150 Boise Icons: the magpie

awebb@idahostatesman.comFebruary 13, 2013 

Did you know? The journal of Lewis and Clark makes note of magpies, unafraid of humans, snatching meat from the explorers’ camp. Lewis and Clark admired the birds enough to send four magpies, one prairie dog and one prairie grouse back east to Thomas Jefferson. The prairie dog and one magpie survived.

PETE ZIMOWSKY — Idaho Statesman file

"I love magpies," said Cort Conley, admitting that the birds have a bad reputation from their habit of stealing songbird eggs.

Conley, a writer and director of literature at the Idaho Commission on the Arts, said the black-billed magpie, a ubiquitous sight in local yards and parks, deserves a spot on any list of Boise icons.

"Old-timers have told me there were once bounties paid for magpies. People would collect magpie eggs, string them together and cash them in," he said.

They'd do the same with magpie legs, as recently as the 1940s.

Conley respects the birds' savvy. They're members of the crow family. Smart. He's heard of magpies, sometimes called Mormon pheasants, that have learned to ring doorbells for food. In a blizzard, they'll roost on the back of a cow to stay warm.

"Every magpie has different markings. They can recognize their siblings. They respect each others' borders," said Conley.

The birds are elegant in the colors of their feathers, but also their blue green eggs. Impressionist Claude Monet's painting, "The Magpie," hangs in the Musée D'Orsay in Paris.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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