I arrived an hour before sunup to a small village northwest of Billahmer in the highlands of the Asir region. At about 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) above sea level, the early hour coupled with stiff winds up over the edge of the Sarawat Escarpment meant, for the first time, I was properly cold in the Kingdom. I had a few layers on but unfortunately forgot my gloves back in Al Ahsa, forcing my hands to retreat into my pullover sleeves for warmth. As it was still dark, I figured I’d try for Arabian Scops-Owl and began imitating its call as I made my way into a wooded wadi south of the village and listened quietly for a reply. Sunlight began to invade from the east and again I tried for the owl. This time I got the attention of some small diurnal birds, rousing in agitation at the sound of a mortal enemy in a nearby stand of African juniper trees. Then, out of the twilight, appeared four magpies winging their way past me towards the village. These were the object of my morning’s foray—the Asir Magpie (Pica asirensis)—numbering perhaps no more than 100 breeding pairs, one of the rarest birds in the world.
Magpies belong to the Corvidae family, famously intelligent birds that include ravens, crows, and jays. The name ‘magpie’ derives from two sources. Mag is said to originate from English slang circa the 15th century, a diminutive of the name “Margaret” used proverbially to denote an “idle chatterer”. Pie comes from the name for the birds in Old French, which itself derives from pica, the Latin name for magpie. The pie in the English word piebald, like a piebald cow, is actually a reference to the magpies and evokes their striking black-and-white plumage. Etymologically, the name magpie captures both the bold beauty and charismatic personality of these charming birds.
The magpie with which western Europeans have long been familiar is the common and widespread Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica). However, the Asir Magpie, long believed to be an isolated population of the former, is, in fact, a distinct species and endemic to the highlands of the southwest, meaning they can be found nowhere else in the world. The Asir Magpie once ranged as far north as Taif and as far south as Jebel Al Qahar in Jazan Province. Unfortunately, their range appears to have shrunk dramatically over the past few decades, due in large part to the fragmentation of their preferred habitat—mature acacia and juniper woods generally around 2200 meters (7200 feet) and higher. In recent years these birds have only been recorded with some regularity from a few pockets of suitable habitat from Al Namas to the north, some 300 kilometers south of Taif, to Billasmer, some 150 kilometers north of Jebel Al Qahar. It’s suspected that they’ve disappeared altogether from former strongholds near Abha, such as Jebel Soudah. However, odd sightings around Al Baha suggest that the magpies may still exist outside their current known range but simply have gone undocumented in recent years. For this reason, I decided to explore areas where they had formerly ranged in the hopes of casting a clearer light on their actual distribution.
The pins in this eBird map represent the locations where Asir Magpies have been reported over the past ten years. This reflects not just how alarmingly restricted the range of species has become, but also how few birders and ornithologists have visited the region.
After failing to find magpies the weekend prior at the King Abdulaziz National Park on Jebel Soudah, where they may have already indeed disappeared, I checked eBird—the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s global database for birding observations—for the nearest magpie sightings to Abha. An hour north of Abha is the town of Billahmer, poised at the edge of the Sarawat Escarpment half way between Abha and Tanumah. The Smithsonian team, who, in collaboration with Saudi Aramco’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD), began an initial study of the magpies’ distribution and seasonal movements, encountered birds in two locations in this area. I decided I’d spend the morning exploring the same area, which, unfortunately, just might stand as the new southern limit of their alarmingly receding range.
The wooded wadi in which I found myself that chilly morning was ideal nesting habitat for the magpies. Mature African junipers populated the wadi bottom, growing thick in places. Somewhere in the dense branches the four birds I disturbed before dawn had been roosting, but now I could hear them in the distance, back towards the village, giving their distinctive contact call—aack aack aack—from which the magpies get their Arabic name. I headed in that direction, meandering through the trees as the rest of the wood’s denizens gradually became more active. Some quiet calls drew me to a small flock of Abyssinian White-eyes, which set to trilling peevishly at my presence. A little further on I heard a Brown Woodland Warbler and attempted to pish it into view, producing a generic alarm call by pushing air through clenched teeth and pursed lips, attracting instead a noisy pair of Yemen Warblers. Both birds set to scolding me loudly for my intrusion, the brouhaha piquing the curiosity of Yemen Thrush as well. Hearing the magpies again in the distance, I looked towards where I was parked only to see them gathered in a tree directly above my car. I quietly stalked off towards them, hoping not to scare them away.
Yet, by the time I got there, the magpies had gone, so I ventured back to the village proper to relocate them. I didn’t have far to go as, once I reached the main road and turned to the left, I spied a single bird foraging along the road’s edge and heard the others vocalizing not far off. I stopped and began filming the lone bird on the road and switched on my audio recorder to capture the vocalizations. I realized then that the bird I was filming was vocalizing as well, giving a soft call as it walked up the road in my direction. This bird, or perhaps another, was giving the same call as the group foraged in a recently furrowed terrace field a short time later, becoming more insistent as it waited attentively on another individual flipping clods with its sturdy beak and poking at the soft dirt. I suspected then that these might be young birds learning how to forage from more experienced adults, perhaps even the parent birds.
This group didn’t seem too fazed by my presence and carried on searching for food for nearly the half an hour I spent with them before heading to the second location. They’ve been described in the scant literature about this species as being particularly shy; however, I’ve had mixed experiences with them. Those I’ve encountered away from human habitation were indeed shy and required some chase to get photographs, yet those I’ve seen in and around villages, such as in the village of Al Quraish last winter as well as these, allowed a much closer approach. This speaks to the fact that this species has been desperately under studied. There is still a lot to be learned about the ecology of Asir Magpies, and even casual observations by birders, bird photographers, and citizen scientists can help reveal more about the lives of these wonderful and critically endangered birds.
Two in the group appeared to be observing the others as they foraged, suggesting these may be young birds.
On my way out of the village I heard more magpies, very close, and pulled over to record them. They were perhaps a half kilometer from the group I had just left only moments before, so I added them to the day’s count. These were making quite a ruckus around one of the houses and the fact that one was relishing a chicken leg on a nearby telephone pole hinted to the reason—the remains of a platter of rice with chicken. One of theories about what’s contributing to the species’ precipitous decline is its penchant for junk food, of which there’s often a good supply due to some folks’ unsightly habit of leaving behind picnic trash. A testament to a veritable addiction—the Smithsonian team lured birds to their traps with Crunchy Cheetos!
I continued on towards the second spot, which brought me along the very edge of the towering escarpment. I made a brief stop to take in the views, which were stunningly clear. Here I flushed a large covey of Arabian Partridge and spied two Steppe Buzzards hovering over the steep mountain slope below me ready to stoop on some unsuspecting prey. The area looked like it would be excellent for other birds of prey, such as eagles, vultures, and falcons, but time was running short. By the time I had arrived to the next wadi, I had but an hour before I had to head back to Abha for the flight home. In that time, though, I did locate another four magpies, bringing the day’s total to 14, the most I’d seen in a single visit to the Asir region up to that point. I’d like to think there were many more tucked away in wadis further removed from the villages than the two I explored that morning, but development pressure in the highlands, if unchecked, might mean more homes and tourist accommodations built in and around the magpies’ habitat, further fragmenting these critically important mountain woodlands.
Six months later I took my wife and friend Adam to Billahmer to see the magpies, and, while we did find two at the last spot I encountered them during the previous visit, the larger group near the village was nowhere to be found. I worried then that something might have happened to them but reassured myself that they could just be off foraging somewhere else. Who knows though? What is extinction, after all, but a sudden, unexpected, and irreversible disappearance? What but a sudden silence where the magpies’ call once rang out? With researchers worried that their numbers will continue to spiral and with so many environmental and manmade hazards threatening their long-term survival, the day that the Asir Magpie goes extinct may be much closer than we realize unless we act now.
Extinction is forever. Save the Asir Magpie!