A Jester Dressed in Motley


Magpies are named for their most obvious characteristic: their black and white pattern. The word “pied” means: having sections or patches colored differently and usually brightly; “a jester dressed in motley”. Not sure where the “mag” part comes in, but the name has been used for other birds, such as the Magpie-lark of Australia. The ones I’m painting are the Yellow-billed Magpie of Central California, a beautiful state endemic, which really would have made a nice state bird, come to think of it. Nothing against the California quail, but you can see CA quail from the southern tip of Baja to the southern border of British Columbia, and eastward out to the eastern edge of Utah. Some state bird! The Yellow-billed is highly restricted geographically. It is blocked in by the slightest bit of altitude, it seems, and exists in the perfectly flat wide valley between the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada from east of Santa Barbara to around Redding. It’s a striking example of island biogeography, with elevation apparently being the limiting factor. And it’s a striking bird to boot.

The Yellow-billed is virtually identical to it’s widespread cousin, the American magpie, aka Black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia, which in turn is virtually identical to the internationally widespread Pica pica, aka European magpie, aka Magpie. It’s found throughout Europe, the British Isles, much of Asia, and northwest Africa. Of all the magpies in the genus Pica, the Yellow-billed is the most distinctive with that banana-colored shnoz. To learn more about Magpies,read here.

Besides their black and white semiphoric pattern (if only we could translate the code), the Magpie has that amazing long tail. And if you can get close enough at just the right angle in just the right light, you will see the brilliant flashes of green, purple and bright blue in the wings and tail. Why isn’t this bird considered an exotic and marvelous specimen, as exotic as a flamingo or a toucan?

And maybe sometime we could talk about the etymology of the word, Pica.

3 thoughts on “A Jester Dressed in Motley

  1. Julie Zickefoose says:

    I think I have Pica right now. This afternoon I have eaten lime chili peanuts, clementines, cheese and chocolate graham bunnies and I cannot stop.
    Nice ‘pies! Way to not get all carried away on the iridescence! People do, you know.
    xo
    jz

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