Reimagining the Black-billed Magpie

Artist Lauren Tamaki captures the chatter of these vocal western corvids.

Black-billed Magpies charmed illustrator Lauren Tamaki as a kid growing up in Calgary, where their distinctive long-tailed silhouettes punctuated the tidy lawns of her suburban neighborhood. When she watched videos of the corvids to refresh her memory, she was struck by the flash of white markings against their oily plumes. “They’re even more beautiful than I remember.”

Tamaki pencil-sketched various postures before crafting her final composition in acrylic ink. Portraying one bird in flight, as John James Audubon did, would highlight the species’ patterning, Tamaki decided, but she wanted to capture a “scrappy aspect” she noticed in magpie behavior. Head extended, wings thrust back, her second bird prances through the suggestion of snow as the duo exchange squiggles of avian chatter. Indeed, Black-billed Magpies are quite vocal, typically calling a nasal mag? mag? mag? or raspy yak yak yak. In mingling calligraphic loops with zigzags, “I wanted to show the variations in sounds,” Tamaki says. Reacquainting herself with the species was comforting, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic: “It’s wonderful to work on something in nature, wonderful to work with something I have this kind of nostalgia toward.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2020 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.