It was in December of 2016 that I first read about a sighting of an odd-colored magpie in downtown Talkeetna. It came over our Mat-Su Birder’s Group email and my curiosity was sparked. The bird was described as being colored brown in the areas where a normal magpie would be black, with crème and white in its wings and tail. While I was familiar with leucistic birds-partial albinos- I’d never heard of this kind of coloring. In partial albinos there are usually patches of white throughout the plumage.
More sightings were shared over the Birding site as the new year started. I wanted to see this bird, and photograph it. Living in a dry cabin, I would go in to Talkeetna to do my laundry and shower duties, and on those days I would go in search of the bird. I would find normal-colored magpies, but not the brown one. The days were still short, and with all my chores at home, I was getting into town too late in the day. The birds were often getting ready to leave for roosting areas by the time I got done with my laundry and could go in search. I wasn’t going to give up, though.
Finally, on February twenty-seventh, the “bird angels” smiled on me. The day was partially cloudy, and I had brought my big camera, just in case. I had driven in just to look for the magpie, and I parked at the end of the road next to the Village Strip. There were often magpies in the forest on the south side, and I could hear a few calling as I got out to take my two shepherds for a brief walk before resuming my search. Don’t ask me why, but I left my camera in the car. I headed back down the road towards the sound of magpies chatting in the trees to my right. Then, suddenly, there it was. A milk-chocolate brown and white magpie came flying over the Village Strip from the forest to my right. It was lit up by the late afternoon sun and looked golden against the blue sky. It took my breath away in its unexpected beauty. I stood watching were it headed, and when it landed in a tree deep in the forest along the bluffs above the river I turned and sprinted back to the car, dogs running happily with me. No one had been out on the bluff trail since the last few snow storms, so the dogs broke trail for me. Even so, the snow was up over my big winter boots. To my dismay, I watched the magpie fly out to the island on the river braid long before I got anywhere near it. From the bluff I stood watching it through my zoom lens for a long while, then gave up hoping it would return, and headed back to the car.
I drove slowly back along the road, watching magpies flying back and forth across the Village Strip. I turned down a side road and parked where I saw birds coming to feeders out in front of a house. Then, suddenly, here came the remarkable magpie-heading straight for this house from the forest on the northwest side of the Village Strip. I grabbed the camera and got out. By this time a big cloud bank had moved in from the west and the light was gray. Even so, I managed to get a few photos before all the magpies left together, going to roost for the night. I was elated to get my first look, and first photos of this brown magpie.
On the twenty-first I returned to the house, and this time discovered that Ed Craver lives there. I got to talk to him about this unusual bird. He said he had been seeing it for about a month. It would come in to feed with the flock of magpies in the mornings, returning sporadically through the day. He’d never seen such an oddly-colored magpie, either.
On the thirty-first I again drove to town to see if I could get better photos. It was a clear, sunny day, and this time I finally got the photos I had been hoping for.
Studying the photos later at home, I found what a truly beautiful bird this is. Its beak is a light brown, and its hood is a deep brown, changing to golden-brown farther down its chest. Its eyes are dark, as are its legs. Its shoulder patch feathers are pure white, and the wing feathers start with a patch of dark brown, then the flight feathers are pale crème, as are the tail feathers. In flight, it is truly spectacular.
I decided to do some research and went to the Library computer, googling “Brown Magpie”. I came to a site called the “Bird Forum”, and found several sightings of brown magpies from all over the world, including: Tanzania, Taiwan, Salford-England, Cornwall, Alberta-Canada, Ireland, Prague-Czechoslovakia, and Paris-France. (If you go to www.birdforum.net/brown magpie, it’s really interesting to read the comments about the various sightings.)
Also included is a lengthy detailed write-up by Charles T. Collins describing color variations in birds. Dr. Collins is an emeritus professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University, Long Beach, and teaches classes in Ornithology and Behavioral Ecology. He drew some of his research from the book: “Diseases of Cage and Aviary Birds” by M.L. Petrak, using the chapter on “Genetics” by P.A. Buckley.
I learned that there are categories of color abnormalities. They go into scientific descriptions of these abnormalities, which get pretty involved. The one describing the brown magpie (and other abnormally colored brown birds), is a category of abnormalities called “schizochroism”. “It involves situations where one pigment overlays another in the same feather.” The loss of the eumelanins (the dark brown or black pigments) results in an all tan or fawn-colored bird.
The article doesn’t go into the ‘why’ part of these abnormalities. Just reading about the several categories of abnormalities and their resulting color patterns was enough mind-expansion for one day. I can see that much more research would be required to find out why these abnormalities happen, and that would be for another time.
I can add a mystery: in my first photos of the brown magpie, its beak is clearly hooked. The upper mandible is overgrown and curving down. In the photos thirty-four days later, this brown magpie does not have a hooked beak, and its hood is a little darker. Also, the first magpie has tail feathers which are all the same length. The magpie photographed later has a tail where the center two feathers are longest, which is more normal, for a magpie. So…I suspect there may be two brown magpies. Are they siblings? What are the chances of two brown magpies in the same clutch?
I am hoping to discover more about these birds before the trees leaf out and observations become more difficult. Also, the corvids tend to disperse in the spring, as they go to nest. Time grows short to learn more about the mystery of the beautiful brown magpie.
Talkeetna’s Brown Magpie, by Robin Song
Susitna Writer’s Voice, KTNA
April 2, 2017