Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Return of the Yellow-billed Magpies (?)

This afternoon, at about 1600 hours I was pleasantly surprised to see there were 12 yellow-billed magpies (Picea nuttalli) at the top of my neighbor's 70-foot redwood tree. These birds were once abundant and common in my neighborhood in Sacramento (about 3 miles east of the State Capitol). Flocks of 50+ magpies were not unusual. I have DVD footage I took about 5 years ago of about 80 of them and a large flock of crows (Corvus corax) in the redwood tree "fighting" with each other. Their screeching and calling at each was so loud and agitated that early Sunday morning that they woke me and Truman up! They are highly intelligent and social birds; their antics are amusing. When I watered my front yard with a lawn sprinkler during the hot Central Valley summers, flocks would land and they would take turns drinking water from the hose. But since West Nile Virus hit the area, you now only see one or maybe two or three yellow-billed magpies at a time. And that rarely. When I see the lone individual or pairs of them now, I often wonder how the behavior of these animals has been changed. I am a trained biologist, but I can not help but think that these highly social animals must be terribly lonely and confused by the loss of their comrades. So, I was sure glad to see the flock of these characters arguing and fighting with each other today! I am told that corvids are especially vulnerable to the disease. I have thought that West Nile Virus reached North America through the tremendous international trade in African parrots. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the disease first struck this Country in the New York area - JFK is a major Port of Entry for wildlife from foreign countries. Here in Sacramento, the crows, a corvid, dropped in number, but seem to be slowly recovering. They like to spend the night up on Richards Blvd north of the State Capitol, and you can see 100s of them perching on buildings and telephone lines, and walking around on the ground searching for food or socializing with each other. I hope the yellow-billed magpies are developing immunity to West Nile Disease as they are one of my favorite birds.
The photo is from MagpieMonitor.org which is run by the U.C. Davis Veterinary School.

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