I occasionally get asked what my favorite bird is. Mostly I get asked this by non-birders, because there’s more of them than there are birders, but also because they might not understand how hard of a task it is to pin down a favorite. It’s a good question and worth considering. I used to think about it all the time. I would come up with a handful of birds that were good contenders- Forster’s terns (Sterna forsteri) and cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) were always mentioned along with a few other great Wisconsin birds. The only problem was… my favorite bird doesn’t live in Wisconsin. I hadn’t met it yet when I was getting serious about birding. It would take a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado before I realized that yes, I did have one singular favorite.
The year was 2013 and I had two years of honing my birding skills in Wisconsin under my belt. I was excited to take my curiosity about the natural world outside the Midwest and when the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group took a trip to Colorado, I was more than happy to be part of the pack. In preparation and anticipation, I poured over my field guides. What birds was I most excited about? Not the one that ended up being my favorite. It seemed so plain in the drawings.
We got to the national park, and what did I first get distracted by? A little old black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) poking around on the road. I loved it! Field guides can never fully describe a bird; you have to see it in person. Here was this magpie, looking like a small-bodied , elegant crow, inspecting a small object on the road. Inspecting or playing with? Both? Corvids (the group of birds including crows, ravens, jays, and magpies) are intelligent and they show it. This magpie, and other members of the corvid family I saw in Colorado, really got me tuned into these birds. Did you know that crows can remember human faces? That magpies seem to hold funerals for their dead? More than any other family of bird, I feel that corvids have their own secret societies that we humans barely notice.
On top of this, the magpies were much more beautiful than pictures can show. Part of this is that iridescence (magpies have a blackish-blue form of it) can’t be captured well. The biggest part of this though was that they look amazing when they fly. They have long tails and bold wing patterns that stand out in flight, and their flight has grace and buoyancy that is hypnotic to watch.
Over the course of the next week, I saw a few dozen of these birds, in parks and in cities, always seeming like they were up to something and looking stylish while doing so. Seeing the last few in Boulder, I got a little sad knowing there wouldn’t be any back home. Fortunately I saw a few more in Utah in 2015. Like with many out-of-state birds it was like seeing an old friend. I like heading out west every few years, so I am sure I will see them again.