BIRD-WATCHING in Morocco last week I encountered some magpies.
A sky-blue patch of feathers behind each eye gave them an exotic Arabian Nights look. Apart from this, they seemed to be similar to their Irish cousins; noisy, cheeky and fearless, they competed for attention with bulbuls, spotless starlings and trumpeter finches around sun-drenched red dwellings and little patches of cultivation.
Except for a population in the mountains of Saudi-Arabia, the magpies of Morocco are the most southerly in the world. Their facial embellishments do not, however, entitle them to separate species status. The North African birds are deemed to be only racially distinct, their sub-species being known to science as Pica pica mauritanica.
Does the bird’s blue face-patch reveal a curious shortcoming of this much-maligned bird? The magpie is a member of the crow family. Its cousin, the New Caledonian crow, is capable not only of tool use but of meta-tool use; it can fashion hooks from palm leaves and use them to rake in items of food.
Closer to home, the carrion crow has demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity in extracting food from plastic sacks. Magpies, too, are resourceful and seldom miss a trick.
They have, however, a failing; like most crows, they are curiously timid and incompetent when it comes to travelling long distances and it is this weakness which allowed local variants to develop. Thirteen races are recognised.
To become so distinctive, the North African magpies must have been isolated for a long period from their cousins in Spain.
At some time in the past, magpies crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, perhaps borne on strong winds or lost in fog. Finding themselves in suitable habitat, they set up shop on the Moroccan side of the strait, spreading out from there to the west and south. The 15km sea crossing is so intimidating that few Spanish magpies joined them over the centuries and so the emigrants remained reproductively isolated. Gradually, in response to the pressures of their new environment, the exiles evolved unique characteristics, including their face patches.
Our Irish magpie has a similar history. Gerald of Wales, who came here on two occasions in the late 12th century, noted the absence of the bird.
Fynes Morison, following his celebrated tour of Europe in the 1590s, also does so. In their Birds of Ireland, published in 1900, Richard Ussher and Robert Warren, refer to a Robert Leigh of Rosegarland, Co Wexford. In 1684, Leigh remarked that ‘about eight years ago there landed in these parts… a parcel of magpies which now breed’.
Another witness claimed that there were ‘under a dozen’, which were borne on strong easterly winds. ‘The peasantry do not molest it’, the authors remark. They believe ‘that so long as they let it alone, it will not do injury near its nest, but that if they rob it of its eggs their chickens will be made prey’.
But Ussher and Warren’s account also contradicts the magpie travel-shy theory: ‘The light-keeper at Hook Tower’ wrote that ‘on the 18th October 1893, magpies [were] very numerous close to the station, probably one hundred and fifty to two hundred’.
There were ‘some [such] instances each year’. Birds gather at remote headlands prior to migration or arrive exhausted at these locations having crossed the sea. The magpies at Hook Head must surely have been migrants but, if so, why did it take so long for the species to colonise Ireland? Nor do we find such behaviour today. Of the 22,000 magpies ringed in Britain and Ireland up to the publication of the Migration Atlas, over 1,100 were found subsequently and none had made a sea crossing.
That magpies can be carried off by gales is illustrated by another incident which Ussher and Warren describe. Rockabill is a little granite outcrop 6km off the North Dublin coast.
On Jan 7, 1889, ‘two magpies arrived on the Bill and made several attempts to reach the mainland, but were driven back by a strong wind from W. and died after four days’.
Had Rockabill not been there, the pair might have been carried over to Wales, as their ancestral cousins were to Ireland and Morocco long ago.
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