Friday, January 15, 2010

History of Magpie Killing in Idaho

I’ve been having a great time compiling the history of the Avimor area through personal interviews and reading lots of books. Recently I was able to spend the afternoon at the Boise Library researching local periodicals. I spent four hours on one 1927 microfilm of "The Idaho Daily Statesman" gleaning articles related to the murder mystery of bachelor Frank Starr. He was killed and buried in shallow grave next to his cabin at the Spring Hill area of Avimor.  Those old newspapers are fascinating and the ads were extremely entertaining. Time flew by as I read every single headline to make sure I didn’t miss a paragraph related to my topic. I admit that I was easily distracted by other interesting articles of the era, for example, Charles Lindbergh’s visit to Boise. You can imagine that stories related to birds also stole my attention.

One particular brief entry got me to wondering…It was about prizes awarded for a Magpie-killing event in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho. One line mentioned the “predatory” nature of magpies to justify the slaughter. The winner had killed more than 3400 and had the heads and eggs to prove it. The runners-up had killed well more than 2000 each. I was surprised by how many birds were taken.

Magpie chick at nest, photo by Shon Parks at Avimor

I have always known Magpies to be scavenger birds feeding on carrion. Curious about the “predatory” comment in the article, I looked up info on Magpies and I read that they will occasionally eat eggs and nestlings from other bird’s nests, but that is only a tiny portion of their diet. I also just read the magpies will eat the ticks off of livestock and will even cache dead and alive ticks for food storage.

So, several questions still remain for me: Was this more of a sporting event or were they really trying to cull a predatory species? Were Magpies somehow preying on rancher’s poultry or negatively impacting their livestock or crops? Did we used to have a much greater abundance of Magpies in this region of Idaho? Would we have more today if they did not have those killing events? or would natural selection have kept the populations at about the same cyclical levels we see today? And, can we reinstitute similar prizes for culling European Starlings?

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