I saw an odd-looking magpie today, odd for North Sydney, that is. It looked like this:
Whereas North Sydney magpies usually look like this (though not usually quite so dishevelled!)
Today’s odd magpie retreated before coming closer but paused when it heard something:
But there was nothing suspicious overhead:
So it gave me a quizzical look:
Another magpie called from a nearby tree, so the first magpie softly carolled back:
A few seconds later it took off and joined the other bird, and that was the end of the encounter.
But I then wondered what bird I had actually seen. Magpies are so common around North Sydney that I’d not thought about any regional variations.
In fact, the simple "magpie" label hides a complex story. For starters, the Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) is not really a magpie at all. The northern hemisphere magpie after which it’s named is a member of the crow family (corvidae) and looks like this:
The Australian Magpie’s closest relatives are not corvids but passerines (perching birds), a fact recently confirmed by DNA evidence. It’s the largest member of the Butcherbird family, and this is one of its smaller cousins, the Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus):
There’s also been confusion over whether there are separate species of magpie. The current view is that there is one super-species of Australian Magpie comprising eight geographical subspecies (but to further confuse things, the different subspecies can hybridise!) Those eight subspecies fall into three groups – white-backed, black-backed and scaly-backed. “My” magpie would be one of the white-backed subspecies, possibly tyrannica, whereas the local birds I usually see are all black-backed. The scaly patterns on its back and chest also suggested that “my” magpie was a young bird.
Magpies are perhaps Australia’s most loved and most disliked birds. The “most disliked” label reflects their bellicosity, coupled with the way they freely thrust that dagger-like bill at anything they see as a threat. At breeding time they are notoriously aggressive. The conflicts start over selection of territory and a mate. I’ve seen one pair knock another magpie out of the sky onto its back and viciously peck it as it lay pinned there. Using my shoe, I was able to force the leading attacker off its victim, but as soon as the victim tried to fly off, its attacker was after it like a homing missile and knocked it back to the ground within 10 metres. However this second time the victim managed to wriggle free and escape. (No photos – I was on my way to work!)
The magpie conflicts then move to homeland defence, when anything coming near a pair’s nest is swooped by the male. Stories are legion, but perhaps the worst instance occurred several years ago when over a hundred Brisbane schoolchildren suffered facial cuts from one bird in a fortnight. Last September in southern Sydney a cyclist was killed when he swerved to avoid a swooping magpie. For many years in Bent Street, in the heart of the Sydney CBD, warning signs were placed below a magpie nest – it was often easier to cross the street.
That magpie aggression has its benefits. Channel-billed cuckoos will regularly target the nests of crows, ravens and currawongs, but seldom those of magpies. I have only seen one cuckoo-magpie nesting conflict - the one shown below - and even then the fledglings that the cuckoos were stealing looked like noisy miner chicks. The magpie certainly wasn’t pressing home its attack as viciously as I would expect if its own chick was being taken.
Outside the breeding season, magpie aggression diminishes, but they still feel free to “see off” a passing bird of any shape or size, such as this pelican.
On the "most loved" side of the magpie ledger is their sociability. Many magpies will befriend people and become regular visitors in exchange for titbits. This was one such bird:
Once they have their humans trained, magpies can become quite demanding, complaining loudly if the fare isn’t up to scratch, or coming into the house if there’s any delay in the service:
Another attractive magpie feature is their typical yodelling call, sometimes written as quardle oodle ardle waddle doodle (there are regional variations). They are also excellent mimics.
Magpies are amongst the most intelligent and playful birds, up there with the brightest parrots and crows. There are plenty of examples of their playfulness on Youtube (just search “Australian magpie”). One story is of a magpie called Penguin Bloom; there’s a book, and the Guardian has a good photo-essay on Penguin here.
Wild magpies are well able to recognise different people – who to swoop and who to approach for food, for example. If a pair has regular human contacts, they will introduce their latest offspring once they are fledged (although said offspring are expected to find their own territory once they are old enough.)
They are also very attentive parents. It’s common to see a young magpie on the ground somewhere, occasionally picking up something but mostly begging for food. At least one parent will be nearby, searching for food or listening attentively for the sound of a worm or insect (they have excellent hearing.) Most finds are then offered to the youngster.
With their ability to inspire such extremes of affection and dislike, maybe it’s appropriate that magpies are black and white!