Bird of the Month – November 2021

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The Iberian Magpie aka Azure-winged Magpie. Look through your guidebooks as long as you like, but you’ll never find an entry for Widdrington’s Magpie. This isn’t surprising, as it doesn’t exist!  But for a quirk of timing and history, though, that’s what we might now be calling the western version of “Azure-winged Magpie”. The story behind this, and much else about the species, is a fascinating one

Its discovery in Spain was a huge surprise since it was still a relatively poorly known species scarcely illustrated in western literature and the nearest known population was over 5,000 miles further east! Most references relate that was first found in Spain in 1831 by Capt S E Cook and indeed he is honoured by having the Spanish birds named after him – Cyanopica (cyana) cooki. Ironically, by the time this singular honour was made, Captain Cook had been Captain Widdrington for a decade having taken his mother’s maiden name on inheriting her estates in 1840. He mentions the species in his book ‘Sketches in Spain during the Years 1829, 30, 31 & 32”  (Pub. 1834) and, although he doesn’t give details of precisely where he found it, he writes that it was “common in new Castile, in the wooded parts, and is in vast numbers in the Sierra Morena …” His short description of foraging flocks couldn’t be bettered today ‘They live in small flocks, generally into a line, are extremely watchful, and are constantly moving, in short flights, commonly in cover, feeding on roads, or as food may offer”. Some later visitors found them elusive, but it was soon discovered that one prime location were the Royal Gardens in Madrid. I suspect this was a convenient source for many collectors who quickly amassed collection of skins and dozens of eggs – no wonder it was often described as ‘shy’ during the Victorian period.  Yet tucked away in Cook’s book is an intriguing reference that shows that someone else must have recorded it earlier. Cook wrote that he had “only seen it described in Wagler, besides Pallas, who, I believe discovered it in Siberia…” The Wagler referred to Dr Joannes Wagler (Director of the Zoological Museum in Munich) whose ‘Systema Avium’, published in 1827, contains a very brief comment that ‘Corvus cyanus Pall’ was found in Spain and nested in trees. Where Wagler got his information from is unclear, although there seems to be a French connection as his first paragraph concluded with (Mus. Paris).  [It may just be possible, although unlikely, that the copy of Wagler’s work available online is a later updated printing – despite carrying the 1827 date – unfortunately my language skills are not up to the task of wading through this version to find out].

By 1800 (or even the 1780s), pretty much all of Europe’s breeding or regularly occurring species had been recognised and described in the scientific literature of the day. Predictably, the exceptions tend to be seabirds (e.g. Leach’s Petrel 1817), birds with a tiny distribution in Europe (e.g. Caucasian Blackgrouse 1875) or species that were so cryptic that they were easily confused with their congeners (e.g. Pallid Swift – 1870).  Many of the missing species were mopped up by the great Dutch naturalist Coenraad Jacob Temminck during the first third of the 19th century so those hoping to find novel species turned their searches to exotic, little explored regions of the growing European colonies in Asia and Africa.  So the idea that a relatively large, often noisy, highly distinctive and strikingly beautiful bird could have avoided detection in Europe until well into the 1800s seems absurd.  Even if, as was the case, it had a limited distribution on the continent being common close to a major European capital city should have guaranteed that it couldn’t escape notice for long.  Yet this was the fate of Azure-winged Magpie which, absurdly, first came to the attention of western scientists not from Spain, but the distant Siberia!  That peerless naturalist Peter Simon Pallas had discovered it back in 1776.

Whatever the details, Cook’s discovery was timely, as John Gould had just embarked upon his monumental ‘Birds of Europe’ (1837). Not only was Cook credited with being the source of information on the species, but also supplying the specimen from which the plate was drawn. Gould wrote, somewhat triumphantly, that “we here present, for the first time, a figure of this beautiful and elegant Magpie; a bird which has escaped the notice of most authors who have expressly treated the Ornithology of Europe …”  Oddly, though, the bird depicted has the vinous-grey body colour of Iberian birds, but clearly shows the distinctive broad white tail tips of the eastern form! It may be relevant here, that although the holotype was collected by Cook in southern Spain and presented to the British Museum it was registered at a later date – were some skins accidentally switched?

Iberian Magpie

Unlike the Iberian magpies this form has a long pictorial history.  One of the most celebrated examples of Chinese silkscreen painting the “Magpies and Hare” (featuring two Azure-winged Magpies) dates from almost 800 years earlier.  Due to a happy coincidence that in Mandarin ‘two magpies’ sounds like ‘double happiness’, so the symbol of two magpies became a traditional motif for gifts given for celebrations (esp. weddings). It wasn’t until Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon) examined skins more carefully that it was realised that Cook’s Azure-winged Magpie differed from the Asian birds – a discovery announced at a meeting in Birmingham in 1849 and formalised the following year. Eastern birds are marginally larger, distinctly greyer and have those white tail tips. Confusion between the two forms still persists and only a few years ago I saw Chinese birds in an aviary at Leeds Castle with an information board explaining that these were rare Iberian Azure-winged Magpies.

The strangely disjunct distribution of the Azure-winged Magpie caused puzzlement from the start and, although there were mistaken early claims that they were found in the Crimea and Caucuses, remained a puzzle for a century or more. One popular theory advanced in the 1960s that gained much traction was that they were not native to Iberia at all, but introduced by Portuguese sailors returning from 16th century explorations of the Far East. This theory had the advantage that it not only explained the distribution, but also why such a beautiful and distinctive bird had avoided detection for so long. After all, illustrations of Common Magpie in western art date back to at least the early Middle Ages. The small differences in plumage could be explained, it was said, by the ‘founder effect’ whereby the limited genetic heritage of small isolated populations can accelerate differences. Major cracks in this theory first appeared in 1997 when bones, thought to belong to this species, were found on an archaeological dig on Gibraltar and radiocarbon-dated to the Pleistocene (being over 400,100 years old).  The final nail in the coffin came with DNA fingerprinting, which demonstrated the two populations had been separated from c1 million years and there was a high degree of genetic divergence (6.06% difference in mtDNA). Surprisingly, ‘Birdlife’ has yet to split the two species although they do so for both Iberian Chiffchaff and Spanish Imperial Eagle despite their DNA being less distinct and their plumage distinctions from sister species being equally obsure. However, most authorities now regard the Iberian race as a full species (as did Bonaparte), but although there’s agreement over what its scientific name should be – Cyanopica cooki – there’s little consensus about the English name; using Blue-winged Magpie (as did some Victorian authorities) seems too mundane for such a gorgeous bird,  keeping Azure-winged Magpie invites confusion with the Asiatic population and prefacing it with “Iberian” just makes it more of a mouthful,  Iberian Magpie alone would be fine were it not that there’s a Iberian race of Common Magpie – Pica pica melanotus – and Cook’s Magpie makes it sound like compendium of recipes! It’s a pity that Captain Cook didn’t mention his name change to Bonaparte as Widdrington’s Magpie has a certain resonance! My personal favourite, though, and I’m biased as I just made it up, would be Cyan-winged Magpie.

Whatever the precise taxonomic status of cooki the two species remain very similar, share similar breeding habits and similar vocalisations (although listening to both online the calls of cooki seem a little harsher and more grating). The Asian race also seems to be a little more catholic in its choice of habitats and climates too (coping with colder winters for example).  Looking more closely at cooki it is interesting to consider why it has such a restricted range even in Iberia being found in southern Portugal and central and southwestern Spain avoiding the Mediterranean coast and the extreme north.  Recent studies indicate that the distribution is largely determined by their inability to tolerate colder climates or drier areas, something that is clearly reflected in the distribution map. This explains why during the Pleistocene, when glaciers ebbed and flowed over central Asia, the original pan-Eurasian distribution must have been sundered.  The western birds retreating to a refuge in SW Europe  found themselves trapped south of the Pyrenees where they evolved into cooki. The population that evolved here avoided both highlands above 1600m and heavily urbanised areas. Although they prefer wooded areas, dehesa and open olive groves, they can persist in arable areas where lightly wooded water courses provide both habitat and links to other populations. However, mature dense forests tend to be avoided. All of these factors explain why they are common in some areas, but scarce in others. The isolation of birds in northwest Granada and nearby Malaga is thought to be due to habitat destruction severing links to other populations.

These limiting factors all combine to restrict their population in Cadiz province to a tiny foothold in Algaida pines just north of Sanlucar de Barrameda.  Going through older trip reports they seem to have become less easy to see here despite the population generally increasing in numbers and range. Despite visiting the area numerous times I’ve found them 4-5 times, mostly brief glimpses, but once one February a noisy flock of 30 odd birds. I’ve walked tracks and trails for hours without hearing or seeing them.  I know of several people who’ve regularly visited the area over the years and never caught sight of them. They are often noisy birds so locating them by sound is often the best way of finding them although seeing them is often a matter of “lucking into” one as it flies across the track.  Such is their rarity that I sometimes wonder whether they’re actually resident here or merely episodic visitors from across the Guadalquivir where they’re common. Arguably, if you’re in this area and the species is a priority, your best chance is to take the ferry across the mouth of the Guadalquivir and look in the trees that line the beach. There’s also an intriguing record in the Spanish breeding bird atlas of birds being present in an isolated square just beyond the NE boundary of Cadiz Province.  This area, in Seville province, is about a dozen km NW of Pruna and c30km west of the nearest birds in Malaga Province.  It’s an area little frequented by birdwatchers so there may perhaps be a small population there.

Note – since writing the above it’s come to my attention that there’s now a small isolated population of the species in southeastern Alicante province in scrub behind Torrevieja hospital. It seems to have been very recently established as in November 2016 they were said to have made their home there only “over the last couple of years” (see – http://www.costablancabirdclub.com/la-mata-and-surrounding-area-malcolm-palmer/). The origin of these birds is obscure but it has been suggested that, as the first records involved ringed birds, they may have been introduced (Ernest Garcia in litt). Given the species sedentary habits this seems the most likely explanation.  It remains to be seen whether they will thrive or, as often happens with introductions, fail to establish themselves.

Article: John Cantello
Photos: Pieter Verheij

Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

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