Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (250-20,000 square km (about 100-8000 square miles)) RESIDENT: Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys in California (Shasta County south to Kern County); valleys of coast ranges from San Francisco Bay south to Santa Barbara County. Casual north to northern California (AOU 1983).
Length: 4 cm
Weight: 174 grams
Catalog Number: USNM A2845
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Birds
Sex/Stage: unknown; Adult
Preparation: Skin: Whole
Collector(s): T. Nuttall
Year Collected: 1836
Locality: Santa Barbara, Vicinity of, Santa Barbara, California, United States, North America
- Type: Audubon. 1836 Or 1837. Birds Of America (Folio). 4: pl. 362, fig. 1.
California Central Valley Grasslands Habitat
This taxon is found in the California Central Valley grasslands, which extend approximately 430 miles in central California, paralleling the Sierra Nevada Range to the east and the coastal ranges to the west (averaging 75 miles in longitudinal extent), and stopping abruptly at the Tehachapi Range in the south. Two rivers flow from opposite ends and join around the middle of the valley to form the extensive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that flows into San Francisco Bay.
Perennial grasses that were adapted to cool-season growth once dominated the ecoregion. The deep-rooted Purple Needle Grass (Nassella pulchra) was particularly important, although Nodding Needle Grass (Stipa cernua), Wild Ryes (Elymus spp.), Lassen County Bluegrass (Poa limosa), Aristida spp., Crested Hair-grass (Koeleria pyramidata), Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens,), and Coast Range Melicgrass (Melica imperfecta) occurred in varying proportions. Most grass growth occurred in the late spring after winter rains and the onset of warmer and sunnier days. Interspersed among the bunchgrasses were a rich array of annual and perennial grasses and forbs, the latter creating extraordinary flowering displays during certain years. Some extensive mass flowerings of the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Lupines (Lupinus spp.), and Exserted Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja exserta) are found in this grassland ecoregion.
Prehistoric grasslands here supported several herbivores including Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana), elk (including a valley subspecies, the Tule Elk, (Cervus elaphus nannodes), Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), California ground squirrels, gophers, mice, hare, rabbits, and kangaroo rats. Several rodents are endemics or near-endemics to southern valley habitats including the Fresno Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys nitratoides exilis), Tipton Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys nitratoides nitratoides), San Joaquin Pocket Mouse (Perognathus inornatus), and Giant Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ingens). Predators originally included grizzly bear, gray wolf, coyote, mountain lion, ringtail, bobcat, and the San Joaquin Valley Kit Fox (Vulpes velox), a near-endemic.
The valley and associated delta once supported enormous populations of wintering waterfowl in extensive freshwater marshes. Riparian woodlands acted as important migratory pathways and breeding areas for many neotropical migratory birds. Three species of bird are largely endemic to the Central Valley, surrounding foothills, and portions of the southern coast ranges, namely, the Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), the Tri-colored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor EN), and Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii).
The valley contains a number of reptile species including several endemic or near-endemic species or subspecies such as the San Joaquin Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum ruddocki), the Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard (Gambelia sila EN), Gilbert’s Skink (Plestiodon gilberti) and the Sierra Garter Snake (Thamnophis couchii). Lizards present in the ecoregion include: Coast Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma coronatum NT); Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis); Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata); and the Northern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea).
There are only a few amphibian species present in the California Central Valley grasslands ecoregion. Special status anuran taxa found here are: Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (Rana boylii NT); Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla); and Western Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates cultripes). The Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) occurs within this ecoregion.
Although many endemic plant species are recognized, especially those associated with vernal pools, e.g. Prickly Spiralgrass (Tuctoria mucronata). A number of invertebrates are known to be restricted to California Central Valley habitats. These include the Delta Green Ground Beetle (Elaphrus viridis CR) known only from a single vernal pool site, and the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus) found only in riparian woodlands of three California counties.
Vernal pool communities occur throughout the Central Valley in seasonally flooded depressions. Several types are recognized including valley pools in basin areas which are typically alkaline or saline, terrace pools on ancient flood terraces of higher ground, and pools on volcanic soils. Vernal pool vegetation is ancient and unique with many habitat and local endemic species. During wet springs, the rims of the pools are encircled by flowers that change in composition as the water recedes. Several aquatic invertebrates are restricted to these unique habitats including a species of fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp.
- Michael G.Barbour, Todd Keeler-Wolf and Allan A. Schoenherr. 2007. Terrestrial vegetation of California. 712 pages
- World Wildlife Fund & C. Michael Hogan. 2013."California Central Valley grasslands". Encyclopedia of Earth, National Council for Science and the Environment, Washington DC ed.Mark McGinley.
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Broken oak woodland interspersed with grasslands or cultivated lands, open riparian woodland, and savanna (AOU 1983). BREEDING: Usually nests at outer end of a tree limb, 12-18 m above ground (Terres 1980).
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Comments: Insects comprise a large portion of its diet. Picks up insects from the ground or catches them in the air. Also eats grain, acorns, garbage, fruit, and carrion. May eat young of small birds. Stores acorns and left-over food (Terres 1980).
Adults establish year-round territories in a loose colony. Yearlings flock during breeding season (Verbeek 1973).
Life History and Behavior
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Nests March-June. Female incubates 6-7, sometimes 5-8, eggs probably for about 18 days (Terres 1980). Both parents tend young. Usually first breeds when 2 years old. Life-long pair bond. Nests in loose colony.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Pica nuttalli
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Pica nuttalli
Public Records: 5
Specimens with Barcodes: 5
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2012Least Concern
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N3 - Vulnerable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G3 - Vulnerable
This species has been the subject of monitoring through citizen science surveys.
Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue to monitor the species's population trend through regular surveys. Protect areas of suitable habitat.
The yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli) is a large bird in the crow family that is restricted to the U.S. state of California. It inhabits the Central Valley and the adjacent chaparral foothills and mountains. Apart from its having a yellow bill and a yellow streak around the eye, it is virtually identical to the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) found in much of the rest of North America. The scientific name commemorates the English naturalist Thomas Nuttall.
mtDNA sequence analysis indicates a close relationship between the yellow-billed magpie and the black-billed magpie, rather than between the outwardly very similar black-billed and European magpies (P. pica); the two American forms could be considered as one species.
The Korean subspecies of the European magpie (P. p. sericea) is more distantly related to all other (including North American) forms judging from the molecular evidence, and thus, either the North American forms are maintained as specifically distinct and the Korean (and possibly related) subspecies are also elevated to species status, or all magpies are considered to be subspecies of a single species, Pica pica.
Combining fossil evidence and paleobiogeographical considerations with the molecular data indicates that the yellow-billed magpie's ancestors became isolated in California quite soon after the ancestral magpies colonized North America (which probably happened some 3–4 mya) due to early ice ages and the ongoing uplift of the Sierra Nevada, but that during interglacials there occurred some gene flow between the yellow- and black-billed magpies until reproductive isolation was fully achieved in the Pleistocene.
The yellow-billed magpie is gregarious and roosts communally. There may be a cluster of communal roosts in one general area made up of a central roost containing many birds and several outlying roosts with fewer.
Yellow-billed magpie flocks are known to engage in funeral-like behaviour for their dead.
The yellow-billed magpie prefers groves of tall trees along rivers and near open areas, though in some cities they have begun to nest in vacant lots and other weedy places. A pair of birds builds a dome-shaped nest with sticks and mud on a high branch. Nests may be 14 meters above the ground and are sometimes built far out on long branches to prevent predators from reaching them. They nest in small colonies, or occasionally alone. Even when nesting close to other birds they may exhibit some territorial behavior. These birds are permanent residents and do not usually wander far outside of their breeding range.
Extra-pair copulation is not uncommon among yellow-billed magpies. After mating, a male will exhibit mate-guarding, preventing the female from mating with other males until she lays the first egg. The clutch contains 5 to 7 eggs which are incubated by the female for 16 to 18 days. Both parents feed the nestlings a diet of mostly insects until fledging occurs in 30 days.
Food and feeding
These omnivorous birds forage on the ground, mainly eating insects, especially grasshoppers, but also carrion, acorns and fruit in fall and winter. They are attracted to recently butchered carcasses on farms and ranches. They pick through garbage at landfills and dumping sites, and sometimes hunt rodents.
This bird is extremely susceptible to West Nile virus. Between 2004 and 2006 it is estimated that 50% of all yellow-billed magpies died of the virus. Because the bird tends to roost near water bodies such as rivers, it is often exposed to mosquitoes.
The IUCN classifies the bird as a species of least concern, but the Nature Conservancy places it in the vulnerable category. Besides West Nile Virus, threats include loss of habitat and rodent poison. The bird has a limited area of distribution but is widespread throughout the area and still common in many places.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Pica nuttalli". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Lee, Sang-im; Parr, Cynthia S.; Hwang, Youna; Mindell, David P. & Choea, Jae C. (2003). "Phylogeny of magpies (genus Pica) inferred from mtDNA data". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 29 (2): 250–257. doi:10.1016/S1055-7903(03)00096-4. PMID 13678680.
- Miller, Alden H. & Bowman, Robert I. (1956). "A Fossil Magpie from the Pleistocene of Texas". Condor 58 (2): 164–165.
- Yellow-billed Magpie Species Account. Yolo Conservation Plan.
- Protocol for censusing Yellow-billed Magpies at communal roosts. PRBO Conservation.
- Dickinson & Chu (Winter 2007). "Animal Funerals". BirdScope (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology) 21 (1).
- Protocol for monitoring Yellow-billed Magpie nests. PRBO Conservation.
- Birkhead, T.R.; Clarkson, K.; Reynolds, M.D.; Koenig, W.D. (1992). "Copulation and mate guarding in the Yellow-Billed Magpie Pica nuttalli and a comparison with the Black-Billed Magpie P. pica". Behaviour 121: 110–30. doi:10.1163/156853992X00462. JSTOR 4535022.
- Veterinary Geneticists Already on the Side of Audubon's Bird of the Year. UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. December 10, 2009
- Pica nuttalli – (Audubon, 1837). The Nature Conservancy
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Considered conspecific with P. pica by some authors (e.g., Phillips , who treated nuttalli as a subspecies of P. pica) and constituting a superspecies with it (AOU 1998).
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