These two birds are quite similar when you see them apart. I was brought up thinking magpies in general – and we had only boring old black and white versions where I came from - were thieves and bad boys, portents of life and death, and were infamous for digging holes with their beaks and storing choice titbits for later, trying to eat almost anything, stealing and stashing away buttons and beads, rings and shiny things.
But if you could manage to sit the Iberian Magpie and the Eurasian Jay down together, they would look totally different.
Let’s start with Iberian Magpies, Latin name Cyanopica cooki. There is a large population of this species on the East Asian seaboard and a smaller population here on the Iberian Peninsula with none to be seen anywhere in between. That makes them rather special to this country, as they are only seen here in Portugal and Spain - and in Portugal, only in the southern half and absent from the majority of the north.
There isn’t much difference between the males and females, they both have a black head or cap, a grey-brown back and distinctive blue wings and a long blue tail. You will often hear them before you see them – by a distinctive ‘krrr-krrr’ call interspersed with rattles. They are highly gregarious and travel in loud and noisy family flocks through their territories, often foraging on the ground where they hop from one place to the next. Their flocks are often accompanied by Jays, which I will get to next, who steal food found by the magpies. As far as rarity is concerned, they are in the category of ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List, and their population appears to be on the increase.
I saw one of these beautiful birds the other day, it looked about the size of a wood pigeon, but the plumage was a pale pinkish-brown colour, with a black stripe on each side of a white throat, and a startling blue panel on the side of black-tipped wings. I had never seen one before, and on researching it, found it was called the Eurasian or European Jay (Garrulus glandarius). And if you are interested, they are in the same category of ‘Least Concern’ too.
It is a species of bird in the crow family Corvidae, which includes any of the stout-billed passerine birds, such as crows and ravens, amongst others. Corvids are known for their high intellect, often thought of as the smartest of birds, being able to solve problems with brilliant solutions and understand complicated situations. Experts consider them smart, in some ways more so than chimpanzees and other primates, and they are capable of a rudimentary form of abstract reasoning.
To test the self-control of ten Eurasian Jays, researchers designed an experiment inspired by the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow test - in which children were offered a choice between one marshmallow immediately, or two if they waited for a period of time. Instead of marshmallows, the jays were presented with mealworms, bread and cheese. Mealworms are a common favourite; bread and cheese come second but individuals vary in their preference for one over the other. The birds had to choose between bread and cheese available immediately, or mealworms that they could see but could only get to after a delay when a Perspex screen was raised. Could they delay immediate gratification and wait for their favourite food?
A range of delay times was tested, from five seconds to a whopping five and a half minutes, before the mealworms were made available if the bird had resisted the temptation to eat the bread and cheese. They do say that mealworms are packed with nutrients, especially protein, not quite a superfood, but are a nutritious delicacy fit for both animal and human consumption, to be enjoyed fried, roasted, and even live.
Personally, I still would have grabbed the bread and cheese, and to heck with the mealworms!
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.