What Classic Cartoon Heckle and Jeckle Got Right (and Wrong) about Magpies


If you were a kid in the 50s or 60s (or even later), you may remember watching the “Heckle and Jeckle” cartoon with your Saturday morning cereal. The wisecracking bird duo was known for their mischievous antics, like stealing food from and harassing Farmer Al Falfa and his dog Dimwit. Many wondered what types of birds Heckle and Jeckle were (and why one has a British accent while the other sounds like he’s from Brooklyn). Some thought they were crows, but creator Paul Terry clarified the duo as a pair of yellow-billed magpies. Whether you’re nostalgic for this classic toon, or you have yet to be introduced to this lovable pair, enjoy this “Heckle and Jeckle” short:

What Heckle and Jeckle Got Right about Magpies

They are highly intelligent

A magpie sitting on a tree branch overlooking a wheat field.

Magpies and other birds of the corvid family are considered the most intelligent bird species. In fact, their brain size in relation to their body mass is the same as that of apes and dolphins, mammals also known for their brainpower. As such, magpies have been known to recall where they buried food up to nine months later, make and use tools, and even play social games with other magpies. They even seem to have a certain level of self-awareness and can recognize themselves in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. So, much like Heckle and Jeckle, real magpies are forces to be reckoned with in terms of their mental prowess.

They love to steal food

A magpie stealing a peanut.

Just as Heckle and Jeckle take Farmer Al Falfa’s food, real magpies concoct elaborate plans to relieve other birds (and even humans) of their tasty morsels. Magpies will watch other birds to find out where they hide their food caches, and then wait until the other bird flies away before pilfering their stash. They have also been known to steal eggs out of other birds’ nests, though this typically only happens in spring, when the magpie is searching for food to feed its young. Magpies are also known to be bully birds at bird feeders, chasing away other birds and making a mess. (Pro tip: a caged bird feeder that keeps out larger birds out while letting smaller birds feed typically solves this problem.)

In some places, magpies have become a nuisance, even going so far as swooping down on humans and taking food out of their mouths! But though these black birds often get a bad rap, they do have their redeeming qualities. For example, they have been known to show compassion for injured birds (even breaking up food and feeding them!) and even form human friendships.

What Heckle and Jeckle Got Wrong about Magpies

They can be friendly with people

A magpie alighting on a person

As previously mentioned, and unlike their cartoon counterparts, real magpies have been known to form bonds with humans. What’s even more surprising is that these unlikely friendships don’t require humans to provide food or shelter to gain a magpie’s trust. One reason why this relationship is possible is that magpies can recognize and remember human faces—and even recall them years later. They remember people who are good to them, and people who aren’t. Those they like, they show affection for in many ways, including introducing their young to the person, not flying away when they are near, and roosting near the person’s house.

Males don’t pair up with other males

A pair of magpies on the ground.

While it’s funny to see Heckle and Jeckle pair up to get into trouble, in real life, magpies only pair up with the opposite sex—and when they mate, they mate for life. During courtship, these avian lovers perform a series of rituals. The male spreads and displays his tail to attract the female, and (in the case of the black-billed magpie) signals his interest with a flash of white wing patch. The female will beg the male for food (which, if he’s interested, he answers by feeding her). During breeding season, the male will often guard the female so that no other magpies mate with her (not an uncommon occurrence). When magpies nest, they build large nests on tree branches or large shrubs, and the female will lay up to eight eggs.

Want More Bird Facts? Join Us!

If you’re a nature lover, beginner birder, or simply a lifelong learner, join Chirp Nature Center for one of our Bird Walks and Bird Talks. Go on a virtual hike with us and learn about local Big Bear wildlife or tune in to hear a talk about birds by one of our special bird expert guests. Join us from the comfort of your living room through Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube! Get our schedule here. Happy birding and we hope you’ll join us soon!

Heckle and Jeckle cartoons were originally created by animator Paul Terry at his animation studio, Terrytoons. Terrytoons is now owned by Paramount Pictures, though most of the Heckle and Jeckle original cartoons (like the one linked in this post) are in the public domain.

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