By: Marlene Affeld
For many years I believed that the Black Billed Magpie was the Montana State bird. I was wrong, our state bird is the Meadow Lark. However, the opportunist and rather aggressive Black Billed Magpie is an icon of the American West and a welcome resident of Montana. Perhaps it should be our state bird. Like true Montanans, the magpie doesn’t flee to sunny climes to escape the winter wind, but hunkers down and rides out the storms.
The magpie has other characteristics to admire. Magpies mate for life, sharing the domestic duties of nest building and feeding and raising their young. After laying six to eight eggs, the female magpie incubates the clutch for 16 to 21 days. Both parents are attentive to the nestlings, and they fledge when 25 to 29 days old. Magpies raise a single brood each year. They build their nests in loose colonies, keeping their siblings and young close.
Graceful in flight, these large members of the crow family are long tailed, black and white birds, approxi-mately 20 inches in length. In the soft sunlight, their black wings and tail appear iridescent bluish-green in bold contrast to gleaming white wing patches.
Magpie nests are large for the size of the bird - often measuring in excess of three feet across. The nest is a spherical mass of sticks and twigs, often adorned with found bits of colorful thread, paper or string. Built for comfort with a mud cup lovingly lined with soft wool, hair or moss, the nest also has side entrance holes. They nest in bushes and trees at low elevations 10 to 20 feet from the ground.
Like other corvids, magpies are omnivorous and opportunistic. Small rodents, other birds, bird eggs, snakes, insects, berries, nuts and seeds are favorite fare. Magpies are not picky eaters. Magpies are not timid and can be trained to feed from the hand. In their brave journey across Montana, this behavior was mentioned by Lewis and Clark in the chronicles of their adventures in 1804.
Magpies serve a very important purpose in nature in that they consume large quantities of ticks gleaned from the bodies of deer, bison, moose and elk, especially in the early spring. Ticks are a tiresome irritation to the host animals, so they most willingly submit to the magpie’s grooming attention.
Historically, magpies frequently followed Native Americans and lived on the refuse of their hunts. A born thief and scavenger, magpies will also often follow predators to clean up after their kill, feasting on maggots as well as carrion. Native American folklore tells of the magpie leading the wolf to wounded or weak prey so that the wolf may finish the kill and together they may feast on the bounty.
Because of their aggressive intelligence, year-round residency and handsome plumage, magpies have long been admired favorites. In early Indian tribal lore, a warrior who wore two magpie feathers woven in his hair was considered both fierce and fearless. The magpie also features prominently in many Indian myths and legends as both a doer of good deeds as well as a crafty mischief-maker.
“Many winters ago the people received a gift called the talking feather. I will share with you the story of how this came to pass.
When the call came to the young mothers in the village to take their baskets and gather the fruit and berries, the old grandmothers, whose legs had lost the fast walk and sure foot of the doe, were left to care for the young children. The mothers honored the grandmothers by giving them this responsibility on those days.
It is believed that the young children have many dreams and visions to collect before they are grown. They were given a bit of sleep in the warmth of a darkened lodge before Sun has traveled his full path each day. Now let me tell you what happened on one of these days.
Crow and Magpie, two of our noise making winged ones were having a terrible argument outside the lodge of the sleeping children. "Caaaw-caaaw" screamed Crow. "Kaaack-Kack" yelled Magpie. They were both speaking at once and they could not hear each other's point of view on the subject of which tree belonged to which bird.
Now first one of the grandmothers asked Creator to quiet the voices outside. This was easier than going out to take care of it herself. But Creator let the grandmother know that it was her job to go out and scare off the birds. You see Wakan Tonka knew that a great gift was coming to the people and he wanted the grandmother to see it happen.
When she could not get the attention of the screaming Crow or yelling Magpie, she called on Eagle, most Wakan winged one. "Oh brother Eagle can you chase off these two noisy ones so our children can still dream", asked the grandmother.
With a mighty flap of his wings and a leap from the limb he sailed towards the noisy pair. He gave a call of warning to the Crow and Magpie as he came close, but they were so busy fighting they did not even hear him. When Eagle saw this he yelled louder and came closer, and that is when it happened.
"Caaaw-caaaw, Caaaw-caaaw", Crow screamed as he flapped his wings in the air so hard he nearly fell off his perch. "Kaaack-Kack", yelled Magpie as his wings too flapped up a storm. Suddenly they both felt the contact of a sacred Eagle wing and saw a feather fall as they froze in mid squawk! Oh my what had they done? Crow swooped down and caught the feather before it landed on Mother Earth. As he came back to the branch he heard Magpie speaking to Eagle.
"Oh brother Eagle most Wakan of our family we did not hear you so near. I am truly sorry for the injury I have caused you."
Crow was surprised to hear such an honorable thing come from the mouth of this rude neighbor. He held the Eagle feather in one claw and spoke with dignity. "I have many times been a naughty bird but brother Eagle I think this may be the worst I have done in many moons. I am very sorry for this bad thing I have done."
Magpie was shocked, could this be that unruly Crow who spoke such wise words? Crow handed the feather to Magpie so he could give it back to Eagle. As Magpie took the feather their eyes met and with no words at all they both knew that this mistake would not have happened if they had not been fighting. Magpie spoke as he took the feather and said, "I am ashamed, brother Eagle, that my loud talk and harsh words were more important to me than solving our problem."
He looked to Crow for a sign of understanding. Crow took the feather back from Magpie and said, "We have disturbed the two legged children and torn from your wing a sacred feather and now we return it to you with a request for your forgiveness."
Eagle had watched all this with wise eyes and an open heart. He knew the lesson of listening had been learned by his little brothers and he saw that the grandmother looked on with learning eyes also. So he said to Crow, "Give my feather to the grandmother so that she might dress it with beads and leather and fur to make it even more beautiful. Let her keep it in her lodge and teach others to create this fine looking feather."
Eagle said, "We will call this sacred item a Talking Feather. You have seen it's power grandmother. Tell all the people that when they come together for Council Fires or at any gathering where ears might be shut, to bring out the Talking Feather and let only the holder speak. This will be done in an honorable manner letting everyone have his say. Begin with the highest ranking Elder and pass the feather until all have spoken."
"When the feather is held with its back to the listeners and the inside curve to the speaker he will hear his own words first as they come back to him. This will help to tame the harsh tongue of the two legged. If disagreements are still between two people they will turn the feather away from themselves so the words can go straight to the one they are at odds with", explained Eagle. "When all have spoken a vote can be taken and the side who gathers the most votes will make the final decision", said Eagle.
As Eagle spoke these words Crow brought the feather to the grandmother. She was very honored to have learned this lesson and she brought the feather to her lodge and every grandmother from that day on has told this story and helped the young ones to make Talking Feathers.” -