The magpies of the Himalayas

Gold-billed magpies occupy the high altitude zone between 2,000 and 3,000 meters above sea level

Gold-billed magpies occupy the high altitude zone between 2,000 and 3,000 meters above sea level

Magpies belong to the Corvidae family of birds that includes crows, jays and ravens. Birds of this family are generally considered to be noisy, inquisitive birds that in folklore from around the world have often been associated with omens, good or bad. In some European cultures, they accompany witches. An English rhyme, “One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, four for a boy; Five for silver, six for gold; Seven for a secret never to be told,” suggests that spotting a lone magpie brings bad news. But no one will deny that the magpies are striking in appearance, or that some of the most flamboyant species are found in the Himalayas.

From Kashmir to Myanmar, a few closely related blue magpie species are a common sight. The gold-billed magpie, Urocissa flavirostris, also called the yellow-billed blue magpie, has mischief in its eyes and occupies the high altitude zone between 2000 and 3000 meters above sea level. At slightly lower heights we find the red-billed magpie, and the blue magpie is found at lower altitudes where humans live in larger numbers.

Trekking corridors

Best sightings of the yellow and red-billed varieties are in the trekking corridor in Western Sikkim that leads from the town of Yuksom, at 1,780 metres above sea level, to fabulous sights of the Kanchenjunga from near the Goche La pass at about 4,700 metres above sea level. The journey takes you from tropical moist broad-leaf forests at the lower altitudes through high sub-Alpine forests to a treeless Alpine landscape of juniper bushes. Somewhere in the middle are forests whose canopies close in over you, and an astonishing diversity and density of birds.

Field studies by zoologists at the Sikkim Government College have documented that over 250 species of birds are found in this zone, and at around 2,500 metres above sea level, you can see or hear nearly 60 individual birds in a five-minute time interval. The yellow-billed blue magpie is very often a part of this chorus. The body of the bird is about the size of a pigeon, but with a 45-centimeter-long tail, adding up to a overall size of 66 cm. While foraging for worms on the ground, the tail is pointed upward; while picking berries in trees, the tail swoops downward. The flight is characteristic too: a few quick wing beats, followed by long gliding movements.

Flowery rhododendrons

The yellow-billed blue magpie builds its nests at the forks of branches in rhododendron trees. The nest itself appears to be a hurried job of twigs, with a soft lining of grass in which three-six eggs are laid in the months of May or June. Both parents take part in raising the young. As the nursery rhyme says, two for joy.

The blue magpie, and the red-billed magpie are very similar in appearance too, though a little smaller. The blue magpie is less of a forest bird, and more often seen around villages. All the species can be spotted as solitary birds, in pairs, or in noisy flocks of 8-10 birds.

As human presence in forests increases, there are worries about how well the birds can cope. The colorful flowers of rhododendrons attract tourists. To support tourists, villagers often resort to forest resources such as firewood. It is hoped that just like agriculture, tourism will also learn to be a sustainable trade.

(The article was written in collaboration with Sushil Chandani, who works in molecular modelling)

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