The Australian magpie is a medium-sized songbird, with distinctive black and white plumage, gold-brown eyes and a solid wedge-shaped bluish-white and black bill. The male and female are similar in appearance and can be distinguished by differences in back markings. The male has pure white feathers on the back of the head and the female has white blending to grey feathers on the back of the head. With its long legs, the Australian magpie walks rather than waddles or hops and spends much time on the ground. Learn more about Magpie with Pritish Kumar Halder.
Australian magpies are found in Australia, southern New Guinea and Indonesia. They prefer open areas such as grassland, savannah, fields and residential areas such as parks, gardens, golf courses, and streets, with scattered trees or forest nearby. They can also be found in mature pine plantations, rainforest, and wet sclerophyll forest.
The adult magpie ranges from 37 to 43 cm (14.5 to 17 in) in length with a 65–85 cm (25.5–33.5 in) wingspan, and weighing 220–350 g (7.8–12.3 oz). Its robust wedge-shaped bill is bluish-white bordered with black, with a small hook at the tip. The black legs are long and strong. The plumage is pure glossy black and white; both sexes of all subspecies have black heads, wings and underparts with white shoulders. The tail has a black terminal band.
The nape is white in the male and light greyish-white in the female. Mature magpies have dull red eyes, in contrast to the yellow eyes of currawongs and white eyes of Australian ravens and crows. The main difference between the subspecies lies in the “saddle” markings on the back below the nape. Black-backed subspecies have a black saddle and white nape. White-backed subspecies have a wholly white nape and saddle. The male Western Australian subspecies dorsalis is also white-backed, but the equivalent area in the female is scalloped black.
Juveniles have lighter greys and browns amidst the starker blacks and whites of their plumage; two- or three-year-old birds of both sexes closely resemble and are difficult to distinguish from adult females. Immature birds have dark brownish eyes until around two years of age. Australian magpies generally live to around 25 years of age, though ages of up to 30 years have been recorded. The reported age of first breeding has varied according to area, but the average is between the ages of three and five years
Habits and Lifestyle
Australian magpies are diurnal, however, sometimes they can also be heard calling at night. These birds nest and shelter in trees but forage mainly on the ground. On the ground, they move around by walking; magpies have a short femur (thigh bone), and long lower leg below the knee, suited to walking rather than running, although birds can run in short bursts when hunting prey. Australian magpies have a wide variety of calls, many of which are complex.
When alone, a magpie may make a quiet musical warbling. Pairs of magpies often take up a loud musical calling known as carolling to advertise or defend their territory; one bird initiates the call with the second (and sometimes more) joining in. Fledgling and juvenile magpies emit a repeated short and loud, high-pitched begging call. Magpies may indulge in beak-clapping to warn other species of birds. They employ several high pitched alarm or rallying calls when intruders or threats are spotted.
Australian magpies are generally sedentary and territorial throughout their range; they live in groups occupying a territory, or in flocks or fringe groups. A group may occupy and defend the same territory for many years. With the sight of the raptor, the sentinel birds will call and mob of the intruder. They will place themselves either side of the bird of prey so that it will be attacked from behind should it strike a defender, and harass and drive the raptor away of the territory.
Magpies also use several defending displays; in the ‘negotiating display’, the one or two dominant magpies parade along the border of the defended territory while the rest of the group stand back a little and look on. The leaders may fluff their feathers or caroll repeatedly. In a ‘group strength display’, all magpies will fly and form a row at the border of the territory. The defending group may also perform aerial display where the dominant magpies, or sometimes the whole group, swoop and dive while calling to warn an intruding magpie’s group.
Diet and Nutrition
Australian magpies are omnivorous. They eat invertebrates such as earthworms, millipedes, snails, spiders, and scorpions as well as a wide variety of insects – cockroaches, ants, beetles, cicadas, moths and caterpillars and other larvae. Their diet may also include skinks, frogs, mice, and other small animals as well as grain, tubers, figs, and walnuts.
It has even learnt to safely eat the poisonous cane toad by flipping it over and consuming the underparts. Predominantly a ground feeder, the Australian magpie paces open areas methodically searching for insects and their larvae. One study showed birds were able to find scarab beetle larvae by sound or vibration. Birds use their bills to probe into the earth or otherwise overturn debris in search of food. Smaller prey are swallowed whole, although magpies rub off the stingers of bees and wasps and irritating hairs of caterpillars before swallowing.
Australian magpies form strong monogamous pair bonds. They have a long breeding season which varies in different parts of the country; in northern parts of Australia, they will breed between June and September, but not commence until August or September in cooler regions, and may continue until January in some alpine areas. Their nest is a bowl-shaped structure made of sticks and lined with softer material such as grass and bark. Nests are built exclusively by females and generally placed high up in a tree fork, often in an exposed position.
The female lays a clutch of 2 to 5 oval light blue or greenish eggs. The chicks hatch around 20 days after incubation begins. The chicks are altricial; they are born pink, naked, and blind with large feet, a short broad beak, and a bright red throat. Their eyes are fully open at around 10 days. Nestlings are fed exclusively by the female, while the male magpie will feed his partner. Australian magpies are known to engage in cooperative breeding, where helper birds assist in feeding and raising young.
This behavior is rare in small groups and varies from region to region. Chicks usually begin foraging on their own 3 weeks after leaving the nest and mostly feeding themselves by 6 months old. They reach adult size by their first year. The age at which young birds disperse varies across the country. Many leave at around a year old, but the age of departure may range from eight months to four years.
Australian magpies are not considered threatened or endangered. However, these birds are often killed on roads or electrocuted by powerlines or poisoned after killing and eating house sparrows or mice, rats, or rabbits targeted with baiting. Australian ravens often take nestlings that were left unattended.
The IUCN Red List and other sources don’t provide the number of the Australian magpie total population size. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today are increasing.
Fun Facts for Kids
- Australian magpies are described as one of Australia’s most accomplished songbirds. They have an array of complex vocalizations and can mimic over 35 species of native and introduced birds, as well as dogs and horses. Magpies can even mimic human speech when living in close proximity to humans.
- During their musical carolling, magpies adopt a specific posture by tilting their heads back, expanding their chests, and moving their wings backwards. In winter and spring, a group of magpies sing a short repetitive version of carolling just before dawn (dawn song), and at twilight after sundown (dusk song).
- Young Australian magpies like to play, either by themselves or in groups. They may pick up, manipulate or tug at various objects such as sticks, rocks, or bits of wire, and hand them to other birds. A bird may pick up a feather or leaf and fly off with it, with other birds pursuing and attempting to bring down the leader by latching onto its tail feathers. Birds may also jump on each other and even engage in mock fighting. Play may even take place with other bird species such as blue-faced honeyeaters and Australasian pipits.
- Australian magpies have learned to safely eat the poisonous cane toad by flipping it over and consuming the underparts.
- Australian magpies have adapted well to human habitation and are often found in parks, gardens, and farmland. These birds are commonly fed by households around the country, but in spring (and occasionally in autumn) some breeding males become aggressive and swoop and attack those who approach their nests.
- Australian magpies are able to find scarab beetle larvae under the ground by sound or vibration.