, pasta, cheese, eggshells and the like. They cover around half of their nutritional needs. In the inner city the proportion of small birds in the diet is only five to eight percent. Stadtelstern often search streets, railway lines and shoulder strips and shoulder strips of motorways for victims of animal accidents, as well as banks of water and all other places where people could have left usable things for them. Stadtelstern mainly hide objects from the human environment (animal feed, compost and waste, dog excrement, plant bulbs), and more rarely acorns or carrion. Gaps under roof tiles can also serve as depots.

Way of life

The species usually begins its activity about half an hour before sunrise, but it varies depending on the time of year. During the hour before sunset, magpies get closer and closer to their sleeping place, which they occupy shortly afterwards. The magpie lives in two different social forms. During the breeding season, breeding pairs live alone in their territories, while non-breeder groups form groups. In winter magpies form flocks of a dozen to a few hundred birds.


The magpie becomes sexually mature in the first autumn of its life. She then becomes a member of a community of other non-breeders. In the spring that follows, just under half of the males and a good half of the females breed.

Pair formation and nesting site selection

The magpie lives in lifelong monogamy , if one of the partners dies, the other usually quickly replaces him with a one-year-old bird. If unsuccessful broods are repeated too often, pairs also usually separate. In autumn, a future couple spends more and more time together until both feel attached to each other (mating). But you still go looking for food alone. Once a young pair of magpies has conquered a territory , courtship-like actions sometimes take place.

The inspection of possible nesting sites by poking around takes place from October to January, in Central Europe until February. Males seem to be particularly activated by drought and temperatures below −4 ° C. The female often indicates possible nesting sites by trembling wings ("begging"). Both birds sometimes express their interest in a nest by shaking or a special nest call, by trembling their tail, blinking or flagging.

Two areas are preferred as nesting sites: On the one hand, the nests are often built in the top branches of tall trees at a height of 12 to 30 m, where the birds are difficult to reach and where they can see the surroundings well. The height of the nest is chosen so that it is the optimum between the need for security and the energy required to raise the young. The greater the height of the nest, the greater the security, but the energy consumption also increases. On the other hand, magpies also build nests at a height of three to four meters in dense thorny bushes or in thorny hedges. Stadtelstern seldom use locations such as steel lattice structures or railway masts as breeding grounds.

The most common nest robber is the carrion crow . If a couple is bothered too much by carrion crows while building a nest, it will create a new nest elsewhere.

The nest

Magpie's nest in a maple

The actual nest building can already begin in January . In Central Europe, however, it does not begin until February or March. While new couples begin building the nest with extensive courtship, old couples begin building the nest after a shortened courtship ritual. The nest is a spherical, quite large building made of branches. The outer structure is 35 to 75 cm wide and consists of bulky, dry, often crossing, outwardly protruding branches. The substructure of the nesting trough is made of fine soil and fine rice. The nesting trough is usually built from fine roots, which are processed into a uniform network. Its diameter is approximately 135 mm and it is approximately 100 mm deep. Most nests have a hood-like superstructure consisting of bulky branches with one, often two side exits. A lack of the hood is due to a lack of suitable building materials or the couple's inexperience. The superstructure serves to protect the clutch from crows or birds of prey .

Both birds participate in the construction of the nest in roughly the same way. The total time for building the nest is 40 days on average. A pair often begins to build in several places, but gives up the nest approaches in favor of the place intended for the brood. This behavior occurs particularly when disturbances occur while building a nest. As long as mated birds are together, they often complete many nests, even if they often mend old nests for breeding.

Old nests are used by long-eared owls , rooks and tree hawks, who do not build nests themselves. The destruction of magpies' nests therefore also affects these bird species.

Courtship and mating

Some couples copulate while nesting. If the eggs are laid in the second half of April (in a normal brood), there will be significantly more matings. Especially at this time, the female begs loudly and conspicuously.

For courtship, the male approaches the female with partially spread plumage . According to Bährmann, the back plumage is spread apart, but according to Glutz the white underside plumage. Often the approach is from behind or in a circle with the head held high or stretched forward. In addition, the male sometimes sings softly.

The male also mates by lowering his head and lifting the closed wings at an angle from the back while fanning with the wing feathers. At the same time it jerks its tail up and down or left and right and calls out a soft "tscha (r) k". If inhibited aggression is to be expressed, the tail movement is more pronounced, the wing movement is weaker and the parietal plumage is applied. In addition, the head and trunk are raised. The female can also courtship like this. Both can also perform a wave-like pair flight synchronously.

The female sometimes initiates mating by begging. It stands crouched or upright in front of the male, stretches its bent wings and trembles with it. It utters very high-pitched begging cries and opens its beak. Often the male then puts on the parietal plumage. When the female is ready to mate, she crouches stretched out on the ground and begs with trembling wings. The number of copulations during the breeding season is controversial. The information fluctuates between a total of only about three times a season and several times a day.

Egg laying and incubation

Eggs ( Museum Wiesbaden Collection )

The start of laying fluctuates considerably even within Europe. In Central Europe , the average start of laying (March to May) for the first clutch is on April 8th. If a clutch is destroyed, the couple can create a replacement clutch . If this is also destroyed, it can provide another clutch. In exceptional cases there is a fourth attempt at breeding.

The female incubates the clutch after a few eggs have been laid. Sometimes, however, hatching begins after the first egg has been laid or only after all the eggs have been laid. In the time before that, the female spends a long time outside the nest. It lays an egg about every day. The eggs are oval , but sometimes also short-oval, long-oval or pointed-oval. They are usually pale greenish to clay colored and show a dense, brownish gray to olive green speckle. Color and drawing can vary within wide limits. The eggs are about 33 to 34 mm long and about 23 to 24 mm wide. The full weight of a freshly laid egg is eight to twelve grams. Typical clutch sizes are four to seven eggs, but if the food is very good, up to twelve eggs can be laid. Additional gears are usually smaller than first gears.

It is only incubated by the female, while the male defends the territory and takes over most of the care of the female. The feeding takes place under the superstructure of the nest, rarely outdoors. The behavior of the birds during the breeding season is subject to considerable individual fluctuations. Some males carefully guard the nesting area and report any intruders by shaking immediately. Other males will only defend it when the intruder comes too close to the eyrie. Overall, the birds near the nest seem to be remarkably quiet. Crows are basically attacked. Sometimes small birds and pigeons are tolerated in the area.

In Europe, the young hatch on average 17 to 22 days after the start of laying and within two to four days. About half of all broods are unsuccessful because the nest is plundered by crows, hawks , cats or martens . Some nests are also destroyed by humans .

Development of the young

Young magpie fallen from the nest
Young magpie

The young are naked at birth and blind for the first four to eight days . You will be fought until the eleventh or twelfth day . During this time, the male feeds food that has been strangled from the goiter , later both partners. The weight of the nestlings increases approximately linearly to around 180 g in the first 20 days.

After about 24 to 30 days, the young leave the nest for the first time. Before they fly out for the first time , the young birds take turns climbing in and out and clumsily doing gymnastics on the roof of the nest and in the surrounding branches. However, they are still fed in the nest by the adult birds and are still looked after in the area. Youngsters who are not yet able to fly stay under cover and can even climb relatively smooth tree trunks from the ground with their wings flapping.

When rearing young, insects are an important source of food due to their high protein content . However, the food supply changes during the rearing phase. In the first third of the nestling period, smaller and more easily digestible material ( flies , caterpillars , spiders ) is fed - proportionally increased . In the middle and in the last third of the nestling period, the food consists of equal proportions of large and small components ( worms , hymenoptera , beetles , vertebrate pieces ).

At around 45 days, the young birds begin to look for food on the ground themselves, but remain dependent on the adult birds for six to eight weeks after they have fled. After a while, they also begin to go on excursions into the surrounding area on their own, but keep returning to their parents' territory. As soon as the young can fly sufficiently well, they are led to the common roost. Sometimes the youngsters also take the initiative. With the start of their independence, the young birds join the community of non-breeding conspecifics. Magpies that live far in the north, as barbeds , fly as far south as they need to be in winter.

The magpie can live up to 16 years, but due to its natural enemies it only grows to an average of two and a half years.

Territorial behavior

Magpies are birds that are faithful to their location. The breeding pairs monitor their territory all year round, even if they sometimes join the non-breeding communities to sleep in winter. The size of the districts can vary considerably. On average, it is between four and six hectares. During the egg-laying period and in late autumn, intruders are fended off particularly intensively. The nests are defended against carrion crows all year round.

To mark the territory, males or females present themselves, usually both together, in a clearly visible treetop. In addition, the birds sit upright with their tails hanging and fluff up the white plumage areas. They show the same behavior in territorial disputes with neighboring couples, but also towards alien animals. In order to defend the territory, the female demonstratively begs and shakes. Males fight vehemently against conspecifics as well as carrion crows on the ground and in dogfights. Within sight or hearing range of the partner, the male drives away unfamiliar females whom it otherwise woos.

In late autumn, new pairs of birds try to conquer a territory. In order to occupy a territory, a young bird can either replace a dead breeding bird or secure its own between two existing territories or conquer a territory by fighting. For this purpose, a small group of non-breeders allies and invades an existing area. Usually the male who owns the territory manages to drive away the intruders. If it fails, however, the most dominant young bird, who is usually also the initiator of the incursion, takes over the territory.

Non-breeding and sleeping communities

Magpies that do not breed form sleeping communities in the evening. In autumn and winter the mated territorial-owning birds also join them. Sleeping places are often difficult to access places and are used for several years. The sleeping places are, for example, on pastures in marshland or on small islands.

In winter, 20 to 50 magpies usually gather at the sleeping places. Sometimes there are communities of a few hundred birds. In summer, however, there are usually only one or a few dozen birds in the sleeping communities. It is believed that these are mainly annual birds. During the day, the non-breeders roam around in small groups looking for food.

There is not a very pronounced hierarchy in the sleeping communities . In general, breeding birds dominate over non-breeders and males dominate females. Even animals familiar with their whereabouts are usually more dominant. If magpies of roughly the same social rank compete for food, the first thing they do is threaten. In doing so, the body is usually straightened up and the beak is stretched upwards ("threatening upright"), sometimes also stretched flat horizontally ("threatening forward"). If neither of the two backs away, there will be a fight with tugging the tail, kicks, chase flights, jumping and beaking, which can also lead to injuries (damage fight). However, the clashes are less violent than in turf wars. The blinking of the wings is an expression of inhibited aggression. Mated birds do not compete for food and sometimes share it.

The swarm formation presumably serves to prevail against the carrion crow when it comes to food acquisition . Larger non-breeder communities can defend food sources longer. In addition, larger birds such as seagulls , ravens , owls , buzzards or even squirrels can be driven away from sleeping communities by tugging their tails and the like, but not by individual birds.


The magpie brain is one of the most highly developed among songbirds. The ability to object permanence , which develops relatively quickly, is very pronounced, which is related to the development of forage hydrangea. So you can understand the relocation of an object that was not seen before. The ability to find food they have hidden themselves develops in young magpies precisely when their ability to object persistence develops. After about ten weeks you will have mastered this task completely. As a result, magpies are highly representative . In addition, they show complex social behavior and recognize their conspecifics individually.

Magpies behave curiously in front of the mirror: They pace up and down in front of the mirror, cast careful glances behind the mirror. In addition, they show good discriminatory performance in that in the majority of cases they only move towards the mirrored box after looking in the mirror if it has the contents of interest to them (the ring, the food). Marked magpies show self-centered behavior in front of the mirror. In some cases, however, they struggle against their own reflection in the mirror. Thus, magpies in front of the mirror react in a similar way to chimpanzees and orangutans in comparable tests that were interpreted in these great apes as an indication of self-awareness .

The discernment of quantities sufficient for magpies, according to Otto Koehler to the upper limit of seven.

Existence and endangerment

Inventory development

The IUCN estimates the breeding pairs living in Germany at 180,000 to 500,000. Other sources give more precise numbers, such as 210,000 to 280,000 pairs. No data were collected before 1850. A decline was noted between 1850 and 1910, which was attributed to intensive and effective hunting. From 1920 to 1950 the population increased again. Since 1950, there has been a decline in rural populations with a simultaneous increase in the cities, which is due to the intensification of agriculture. Since 1989, the total has remained constant, even if continued urbanization can still be observed. Due to the low data density and locally very different population changes, the data from territorial mapping (RK) show extremely wide scatter areas with an overall roughly constant trend. The scatter in the data from point-stop counts (PS), on the other hand, is small. After 1994, the PS index in settlements is still positive, but in the open countryside it is strongly negative.

The IUCN estimates the European breeding populations of the magpie at more than 7,500,000 breeding pairs, which make up less than half of the total population. After the populations in France and Russia increased from 1970 to 1990, they decreased again from 1990 to 2000. Nevertheless, the current decline is outweighed by the earlier increase, so that the Elster is listed as secure in Europe. In the entire 32,100,000 km² distribution area, the Elster is classified as not endangered (LC) with a population of around 30,000,000 to 100,000,000 individuals.

Hunting as a pest

Traditionally, the magpie is hunted in Europe because it is believed to cause damage to livestock or populations of small songbirds and wild animals . However, no such influence has been found in scientific studies.

In Germany it was hunted without restriction until 1976, as it is listed under the older hunting laws with exceptions. The Federal Nature Conservation Act (BNatSchG) of December 20, 1976 for the first time guaranteed legal minimum protection for this raven bird, but it was still the practice to shoot self-breeding magpies out of the nests (the so-called "shooting nests"). On April 2, 1979, the Council of Europe put all songbirds under special protection (full protection) with Directive 79/409 / EEC ("EC Birds Directive"). Art. 9 permits exceptions with the obligation to provide evidence if this is necessary "to prevent significant damage to crops, livestock etc. [or] to protect the flora and fauna". According to hunting associations, this applies to the Elster, among other things. On January 1, 1987, the BNatSchG was amended to adapt to the Bird Protection Directive, so that it guarantees a minimum level of protection for all animals. In addition, the Federal Species Protection Ordinance was changed so that the Elster, which was not mentioned in the law , was placed under state hunting law in accordance with Section 20 (2) of the Federal Hunting Act in compliance with the restrictions from Art. Many federal states make use of this. Finally, on June 8, 1994, at the urging of many EC states, the Birds Directive was changed in Annex II, 2 to the effect that certain species may be hunted in specified states; in Germany, the Elster is listed there. According to Annex II Part B of the current EU Bird Protection Directive 2009/147 / EC of November 30, 2009, the hunt for magpies is only prohibited in a few EU countries.

According to official figures, 980,630 magpies are killed in Europe every year.

Magpie and human

Etymology and naming

In ancient times , both Aristotle and Pliny the Elder and Claudius Aelianus used the same name for the magpie and the jay . They called the former bird Pica varia longa cauda (insignis) because of its long tail and the latter because of its colorful plumage Pica varia (insignis) . In 1758, Carl von Linné gave the magpie the Latin name Corvus pica .

The name Elster is etymologically derived from the Old High German word "Agalstra" [mhd. elster, agelster, ahd. agalstra], in which the beginning and the end have ceased to exist in the course of language development. So many synonyms have developed: Alster, Atzel, Hatzel, Ägerste, Algarte, Agelhetsch, Agerist, Schalaster, Schalester, Scholaster, Schulaster, Schagaster, Aglaster, Agelaster, Agerluster, Heste, Heister, Egester, Hutsche, Kekersch, Krückelelster, Hetz , Baiting, haters . But the names “garden crow” and “thief” were also in use. Names related to their voice were "Gackerhätzel" or " Tratschkatel ".

In English it is called "Magpie". The prefix “mag” is to be understood as the short form for “Margaret”, which is used as a nickname for a talkative person, and certainly alludes to the chattering (eng .: “mag-mag-mag”) of the bird. The second part of the word comes from the Latin name “ pica ” and can also be found in the French name of the magpie, “pie bavarde”.

The birds are nicknamed “thieving” because of the idea that magpies like to carry shiny objects into their nests. In 1817 Rossini even staged an opera La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”). She should be particularly interested in rounded, silvery, shiny objects that she hides individually under a little leaves or grass. According to an unconfirmed hypothesis , this behavior maintains or trains the behavior of collecting and hoarding feed out of curiosity and the instinct to play. However, an investigation on the subject comes to the conclusion that magpies do not have a general preference for shiny objects. They probably owe their reputation for stealing certain objects to the fact that they can sometimes be seen hiding food supplies or the fact that they rob nests .

Mythology and cult

In Germanic mythology , the magpie was both the messenger of the gods and the bird of the death goddess Hel . They were associated with calamity, suffering and hardship. In the European Middle Ages and at the time of the witch hunt she was - like crows , ravens and black cats - as a witch animal or even as a witch herself. She was at times also known as a soul robber in connection with Satan . In addition, she was associated with death in person as the "gallows bird". Since then she has had the reputation of being “thieving” in Europe . In Greek mythology she was a bird of the god Dionysus . Also Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses of magpies: they are the nine daughters of Pierus, referring to a musical contest against the Muses himself were getting. After their defeat, they were turned into magpies by them. In Iranian tales, the magpie was the enemy of the grasshopper that destroyed it.

In general, the magpie is considered a bird of bad omen in Western Europe and the British Isles . There it is considered unfortunate to see this "unlucky person", especially when he appears alone. A well-known counting rhyme brings together magpies that appear in a certain number with different accidentals:

One for sorrow,
two for joy,
three for a girl,
four for a boy.
Five for silver,
six for gold,
seven for a secret never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.

There is still evidence of animalism and animal worship in relation to the magpie in the British Isles . It is also considered an oracular bird. In Ireland, for example, a magpie knocking on the window is a warning to death. The killing of this bird also brought misfortune in the northeast of Scotland . In parts of Northern England it is a bad omen for a magpie to cross the path from left to right in front of you, but a good omen for it to cross it from right to left. In the northeast of Scotland, seeing this bird is considered a sign of good luck in some villages and a sign of bad luck in others. The belief that the magpie had the power to transform itself into a human was passed down in Clunie and Perthshire until the late 18th century. After Christianization, a story arose in England according to which the magpie is cursed because it was the only bird that did not sing lamentations or funeral chants at the crucifixion of Jesus. In Scottish lore, she was long suspected of having a drop of Satan's blood under her tongue.

In France and Germany, people also believed that killing a magpie was bad luck. They were said to have warned their human neighbors of the presence of foxes , wolves and armed people. In Poitou , small arrangements of heather and laurel branches were planted in the bushes in her honor . Magpies are also not killed in Bengal and other parts of India .

In China (鹊 què) and Japan , the magpie is considered to be a messenger of happiness, which in particular heralds a happy event, usually a birth or a visit. The origin of this belief is likely to be found in the legends of Manchuria . There it is told how the magpie, as a sacred animal, saved Fanscha, one of the Manchurian ancestors, from the threatening neighboring tribes. When the Northern Chinese conquered the Empire together with the Manchurians , the belief spread throughout China. At the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the Manchurians made the emperors, so that their culture could partly merge with the Han culture , so that the magpie is revered in its present form. According to another explanation, magpies are considered to bring joy because they are in the myth of The Weaver and the Cowherd. build a bridge over the Milky Way on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month and thus enable the separated lovers to come together (Qixi festival). In Korea the magpie is revered as a national animal and as a good luck charm. In stories she represents the weak and defenseless. If it appears metaphorically as a counterpart to the tiger (earth, forces of nature), it stands for heaven and divine power.

With the North American Indians, the magpie is a spirit that is friends with humans. This can be seen in the "Buffalo Race" story of the Sioux , in which the magpie wins a race against the buffalo for the people so that they can hunt them from now on. With the Blackfoot , too , the magpie appears as an ally of humans in conflict with the buffalo. In the legend of the buffalo dance, it enables a woman to be freed from her marriage vows with a buffalo, her father to be brought back to life and that harmony is restored through a dance and a song. It is also a totem animal among the Hopi and the southwestern tribes. The Pueblo Indians also worshiped this bird in their myths.


The magpie is a common figure in heraldry and a heraldic animal with some features that can be represented quite safely in the coat of arms . The tail is shown to be quite long and usually erect. The side of the bird is colored in white from the rest of the black body, as it corresponds to reality. The main direction of view is to the heraldic right . In Germany, the Elster becomes a talking coat of arms for some coats of arms . Examples are Elsterwerda , Bad Elster , Elsterberg , Elstra , Algermissen and Aglasterhausen .

Art and literature

Francisco de Goya: Portrait of Don Manuel (1784)

An artistic monument in music was set by Rossini in 1817 with the opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). In the fine arts, Claude Monet dealt with this in La Pie and in Pieter Brueghel's The Magpie on the Gallows two of these birds are sitting on a place of execution. Goya shows in a portrait the son of the Count of Altamira, how he leads a tame magpie on a ribbon.

Aesop tells in a fable how the magpie shows the pigeon , who thinks she already knows everything, how to build a nest. In the introduction to Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (1200-1210), a Middle High German text, the parable of magpies appears , in which the color of the magpie (“ agelstern varwe ”) symbolizes the conflict between good and evil in people, but also stands for the ambiguity of the present novel. In the Rübezahl saga ( How Rübezahl got its name ), the king's daughter Emma transforms a turnip into a magpie, which, as a messenger, notifies her lover Ratibor. In the Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brant refers to the story of the Piereiden turned into magpies from Ovid's Metamorphoses when he tells "Of bad women". The magpie here stands for bad speech, the poisoned tongue. On the basis of Aesop's fable about the fox and the magpie, Christian Fürchtegott Gellert wrote a poem in which she stands as a symbol for people who prefer to hear themselves talk and who think they know and can do everything better, but actually has no idea. In the fable The Magpie. The eagle owl lets Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim complain to the eagle owl about the laziness of the lark and nightingale , although she'd better keep her mouth shut. In Heinrich Seidel's Der Hexenmeister, he brings Wendelin and the Elster Schackerack under his control, who free each other through mutual help. Even Christian Morgenstern is engaged in the poem The magpie with the creek and the bird. An appearance in the pop music has the magpie in Patrick Wolf Song Magpie (2007), and in the act of concept album Misplaced Childhood (1985) of the British band Marillion it occurs as a symbolic figure on.


The tax authorities have abbreviated the online tax software Electronic Tax Declaration with the name of this bird as ELSTER . The associated program ElsterFormular has the file name pica according to the scientific generic name of the real magpies.


  • Udo Bährmann: The Magpie (Pica pica). New Brehm library. Bd. 393. Westarp Sciences / Spectrum Academic Publishing House, Magdeburg 1995, ISBN 3-89432-208-X .
  • TR Birkhead: The Magpies. The Ecology and Behavior of Black-Billed and Yellow-Billed Magpies. T & AD Poyser, London 2002, ISBN 0-85661-067-4 .
  • Gisela Deckert : Settlement density and foraging near Elster Pica p. pica and hooded crow Corvus c. cornix (L.). In: Contributions to ornithology. Jena 26.1980, 305-334, ISSN  0005-8211 .
  • H. Ellenberg, F. Gast, J. Dietrich: Elster, Krähe and Habicht - a relationship structure of territoriality, competition and predation. in: Negotiations of the Society for Ecology. Göttingen 12.1984, 319-329, ISSN  0171-1113 .
  • Wolfgang Epple: Corvids. Birds of the gods gallows birds. A plea in the raven bird dispute. G. Braun Verlag, Karlsruhe 1997, ISBN 3-7650-8135-3 .
  • Urs N. Glutz von Blotzheim : Handbook of the birds of Central Europe. 13/3: Passeriformes. Part 3: Corvidae and Sturnidae. Aula, Wiesbaden 1993, ISBN 3-89104-542-5 .
  • FA Kipp: Ceremonial spring gatherings with jays, magpies, pine jays and carrion crows. In: The bird world. Wiebelsheim 99.1978, 185-190, ISSN  0042-7993 .
  • Gerhard Kooiker, Claudia Verena Buckow: The magpie. A raven bird in its sights. Aula Verlag, Wiesbaden 1999, ISBN 3-89104-633-2 .
  • Sang-im Lee et al .: Phylogeny of magpies (genus Pica) inferred from mtDNA data. In: Molecular phylogenetics and evolution. San Diego Cal Vol. 29.2003, 250-257, ISSN  1055-7903 .

Problems of regulation

  • J. Bellebaum, K. Nottmeyer-Linden: Are there overpopulations of magpies, carrons and jays in North Rhine-Westphalia? in: LÖBF-Mitteilungen. Recklinghausen 1998, No. 1, 29-34, ISSN  0177-7785 .
  • Einhard Bezzel: Evil predatory stuff or harmless songbirds? The fate of the jay, magpie and carrion crow in a dispute between hunters and bird conservationists. In: Association Jordsand (Hrsg.): SEEVÖGEL: Journal of the association Jordsand for the protection of the sea birds and the nature eV Band 9 , issue 4, September 1988, ISSN  0722-2947 , p. 57-61 .
  • R. Dreifke: Causes for the distribution and frequency of magpies (pica pica). An investigation on two test areas in Schleswig-Holstein. Dipl. Arb. Univ. Göttingen, Göttingen 1990.
  • Wolfgang Epple: To protect the corvids. Information service for nature conservation in Lower Saxony. Hanover 1997, issue 5, ISSN  0934-7135 .
  • G. Erlinger: The development of the carrion crow Corvus corone and Elster Pica pica after hunting in the NSG Hagenauer Bucht on the lower Inn. in: Anzeiger der Ornithologische Gesellschaft in Bayern. Munich 13.1974 2, 245-247, ISSN  0030-5715 .
  • H.-W. Helb: Scientific accompanying studies on magpie (Pica pica) and carrion crow (Corvus c. Corone) in Rhineland-Palatinate. in: Pollichia courier. Bad Dürkheim 15.1999, 1, 6-10, ISSN  0936-9384 .
  • W. Knief, P. Borkenhagen: Is it necessary to regulate the numbers of carrion crows and magpies? A study example from Schleswig-Holstein. in: Nature and Landscape. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 68.1993, 102-107, ISSN  0028-0615 .
  • Gerhard Kooiker: Studies on the influence of the magpie Pica pica on selected urban bird species in Osnabrück. In: The bird world. Wiebelsheim 112.1991, 225-236, ISSN  0042-7993 .
  • Gerhard Kooiker: Further results on the influence of the Elster Pica pica on urban bird species in Osnabrück. In: The bird world. Wiebelsheim 115.1994, 39-44, ISSN  0042-7993 .
  • T. Langgemach, E. Discherlein: On the current status of the hunt for the carrion crow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and jay (Garrulus glandarius) in Germany. In: Reports on bird protection. Münster 41.2004, 17-44, ISSN  0944-5730 .
  • U. Mäck: Population biology and spatial use of the Elster in an urban area. In: Ecology of Birds. Stuttgart 20.1998, issue 1, ISSN  0173-0711 .
  • U. Mäck, U., M.-E. Jürgens, P. Boye, H. Haupt: Carrion crow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and jay (Garrulus glandarius) in Germany. Considerations of their role in the ecosystem and the need for stock management. In: Nature and Landscape. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 74.1999, 485-493, ISSN  0028-0615 .
  • U. Mäck, M.-E. Jürgens: Carrion crow, magpie and jay in Germany. Report on the state of knowledge and the discussions on the role of the carrion crow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and jay (Garrulus glandarius) in the ecosystem as well as the need for population management. BfN series of publications. Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Münster 1999, ISBN 3-7843-3804-6 .
  • R. Mulsow, W. Schroeter: On the biology of the magpie (Pica pica L.) in the Hamburg area. Comment on the question Should the magpie be hunted or not? In: Hamb. avifaun. Contribution 20.1985, 97-106.
  • K. Witt: Do magpies (pica pica) have an influence on the world of small birds in a large city? In: The bird world. Wiebelsheim 110.1989, 142-150, ISSN  0042-7993 .
  • M. Würfels: Settlement density and relationship structure of elster, carrion and hawk 1992 in the urban area of ​​Cologne. In: Charadrius. Bonn 30.1994, 94-103, ISSN  0174-1004 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Elster  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Magpie ( Pica pica )  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Dynamiques spatiale et demographique de la pie bavarde Pica pica en France: implications pour la gestion: "Envergure"
  2. Urs N. Glutz von Blotzheim: Handbook of the birds of Central Europe. 13/3, Passeriformes. Part 3, Corvidae and Sturnidae. Aula, Wiesbaden 1993. ISBN 3-89104-542-5 : p. 1462
  3. ^ Alden H. Miller, Robert I. Bowman: A Fossil Magpie from the Pleistocene of Texas . Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkeley, California, The Condor Vol. 58, pp. 164-165, 1956, web link
  4. Sang-im Lee, Cynthia S. Parr, Youna Hwang, David P. Mindell, and Jae C. Choe: Phylogeny of magpies (genus Pica) inferred from mtDNA data . Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 29: 250–257, 2003, web link ( Memento from September 28, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF file; 243 kB)
  5. ^ Bettina Pollok, Helmut Prior and Onur Güntürkün: Development of Object Permanence in Food-Storing Magpies (Pica pica) . Journal of Comparative Psychology 114, No. 2, pp. 148–157, 2000, web link (PDF file; 1.5 MB)
  6. University of Bochum: The Intelligence of the Elster ( Memento of the original from July 13, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF file; 975 kB) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  7. Otto Koehler: From learning unnamed numbers in birds. In: The natural sciences. Volume 29, pp. 201-218, 1941
  8. ^ Otto Koehler: The ability of birds to “count”. In: Bull. Anim. Behav. Volume 9, pp. 41-45, 1951
  9. Johannes Schwarz u. Martin Flade: Results of the DDA monitoring program. Part I: Changes in the population of bird species in the settlements since 1989 . Vogelwelt 121: 87 - 106, 2000, web link (PDF file; 2.2 MB)
  10. a b Birds in Europe Factsheet: Black-billed Magpie
  11. Birdlife Species Factsheet: Black-billed Magpie
  12. H.-W. Helb: Scientific accompanying studies on magpie (Pica pica) and carrion crow (Corvus c. Corone) in Rhineland-Palatinate . Pollichia-Kurier 15 (1): 6-10, 1999
  13. ^ W. Knief, P. Borkenhagen: Is it necessary to regulate the population of carrion crows and magpies? A study example from Schleswig-Holstein . Nature and Landscape 68: 102-107, 1993
  14. Gerhard Kooiker: Studies on the influence of the magpie Pica pica on selected urban bird species in Osnabrück . Vogelwelt 112: 225-236, 1991
  15. U. Mäck, U., M.-E. Jürgens, P. Boye, H. Haupt: Carrion crow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and jay (Garrulus glandarius) in Germany. Considerations of their role in the ecosystem and the need for stock management . Nature and Landscape 74: 485-493, 1999
  16. K. Witt: Do magpies (pica pica) have an influence on the world of small birds in a large city? Vogelwelt 110: 142-150, 1989
  17. Schmidt, K & E. Hantge 1954: Studies on a colored ringed population of the whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) . J. Orn., Pp. 130-173, 1995
  18. 12th meeting of the Schleswig-Holstein Environmental Committee: Limited approval of the hunt for corvids to protect the native fauna and implementation of an accompanying study , 1997, web link ( Memento of September 27, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF file; 43 kB)
  19. The Hunt for Magpies
  20. The Council of the European Communities 1979: Council Directive of April 2, 1979 on the conservation of wild birds (79/409 / EEC) . Oj EG No. L 103: 1 ff. (Bird Protection Directive)
  21. Some state ordinances on the hunting of magpies. As of 1999.
  22. The Council of the European Communities 1994: Council Directive 94/24 / EC of June 8, 1994 amending Annex II of Directive 79/409 / EEC on the conservation of wild birds . Oj EC No. L 164: 9 ff.
  23. Directive 2009/147 / EC of the European Parliament and the Council of November 30, 2009 on the conservation of wild birds
  24. Committee against Bird Murder: Songbirds killed
  25. ^ Duden: German Universal Dictionary , entry: Elster, page 350, 1983, ISBN 3-411-02175-6
  26. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary. Entry: Magpie, web link
  27. TV Shephard, SEG Lea, N. Hempel de Ibarra: 'The thieving magpie'? No evidence of attraction to shiny objects . In: Animal Cognition . tape 18 , no. 1 , January 2015, p. 393-397 , doi : 10.1007 / s10071-014-0794-4 .
  28. Wisdomportal: The Magpie in the Mythology ( Memento of the original from November 11, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  29. China Internet Information Center: Qixi Festival
  30. Gert Oswald: Lexicon of Heraldry. VEB Bibliographisches Institut Leipzig, 1984
  31. ^ Author collective: Lexicon of cities and coats of arms of the GDR. VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie Leipzig, 1979
  32. If there is two hearts after that, the sêle must be sûr. Gesmæhet unde is adorned, swâ unhesitatingly parries man muot, as agelstern varwe tuot. the mac was still cool: walled on in the sint beidiu part, the himels and the light. the unstæte journeyman has the black varwe at all, and is also host to the vinster var: so have thought of the bright ones with stæten. diz vgende bîspel is dumb liuten gar ze snel, sine mugens doesn't think about it: wand ez kan in front of wenken rehte alsam a schellec rabbit. (When doubt lives close to the heart, the soul has to open it bitterly. Where a clear character like the color of the magpie mixes, there is praise and shame at the same time. The person can still be confident: because he has a share in both heaven and at hell. The fickle is completely black and will also travel into darkness. The constant sticks to the white. This flying example is too nimble for stupid people, they cannot grasp it: because it is in front of them exactly like a startled rabbit Can hit the hook. Transl. Anonymous No .:
  33. Sebastian Brant : The Ship of Fools - Of bad women in the Gutenberg-DE project
  34. ^ Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim : Fables - The Magpie. The eagle owl in the Gutenberg-DE project
  35. ^ Heinrich Seidel : The sorcerer in the project Gutenberg-DE
  36. ^ Christian Morgenstern : The magpie in the Gutenberg-DE project
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on December 2, 2006 in this version .