Pica hudsonia

Status: Uncommon regular resident west, locally uncommon southwest and south-central, rare elsewhere. Rare casual winter visitor statewide away from breeding locations.

Current range

Former Range (prior to 2001, Mollhoff 2001)

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM10305, 14 Jul 1910 Sioux Co.

Taxonomy: North American birds, formerly known as Pica pica hudsonia, were recently afforded specific status, separate from those of Europe (Banks et al 2000).  No subspecies are recognized (Gill and Donsker 2017).

Changes Since 2000: The range of Black-billed Magpie in Nebraska has diminished westward to a significant extent, and distribution has become increasingly fragmented, with many breeding locations isolated from others and in danger of extirpation.  Overall numbers have declined significantly in the last decades, especially from 2003-2013 according to BBS and CBC data (see below, Appendix).

Resident: Jorgensen (2016) reviewed the status of this species in Nebraska. Prior to 1900 Black-billed Magpie bred virtually statewide, including Cuming, Cass, and Gage Cos (Bruner et al 1904). After 1900 the range contracted and by mid-20th Century breeding was confined to the west and northwest, where it was still a common breeder (Rapp et al 1958). Since the 1950s, numbers have fluctuated markedly, especially beginning around 2004, when numbers declined significantly for a few years. BBS Trend Analysis 1966-2015 shows an annual decline of 9.43% (95% C.I.; -11.47, -7.32) and for 2005-2015 an annual decline of 8.96% (95% C.I.; -14.45, -3.57) (Sauer et al 2017).  Mollhoff (2016) found a “precipitous decline” in the percentage of BBA blocks reporting this species from 34% during 1984-89 to 8% in 2006-2011.

CBC data suggest severe overall declines at certain locations. The Harlan County Reservoir CBC, Harlan Co 21 Dec 2014 found none, compared with three the previous year and an average of 24 per year 1996-2001. The North Platte CBC had five in 2014-2015, the best count for 2008-2015, but insignificant compared to the count’s record of 194 in 1938.  On the Norfolk CBC in Madison Co, as many as 222 were counted 1985-1989. During winter 2013-2014, only 32 in all were reported on CBCs, all in the west: 16 at Lake McConaughy 29 Dec, 10 at Scottsbluff 15 Dec, five at Crawford 21 Dec, and one at Harrison 22 Dec.

The Pine Ridge remains a stronghold, along with Scotts Bluff and South and North Platte River valleys in Keith Cos; a flock of 32 was at Fort Robinson SRA, Dawes Co 2 Oct 2015, and there were “lots at various places” in Sioux Co 22-23 Jun 2015.  The Scottsbluff CBC 18 Dec 2014 counted 24, and there were 11 additional reports 2014-2016 from Scotts Bluff Co of 1-6 birds. A colony of six nests with eggs was seven miles southwest of Redington, Morrill Co on the Bighorn Escarpment 11 May 2002 (Mollhoff 2004). A family group of eight was in Snell Canyon, Lincoln Co 8 Jul 2014 and seen again 21 Nov, although none were found in the cedar canyons in Lincoln Co on 453 count points in 2013. In 2011, three groups of 9-15 were in Custer Co 20 Apr, and one was at Pressey WMA, Custer Co 30 Dec 2016; it was noted in 2015 that “it seems like more get reported from [the area around the Gibbon I-80 exit] than any other spot in the eastern two-thirds of the state”.

Since about 2010, there have been signs of a slow increase in the northeast part of the range; first sightings for a few years were made in 2010 in Dakota Co, northwest Antelope Co, and in Madison Co. Five were seen west of Norfolk 8 Sep 2014 where none had been seen for 5-6 years, eight were there 2 Sep 2017 and one on 16 Dec 2017. A nest in Pierce Co was reported in 2018. Three in Knox Co near the Niobrara River Valley 26 Feb 2017 were the observer’s first there since 9 Sep 2011, and before that Jul 2005. The “usual place” near Crofton, in northeastern Knox Co, hosted 1-2 during 13-15 Dec 2013, and three were south of Yankton in Cedar Co.

There are no current (2017) breeding locations south and east of Dodge, Seward, and Jefferson Cos. A nest was found 19 May 2002 in Dodge Co; it had five eggs 28 May, and another was located there in 2004. A nest was built at the Dodge Co location in 2005 but abandoned. Nesting occurred in Seward Co in 2007, and it occurs regularly in northwest Jefferson County (Matt Hansen, personal communication); one was at the latter location 24 Jun 2017. Breeding has occurred in Lancaster Co, but is irregular, with no reports since 1987.

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Eggs: 26 Apr-7 Jun
    Nestlings: 20 May-9 Jun
    Fledglings: 17 May.

A photographic documentation through the nesting season of a nest in Hall County in 2004 was made by Ron and Anne Kruse (Mollhoff 2013).

  • High counts: 107 in Scotts Bluff Co 23 Aug 1996, 65 at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co on 2 Sep 1993, and 50+ near Gibbon, Buffalo Co 31 Aug 2000, all apparently post-breeding flocks.

Winter: This species is not migratory, but occasionally exhibits post-breeding dispersal to areas where it does not breed. Blake and Ducey (1991) noted that “occasional wanderers” appeared in Holt Co in fall; near Gilead, Thayer Co, an observer stated in 2014: “I’ve seen several pairs there over the last four years, usually over the winter”. At locations on the east edge of the breeding range, post-breeding dispersal occurs in Sep and later. In Lancaster Co 1-2 were reported on Lincoln CBCs up to 1998.  Scattered additional easterly reports during the non-breeding season are 13 Mar 2017 Seward Co, 18 Sep 1981 Greenwood, Lancaster Co (Williams 1982), Washington Co 25 Oct 1998 “the first modern record”, 2 Oct 2001 Washington Co, 3 Dec 1998 three miles north of Bennington, Douglas Co, 15 Feb 2013 Saunders Co, and 14 Mar 1987 Douglas-Sarpy Cos.

  • High counts:  250 in Lincoln Co 14 Jan 1934 (Tout 1947) and 50+ in Scotts Bluff Co 3 Dec 2012.

Comments:  The pattern and cause of recent declines has been discussed by various individuals.  Mollhoff (in Silcock 2013) believed that in most of the state, the species now occurs only in pockets, possibly comprised of family groups, that are susceptible to local extirpation, a conclusion supported by Jorgensen (2016).  The definitive cause of the decline in most areas of the state is less clear and may involve various factors.  West Nile Virus is the most likely explanation, and may be the sole cause, since recent declines correspond with its arrival in Nebraska and on the Great Plains.  Jorgensen (2016) presented data from the Centers for Disease Control that showed the highest rates of West Nile Virus incidence in humans corresponded to the approximate areas where Black-billed Magpies have experienced the greatest declines.  Differential West Nile Virus incidence in humans, which may also affect magpies, was attributed to weather and climate cycles that influence the abundance of Culex mosquitoes, an important disease vector, in the Great Plains (Jorgensen 2016).  However, other variables may also be affecting magpie populations. Trost (1999) cited studies suggesting that Black-billed Magpie is adapted to “cold, shrub-steppe environment” and distribution might be limited by climatic factors such as temperature and humidity” … “rather than by food availability”. Recent warm years may thus be playing a role in the fragmentation of the Nebraska distribution.


BBA: Breeding Bird Atlas
BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
SRA: State Recreation Area
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)


Figure 1.  Number of Black-billed Magpies recorded per party hour on selected CBCs during the period 1985-2017.   Black-billed Magpie abundance was variable throughout the entire period, but fewer Black-billed Magpies were recorded on all CBCs after 2000 and declined in following years.


Literature Cited

Banks, R.C., C. Cicero, J.L. Dunn, A.W. Kratter, H. Ouellet, P.C. Rasmussen, J.V. Remsen, Jr., J.A. Rising, and D.F. Stotz. 2000. Forty-Second Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-List of North American Birds. Auk 117: 847-858.

Blake, L., and J. E. Ducey. 1991. Birds of the eastern Sandhills in Holt County, Nebraska. NBR 59: 103-132.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.

Jorgensen, J.G.  2016.  Status review of the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) in Nebraska.  Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2004. The 2002 Nebraska Nesting Report. NBR 72: 153-158.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2013. Photo documentation by Ron and Anne Kruse of Black-billed Magpie nest in Hall County. NBR 81: 81-86.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The    North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Silcock, W.R. 2013. Fall Field Report, August-November 2013. NBR 81: 134-160.

Tout, W. 1947. Lincoln County birds. Published by the author, North Platte, Nebraska, USA.

Trost, C H. 1999. Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2018.  Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online