The Australian Magpie is a complicated bird. It’s also one of the most familiar, with many households receiving regular magpie visitors. This adult bird on the NSW Central Coast is waiting for a handout:
If food isn’t forthcoming, one of the juveniles may call for it:
And if that doesn’t work, an adult will look inside to find out what’s causing the delay:
These are magpies in friendly mode. They quickly learn who’s who in the household, particularly who’s more generous with food. A change of clothing – a quick moult of feathers in magpie terms – doesn’t fool them. Friends of mine regularly feed a magpie couple, and the new annual brood of chicks rapidly familiarise themselves with their human providers.
There’s another aggressive side to magpie behaviour of course—they defend their families against perceived threats—and in the breeding season male magpies frequently ‘swoop’ people who are near their nests. That long dagger bill can inflict serious injuries, including blinding, and not merely to people either. Pelicans can also get the treatment:
So can wedge-tailed eagles:
Family seems to be a major focus in magpie lives. Some birds operate as couples; others as small extended families centred on a breeding pair. Either way, chicks and juveniles remain with their parents for an unusually long time.
At the other extreme, there are the Brush turkeys who ignore their chicks as soon as they hatch, or cuckoos, whose chicks are raised by other birds. A turkey chick or cuckoo juvenile therefore needs to innately “know” its basic feeding and breeding behaviours if it is to survive without further training. Juvenile magpies don’t have such innate knowledge or skills. Instead, by hanging around their parents, they learn where to find (and capture) food—and what dangers to watch out for. This pairing is a common sight in grassed areas:
The youngster is watching what its parent does. Sometimes, when the parent is successful, the youngster will be rewarded with a share of the trophy (and knowledge of how it was obtained):
At other times the younger bird will search for its own meal:
Sometimes it’s successful:
If not, there’s always the Mummy or Daddy Bank to fall back on!
Some magpie hunting techniques are quite subtle. It’s common to see a magpie foraging on grass suddenly run forward a few feet, then stop and listen intently with its head down and cocked to the left.
A brief pause is followed by the bird moving a little further forward and stabbing its beak into the soil:
It often comes up with a scarab beetle grub – an agricultural pest whose destruction makes magpies popular with farmers. (In this case the grub was hidden by the green plant as the magpie ate it!)
The left-handed listening pause is an indication of the workings of the magpie brain. Like humans, their brain is divided into left and right hemispheres, and there’s evidence that hearing functions are divided between the hemispheres. Close-range delicate sounds, such as those made by underground grubs, are processed via the left ear to the right hemisphere. This hemisphere houses neural circuitry capable of translating audio signals into the direction, distance, and undersoil depth coordinates of an invisible grub. It’s an intricate process that has to be learned and practised – it takes a juvenile magpie several months to become reasonably proficient.
The right eye/ear seem to be favoured when approaching predators and other potential hazards, as in the earlier pelican photo.
Like most birds, a magpie's eyes face sideways, so they have near 360 deg vision, but mostly through one eye only. Hence, as they look around, they need to switch from binocular vision facing forwards to monocular vision on the side, and their brain has to process different events on each side at the same time - difficult concepts for humans! Nevertheless, in writing about bird behaviour that is not innate but has to be taught, as well as flexible social structures, recognition of individuals, and brain hemisphere specialisation, I was being constantly reminded of the skills of my own species.
Finally, since I didn’t show the grub caught by that last magpie, here’s a photo of the same bird a minute later with a moth caught by the much simpler “stroll and pounce” technique used by most ground birds. Even magpies take the easy road sometimes!
Notes: Much of the information in this post was gleaned from Gisela Kaplan’s excellent book Australian Magpie.
As I've mentioned before, Australian Magpies are not closely related to European Magpies, or American ones either. They belong to the Australian Butcherbird family.