Yellow-Billed Magpie

Pica nutalli
Range Map

Not as well known in North America as its “Black-Billed” cousin, these birds are exclusive to California’s Central Valley and central coast mountains. Scientists believe this bird’s ancestors were separated from Asian ancestors that crossed the Bering Straights and later became isolated from rest of the population by glaciation and uplift in the ancient Sierra Nevada Mountains, allowing them to evolve into a new species.

The numbers of Yellow-Billed Magpies have declined by over 73% since 1966, meaning they are at risk of extinction without conservation measures. While we are uncertain of the cause for this decline, we know loss of habitat, rodent poisoning, and the West Nile virus have taken a toll on these birds.

These birds’ preferred habitat is open grass lands with large trees scattered throughout. Grass ranges provide foraging opportunities, and the trees offer shelter and nesting structures. Oaks, sycamore, and cottonwood species are ideal for their nest building. Their nests are large, domed structures build high in the canopy often near the end of long branches. Researchers believe the choice of location limits access by snakes and other predators.

There is a road traversing the Santa Lucia Range from the Big Sur coast in central California, to the inland Salinas River Valley. It is called the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. As it leads away from the Coast Highway (CA-1), it provides breathtaking panoramic vistas of the Big Sur coast before cresting the summit and descending the eastern slopes of the mountain range. On reaching the valley floor, you will find yourself in perfect habitat for the magpies. Each time I travel this scenic road, I look for the Yellow-Billed Magpies. I don’t always see them on this drive. Sometimes, when I do, they are too distant for photographs. Once, however, I met a congregation of them around a roadside ranch house, where I suspect they were nesting. The meeting provided me my best images, all shot from my vehicle parked at the roadside.

Taxonomist regard the Yellow-Billed Magpie as monotypic (i.e. there are no subspecies).

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