Powell County, Montana, Wildlife: Baby Magpie (Pica Hudsonia)

Pica hudsonia? Sounds like a type font. Even so, the baby magpie perched on my neighbor’s hand in Powell County, Montana, was definitely a bird. I had to walk over, take pictures, and discuss the situation. Rescue? Turned out…not. She looked it up online and guess what? Magpie parents do this on purpose. Push the babies out before their tail feathers are developed, before they can fly, and then finish their education on the ground.

As plentiful as magpies are in Deer Lodge, it’s a little surprising that we’d never seen this before, but….

Note: This was my good neighbor to the south, henceforth referred to as GNS. Not naming names for the sake of privacy. There will also be GNN, good neighbor to the north, later on in the story.

Right. Down there in a tough neighborhood full of mostly yard-kept dogs plus a cat or two that roam the ‘hood, that’s where Mom and Dad ‘Pie pushed Junior…whom I might as well call Pica. The felines have homes. But they do head outside regularly and chain link fences are no impediment to their wandering. The adult magpies will defend the baby to some extent, mostly by swooping. They’re also quite verbal, chittering at us humans (though they did not swoop us). Does the little ‘pie face any worse odds than it would out in the true wild, away from human habitation? Hard to say. It’s a tough, Darwinian weeding process either way.

In the meantime, little Pica turned out to be quite the walker. Out into the street twice, from whence GNS had rescued him. Magpies are famously intelligent, though. He didn’t want to leave the back of her hand–very human-friendly–nor has he gone back to the paved street since, at least as far as we know. I took photos, we shifted him from her hand to my hand (just by slightly tilting hers so he could and did walk onto mine. We had other things to do but kept checking on the little guy.

Baby magpie (named Pica), pushed out into the big bad world by his parents, going eye-to-eye with his new best friend.

Are you my new mama?

Not quite ready for flight. Grow, feathers, grow!

After transfer from neighbor to me.

Settled in.

Showing young Pica the magpie’s size on the back of my hand.

Young Pica the magpie totally, instinctively trusted both of us. As I’ve stated many times before, noting that every man has his price, I can be bought with trust. I added my own online research to that studied by GNS. Trying to “rescue” Pica beyond the point of picking him up and away from traffic lanes would hamper rather than help him because adult magpies are (so the websites say) extremely territorial. If the little guy didn’t finish his growing up period on the open ground, odds were he’d be attacked by older magpies when he returned to Nature. He’d also have a stunted ability to feed himself. So, what to do?

I didn’t quite know, and that feeling of uncertainty is not nice.

GNS and I decided to try putting him back on the ground in her yard one more time. Pica didn’t have a problem with that. He stepped off my hand, onto the grass. Then he walked over, checked out a water bowl she’d set out, and perched on the rim for a while.

Perched on the water dish.

At one point, we lost track of his whereabouts. Then GNS spotted him. “Oh, there he is. He’s out in the alley, near your garbage can. He’s quite the walker.”

“Yes. Yes, he is.”

The parents were frequently overhead, high-swooping, I suspect flying guard against several crows in the area who looked like they might have evil designs on their minds. Aside from that, it was sink or swim for Pica, much the way my dad tossed me into the old swimming hole when I was six. He was stocky and buoyant. Floated like a cork. I was (and am) lean, dense of bone, and swim like a rock. So will this little human-friendly magpie turn out to be a floater or a sinker? No way to tell yet.

One thing was clear. Pica was soon up erect on his feet, taking as much control of his own destiny as he could. Fast adjustment in progress, giving him the best possible chance of survival no matter how slim even that chance might be.

In the alley, only an hour or two later, Pica was already adjusting to his new reality.

Standing tall, proud and beautiful.

“I’m a big boy now! I can feed myself!”

In the alley, taking a bird nap on his feet. That’s my best guess, anyway. Eyes closed, legs slant-cocked. Looks kind of like a penguin!

The afternoon continued to wind down. I headed out for supper at the 4Bs CafĂ©. When I was driving back toward my driveway, I thought my peripheral vision picked up a dark little form that just had to be Pica…in my neighbor-to-the-north’s yard. They have three dogs and a cat, none of which appeared to be outside at the moment. I parked, got out, leaned over the fence to look, and…yep. Around I went, hollered, “Hello the house!” Knocked on the door. GNN (good neighbor north) answered. I stepped inside, explained the situation. We both stepped back outside. He thought the little magpie was interesting. Watched as I eased over, love-talked Pica, put my hand down (palm up). Pica stepped right up on my palm. I rose, kept talking. GNN stroked the little guy’s back-feathers. Never once has Pica complained about this. He seems to appreciate the gentle contact.

Now for the long, cautious stepping, cupping both palms slightly to give the bird’s body some side-support. The baby magpie stayed up on his feet this time, no more lying down on the job, but no complaints, either. All the lo-ong way out of GNN’s yard, up my driveway, through the yard gate, around the house via the narrow space between my home’s south wall and GNS’s yard fence, over in the back yard to the northeast corner where the two cargo trailers are parked. A tall steel-panel fence protects the north side and the garage’s back wall protects the east side. En route, just once, Pica pecked my index finger. Not hard, barely a gentle love-touch. Also just once, being otherwise utterly silent, he let out a sudden, loud “WAARK!” call. A shout-out to his biological parents, perhaps?

Naturally, I copied him back as best I could, several times. “WAARK! WAARK! WAARK!” What he thought of my accent, he didn’t say.

When I squatted and put my hands to the grass next to the rear of the larger trailer, Pica seemed to understand immediately. He stepped off my palm and walked right under the trailer. He seemed willing to stay there, hopefully through the night. Magpie websites say adults will hide their ground-bound youngsters “beneath shrubbery” for protection at night. Mom and Dad Pie were, however, conspicuously absent and it was nearing sunset. Not only that, but none of us on this block have much in the way of shrubbery.

Will little Pica still be in my backyard come daylight? Will he be alive come daylight? Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t have a clue. A neighborhood cat does occasionally transit that yard, though it’s not an every-night occurrence. As far as my own indoor-outdoor cat goes, I’m about 80% certain Harvey would not bother the little bird, but no chances are being taken. Instead of letting him out this evening, I’ve locked the outside back porch door, then left the house-to-porch door and the porch-to-garage door wide open. Gato, the indoors-only cat, is ecstatic. He’s got more room than usual. For Harvey, it’s the best compromise I could devise.

As I explained to Harvey, “If I let you out and I was wrong, I’d never blame you, but I’d blame myself for the rest of my life.”

I’ve also asked Spirit for as much baby-bird protection as might be appropriate. Got to cover the bases.

How many weeks before Pica will be able to fly, if he survives? Not sure. A couple of weeks at least. Grow, feathers, grow! In the meantime, every hour he’s still around counts for something.