By Robin Restall
First Published in The Avicultural Magazine Vol. 111 No. 1
Copyright © 2005 Avicultural Society, Published with Permission

The notes by my old friend Derek Goodwin (2004)on interactions between Carrion Crows Corvus corone and Common MagpieMagpies Pica pica reminded me of my own experiences with these two species when I lived in Spain some 35 years ago. We lived in a house set within a walled garden in an old artists' colony on the northern outskirts of Madrid. I maintained an ever changing collection of birds, mostly locally caught and acquired from the Sunday morning bird market in the old part of town. The dealers there knew me as a regular visitor each week and I suspect that occasionally they would catch birds not normally saleable on the near certainty that I would buy them. After I had painted and analysed them, most of the birds I bought were subsequently released. One old couple in particular always had the most interesting birds, often broods of nestlings, and it was thanks to them that I hand-reared European Rollers Coracias garrulus, European Bee-eaters Merops apiaster and other species aviculturally totally new to me. On one of my sorties however, I returned home with a comparatively prosaic nestling Magpie.

Like most crows, it was easy to rear and a delightful creature that undoubtably thought it owned me. I would take it to the office each day in order to feed it on schedule. It was transported in a shoe box which had a small window cut out of it, that was large enough to allow it to poke its head through and not only call to me to demand to be fed, but to observe me as I went about my work. On one occasion I had to attend a business lunch and, fearful that the heat of the sun on the trunk (boot) of the car would cook the bird, I took the shoe box containing the bird into the restaurant and placed it beneath my chair. Towards the end of the meal we were alerted by a shriek of fear from a lady at a nearby table. There perched on the back of her chair and noisily demanding to be fed was the Magpie. I leapt into action and, moving as fast as I could, grabbed the bird and left the restaurant. Before the poor thing knew what was happening, I had thrust it into the trunk of the car and slammed the door closed. Upon my return to the restaurant I was applauded and presented with a glass of brandy as a reward. Nobody had realised it was my bird!

A few weeks before I had acquired the Magpie, a friend had come to my house with a shoe box (the same one) and pleaded with me to save the life of the poor bird in the box. It was a newly-fledged Carrion Crow that had been saved from a couple of dogs that had been attacking it. The bird, which at the time seemed unable to fly, had been cowering, with its beak open, between the roots of a tree, as it faced the dogs. It walked around our garden and ran to be fed whenever it saw me. We used to sleep with our bedroom window open and the bird, which by then could fly, would fly up and roost on the window sill, facing indoors so that it could watch me. Each morning I arose at dawn and drove out of town to an area of marshland on which the grass grew tall and lush. There I was able to collect a hundred or so fairly inert - because of the cold - large grasshoppers. These were taken home and formed the morning feed for the Nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos and Azure-winged Magpies Cyanopica cyanus I was keeping at the time. As soon as I left the bedroom each morning to go downstairs, the crow would turn around so as to watch mc as I went to the car and drove off to collect the grasshoppers. Upon my return, it would be waiting on the drive, and as soon as I climbed out of the car, it would run towards me, begging pitifully, like a starved and tragic orphan. I would give it a couple of fat grasshoppers, which it would gobble down, and then the third would be taken, at a run, to the base of a tree where it would be swiftly buried. The bird would then run back to me and once more plead pitifully to be fed. It was a great game to see whether I could get to the door of the house before the crow caught up with mc again.

I soon found myself with two free-flying, hand-reared corvids in the garden. Both would wander away, but never went very far and never for more than a few hours at a time. Mostly they preferred to be on the ground in the garden. Each had a very distinctive personality. The Carrion Crow always roosted on the window sill. The Magpie slept in one of the trees. The morning grasshopper-begging routine with the Carrion Crow never changed. The Magpie was never seen on these occasions. It was during the day, especially at weekends when I was at home, that their interaction was most noticeable. The Magpie was a prankster, always playing with things, with people and with the crow. Playing with the crow was invariably a one- sided game for the crow never responded and was seemingly devoid of any sense of humour.

The crow would walk around sedately and with dignity. It never tired of begging and whatever it had scrounged would invariably be poorly hidden at the base of one of the trees near the front door of the house. The Magpie would follow the crow about, always keeping 1m (approx. 3ft) or so behind it. Then suddenly it would run at the crow and jump onto its back and, as the crow turned to face it, would jump off and run and hide behind a tree. The Magpie would peer out from behind the tree, first from one side and then from the other, and when it was apparent that the crow was not looking, the Magpie would run out and jump on its back again. If the crows attention had been successfully diverted, that is to say, it had turned and walked back, the Magpie would run to where the crow had hidden its latest cache and steal it. However, this behaviour was not always, it seemed, aimed at stealing the crow's food, at other times it seemed to be simply a form of play. The children would delight at the $quot;catch me if you can$quot; play of the two corvids.

In Spain there is an old saying, "Cria cuarvos te sacan los ojos", which loosely translated means, "Breed a crow and it will poke out your eyes". Obviously a neighbour believed this, for one morning the crow was not on the bedroom window sill and when I opened the gate to drive out, I found it had been laid out dead where I was sure to find it. Following this, I feared for the safety of the Magpie, and some weeks later when we left for a holiday in England, we took the Magpie with us and released it in Devon.

Until I read Derek's notes, I had always regarded the behaviour of the two corvids as having been friendly and playful. I now suspect that I was being more anthopomorphic in my interpretation and can now see that the Magpie might have been indulging in an intuitive attack behaviour that in the wild would have been reinforced by learning. The Carrion Crow's fairly indifferent response, but a reaction nevertheless, could have been equally genetic in origin but lacking any learned aspect that would have made it more vicious.


  • Goodwin, D. 2004. Magpie rescuing its mate from a Carrion Crow and other crow versus magpie encounters. Avicultural Magazine 110. 3:104-107.