Magpie Nesting Habits and Divorce Rates

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know:  more black-billed magpies get divorced in Alberta than they do in South Dakota. It’s true. They usually mate for life unless one of them dies and then the remaining magpie may find another mate. Divorces do happen, though, and one seven-year study found divorce rates up to 63% in Alberta. A similar study in South Dakota found divorce rates of only 8%.

Black-billed Magpie from Dan Dzurisin via Flickr

I wonder if they have better bird-marriage guidance counsellors in South Dakota, or maybe there is a social condemnation of bird-divorce. Probably, though, it’s the weather. You can’t get out much in an Alberta winter and we all know what it’s like to have too much together-time.

It is also interesting to note that black-billed magpies build nests together as couples, but only one of them occupies each nest. This is, in my view, an excellent arrangement. In my street right now the magpie nests are clearly visible because we do not yet have leaves on the trees. Some of these nests are huge and I went online to find out why they are so big. The birds themselves are quite big, so that is a part of it, but also sometimes new nests are built on top of old nests.

We see lots of magpies here, and in the spring they can get quite aggressive in defending their nests. It is not unusual for them to dive-bomb at people’s heads if they feel threatened. They can also be a nuisance if they eat food left out for backyard picnics or barbecues. On the whole, though, they are useful in cleaning up edible rubbish and eating insects.

Black-billed Magpie
Black-billed Magpie In Flight from Paul Moody via Flickr

At first glance, they appear to be mostly black and white, but when they are in flight their glorious blue and green colours show.

The moral of this story is that you can build a home with your mate and make babies, but there is no guarantee you will stay together forever. In Alberta, in fact, the odds are that you will not, even if you live in separate homes. It doesn’t matter how pretty your plumage may be, you will still be looking for a new mate and making a new nest somewhere at some point. Sigh.



  1. I wonder how this compares to human divorces in Alberta and South Dakota. No magpies in Ontario for some reason, but we do have robins now, and crows that sometimes divebomb us. No leaves on trees yet here either, but the grass is green.

  2. Unrelated but a little related, one of our ex hockey players was on the radio and said, when quarantined with your spouse you find out if they’re really your soulmate or your cell mate. Long Alberta winters might have the same effect on your magpies.

  3. Thank you Anne. I had never seen a magpie before. I also wondered if they are mimicking the human divorce rate, silly me. Sally’s ex-hockey player’s quote is so wonderful. Got a laugh for this day.

  4. For the record, folks, the human divorce rate in Canada is about 38% and the average duration of a marriage is 14 years. The divorce rate didn’t surprise me but the marriage duration did. But, I suppose it is such a low number because of the high divorce rate. I wonder how long marriages last on average when people stay together. (Clearly I am not a statistician.)

  5. We have seen magpies in NS…I am beginning to think the divorce rate will decline …with the decline of marriage more couples move in with each other and don’t marry..

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