Once vanished, the magpie now thrives on Chongming
By Li Anlan
IN Chinese culture, the magpie symbolizes happiness and good luck. It’s Chinese name, “xi que” translates to “happy magpie.”
Along with sparrows and swallows, magpies are one of the most common bird species in China. But in the 1960s, the magpies and other birds like craws and mynas had vanished from Shanghai as the result of the rapid urban expansion which reduced their habitat and the use of pesticides decimated its food source. The nationwide movement to wipe out the tree sparrow, an attempt to kill the bird accused of eating too much cereal also reduced magpies’ poppation quantity.
In the past decades, the magpie population slowly recovered as tall trees have been planted in Shanghai and large, green fields now provide a quiet nesting place for these sensitive birds.
In 2008, a long-term project titled “Finding the Magpie” was initiated at the annual Shanghai Bird Week with the hope of restoring the magpie population in Shanghai, establishing a database as well as raising awareness of wildlife conservation to the general public.
You may not spot magpies in the urban Shanghai outside parks and the botanical garden, but close to 11,000 nests are estimated to be scattered on Chongming Island, according to a comprehensive field survey conducted by the Shanghai Wildlife Conservation Management Station last winter.
The nests, often hanging near the top of tall trees, are quite large and easy to spot in the winter as there’s no foliage to block the view. The nests are built from sticks lined with twigs as I found out during the field survey.
The birds favor tall dawn redwood trees — about 77 percent of the recorded nests were found on these trees. Canadian poplars made up more than 12 percent. Magpies also build nests up on electric towers, telegraph poles and iron towers — almost 500 nests were found on electric towers. Most nests were built between the height of five and 29 meters, according to the survey.
The nests showed dense distribution in the central and southern area of Chongming Island as well as along the western area of Miao Town, Sanxing Town and Xinhai Farm.
Like craws, ravens, jackdaws and jays, magpies belong in the crow family (corvidae), and are said to be among the world’s most intelligent and emotional animals. Their brains’ capacity are larger than most birds, which is perhaps the reason that they are so far the only non-mammal that can recognize itself in a mirror, according to a study on captive European magpies conducted in Germany.
Magpies are also highly territorial. In spring, when magpies enter breeding season, they will take on to anyone if there’s threat near their nests. If someone tries to steal one of the magpie’s blue-green eggs, a gang of magpies would be organized to chase the thief.
Magpie nests are very bulky and composed of a huge amount of sticks. A magpie nest can weigh several kilos.
The magpie also build unusually sophisticated nests that come with a side door as well as a “roof.” The smart birds are also great at recycling and tear apart abandoned nests to use the sticks for new ones nearby.
The Chinese common magpie (Pica Pica Sericea) is the most common kind in Shanghai. In the 1928 book “Birds Recorded From Shanghai Area,” Paul Bédé’s documented that the birds with a black and white plumage and a long tail were common in the suburban and country districts of Shanghai.
Magpies are omnivores. In summer and early autumn, when there’s plenty of insects, scraps and carrion, the birds mostly feed on animal proteins. About 60 to 80 percent of the magpie’s diet consists of agricultural pests, so the birds can help the farmlands as well. Magpies usually lay eggs in April with each clutch containing five to six eggs, which take around 22 days to hatch. The chicks fledge after 27 days.
If you are looking for magpie nests in Chongming, you will find that the adults are usually right next to their nests, always on alert. Wild magpies are very timid, easily scared and live in colonies. The birds are very sensitive to changes in their habitat, so magpies are excellent indicators of their eco-system’s health.
On April 9, the Shanghai Bird Week is hosting a wildlife exhibition in Gongqing Forest Park. Various events during the week will present opportunities to learn about the wildlife in Shanghai, how to look for it, appreciate the animals and engage in fun activities.