In this, the first of a series of articles on birds of particular interest in Portugal, it seems appropriate to begin with the species I regard most emblematic of the Algarve – the beautiful Azure-winged Magpie.
This is a resident southern Iberian endemic, with no migratory tendencies, occurring farther north in Spain than it does in Portugal. It is difficult to miss, occurring in large, noisy flocks in roadside vegetation, town parks and gardens. The only other similarly-sized species found locally is the Jay, which also has some blue in its pinker plumage, but is shorter-tailed, has broader, rounded wings and is solitary or, after the breeding season, seen in very small family parties.
Although a member of the crow family, the Azure-winged Magpie it is not closely related to the familiar black-and-white Magpie, which is gradually spreading west along the coast, having recently reached Lagos. Its only close relative is found in the Far East, including Japan.
For many years it was thought likely that intrepid Portuguese sailors had brought birds back in the 16th Century, yet the two forms differed subtly in size and plumage. The discovery of fossils in caves in Gibraltar, carbon dated at over forty thousand years, was then reinforced by the sophisticated genetic analysis possible today. We now know that the two species diverged about a million years ago, the curiously distant geographical separation resulting from extensive glaciation over Eurasia in the Pleistocene era.
Associating closely with man, no doubt partly because of the varied food on offer in garden bushes and fruiting trees, the species also feeds on invertebrates and is not entirely averse to carrion or human food scraps. It remains surprisingly shy, responding instantly to any disturbance. Birds are constantly on the move and far from easy to photograph!
It has few natural predators, although doubtless some are taken by birds of prey, but there have been occasional reports of nest parasitism by the Great Spotted Cuckoo, which targets Carrion Crows and Common Magpies further north in Portugal.
It nests in loose colonies in woodland, with breeding pairs assisted in the feeding of the young by ‘helpers’, which may be non-breeding offspring from the previous year.