The Australian Magpie

by Jill Thio

Order: Passeriformes
Species: tibicen
Genus: Gymnorhina
Family: Artamidae
Sub-family: Cracticidae

Early European settlers named the Australian Magpie after the totally unrelated northern hemisphere birds, presumably because of their black and white plumage. Unlike their namesakes, Australian Magpies are not of the Corvidae (crow) family but are more closely related to Butcherbirds and Currawongs.

The Australian Magpie is glossy black and white but the plumage pattern varies across its range.  The female often has a greyish or mottled grey back and immature birds are also a generally duller bird with grey rather than black feathers. In size, they are about 36 to 44 cm from head to tail and have an average wing span of 76 cm.  As Passeriformes (perching birds) they have three toes facing forward and one back.  Australian Magpies have robust beaks, usually greyish-white with black edging, and alert, reddish-brown eyes.

The Australian Magpie is a very common and well known bird. It is found throughout Australia except in the most arid and densely forested areas. The Australian Magpie preferred habitats are areas where there is a combination of trees and open land, including open forest, woodland, agricultural and urban land. Our backyards, parks and playing fields, are therefore ideal Australian Magpie territory, bringing humans into close contact.

Australian Magpies live in groups, apparently of up to 24 birds, but more usually lesser numbers. They live year round in territories that are actively defended by all group members.  The group depends on this territory for its feeding, roosting and nesting requirements.  They are very brave and can drive off much larger birds, including birds of prey such as hawks.

This territorial behaviour can cause problems in the breeding season when some individual birds (usually males) can become aggressive towards any intruders, including people, who come too close to their nest sites. People can be subjected to “swooping” attacks and injuries have occurred.  New research has shown that this territorial behaviour is subject to whether the bird believes you are friend or foe.  University of New England (New South Wales, Australia) animal behaviour expert, Dr. Gisela Kaplan, said that Australian Magpies use facial recognition to distinguish different people.  The study showed that Australian Magpies could recognise that certain people near their nesting grounds were not a threat and would leave them alone. One of my friends, who usually peacefully co-exists with a group of local magpies, relates how he was attacked when riding his bicycle. When he removed his helmet and asked the bird what it thought it was doing - the magpie recognised him and ceased to be aggressive.  The magpie was apparently slightly huffy and probably wondered why his human friend was wearing a disguise in the first place.

The Australian Magpie walks, rather than hops or waddles, along the ground searching for food. They can make jabbing movements with their beaks into the ground to extract insects and their larvae.  Their diet can include small lizards and frogs and they often “train” people to give them food.  Magpies can be quite tame and bold and will often venture into houses for a visit and perhaps a snack.

Australian Magpies expel small, dense pellets of indigestible materials through their beaks.  These pellets consist of insect exoskeletons and other materials that the birds cannot digest and it can be quite interesting to see what they have been eating.

The peak breeding season is usually from August through to November (from the end of Winter through Spring in the southern hemisphere). They nest high in the outer branches of trees, up to 15 m above the ground, and their nests consist of a platform of sticks and twigs with a small interior bowl-shape lined with softer materials such as grass, shredded bark, feathers, hair, and wool. As many Magpies live in close contact with humans, their nests can include artificial man-made materials including wire and plastic.

The Australian Magpie has one of the world’s most complex bird songs. Pitch may vary over up to four octaves.  They have a loud, musical, flute-like song often performed as a duet or by a group. Their carolling is particularly noticeable at dawn and dusk. Some aboriginal tribes associate the Magpie as the bird who calls the new day. When alone, an Australian Magpie may quietly and musically warble to itself. Their communication skills are very advanced and distinct calls have been recorded especially alarm or rallying calls for particular dangers. Juvenile birds have a very annoying and persistent begging-for-food call.

Another endearing trait of the Australian Magpie is their playfulness.  They can quite often be seen indulging in what we humans would describe as play activities - such as swinging on thin, drooping branches (or the washing on the clothesline) by their beaks, throwing and catching leaves, twigs or other objects, again with their beaks, wrestling each other, annoying domestic pets (obviously just because it’s fun) and playing with the water sprinkler in the garden.  Adult birds are active participants and often instigate the play.

The Australian Magpie is well loved by most Australians.  In 2013 it was voted second in an Australian wide completion held by BirdLife Australia to find our most popular bird. The carolling of the Australian Magpie is the sound that many Australians wake up to every morning - a truly wonderful, uplifting sound and a truly wonderful, engaging bird.