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Australian Magpie

Australian Magpie

The Australian Magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen is a medium-sized black and white bird native to Australia and southern New Guinea. It is closely related to the butcherbirds and currawongs of the Artamidae family. At one stage the Australian Magpie was considered to be three separate species, though zones of hybridization between forms reinforced the idea of it as one species with several subspecies. Nine subspecies are now recognized.

The Australian Magpie is omnivorous, with the bulk of its varied diet made up of invertebrates. It is common and widespread. Familiar birds around Australia and New Guinea, magpies were introduced into New Zealand in the 1860s and are proving to be a pest by displacing native birds. Introductions also occurred in the Solomon Islands and Fiji, but these have not proved to be invasive.

Taxonomy

The Australian Magpie was originally described by English ornithologist John Latham in 1802 as Coracias tibicen, the type specimen collected in the Port Jackson region. Its specific name derived from the Latin tibicen "flute-player" or "piper" in reference to the bird's melodious call. An early recorded vernacular name is Piping Roller, written on a painting by Thomas Watling, one of a group known collectively as the Port Jackson Painter, sometime between 1788 and 1792. Tarra-won-nang, or djarrawunang, wibung, and marriyang were names used by the local Eora and Darug inhabitants of the Sydney basin. Booroogong and garoogong were Wiradjuri words, and carrak was a Jardwadjali term from Victoria. Other names used include Piping Crow-shrike, Piper, Maggie, Flute-bird and Organ-bird.

The bird was named for its similarity in colouration to the European Magpie; it was a common practice for early settlers to name plants and animals after European counterparts. However, the European Magpie is a member of the Corvidae, while the Australian Magpie is classified in the Artamidae family (despite being a member of a broad corvid lineage). The Australian Magpie's affinities with butcherbirds and currawongs were recognised early on and the three genera were placed in the family Cracticidae in 1914 by ornithologist John Albert Leach after he had studied their musculature. Subsequent studies have revealed a closeness in relations to members of Artaminae (the woodswallows).

For many years, it was placed in the genus Gymnorhina, but recently has been transferred to the butcherbird genus Cracticus, giving rise to its current binomial name.

Subspecies

There are currently thought to be nine subspecies of the Australian Magpie; there is a large zone of overlap with intermediate forms between the taxa. The original Gymnorhina tibicen, the Black-backed Magpie, has been split into at least three black-backed races:

  • G. tibicen tibicen, found in southeastern Queensland, from Brisbane through eastern New South Wales to the Victorian border., is a large subspecies.
  • G. tibicen terraereginae, found across Queensland, central and western New South Wales and into northern South Australia, is a small to medium-sized subspecies.
  • G. tibicen eylandtensis, found across the Northern Territory, is a small subspecies with a long thinner bill. It has a narrow black terminal tailband.
  • G. tibicen longirostris, found across northern Western Australia, is a medium-sized subspecies with a long thin bill.

The White-backed Magpie, originally described as G. hypoleuca by John Gould in 1837, has also been split into races:

  • G. tibicen tyrannica, a very large white backed form found across southern Victoria
  • G. tibicen telonocua, found in southern South Australia. Its subspecific name is an anagram of leuconota "white-backed".
  • The Tasmanian Magpie, G. tibicen hypoleuca a small white-backed subspecies with a short compact bill found on King and Flinders Islands, as well as Tasmania.
  • The Western Magpie, G. tibicen dorsalis was originally described as a separate species by A. J. Campbell in 1895 and is found in the fertile south-west corner of Western Australia.
  • G. tibicen papuana, found in southern New Guinea.

These three races, tibicen, hypoleuca and dorsalis, were for many years considered to be three separate species. It was later noted that the three races hybridise readily where their territories cross, with hybrid grey or striped-backed magpies being quite common. This recognition allowed classification to be reduced to one species.

Description

The adult magpie is a fairly solid, well-built bird ranging from 37–43 cm (14.5–17 in) in length with a 65–85 cm (26–33 in) wingspan, and weighing 220–350 g (8–12 oz). Plumage is pure black and white; males and females of all subspecies have black heads, wings and underparts with white napes, and shoulders. Tails are orange with a pink terminal band. Juveniles' plumage contains lighter greys and browns amidst the starker blacks and whites.

Mature magpies have red eyes, in contrast to the yellow eyes of currawongs and white eyes of Australian ravens and crows. Immature birds have darker, brownish eyes.

Butcherbirds are often mistaken for magpies, despite being generally smaller and stockier. Similar mistakes are also made with Magpie-larks, which are more delicate birds than magpies and have white eyes.

Male and female magpies are generally similar in appearance, though a few exceptions are noted in the photos above.

Australian Magpies generally live to around 25 years of age, though ages of up to 30 years have been recorded.

Australian Magpies have a musical, warbling call. In Denis Glover's poem The Magpies, the mature magpie's call is described as a "quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle". In contrast, young magpies emit an almost continuous "squawk".

Distribution and habitat

The Australian Magpie is found in the Trans-Fly region of southern New Guinea, between the Oriomo River and the Princess Mariane Strait, and across most of Australia, bar the tip of Cape York, the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts, and southwest of Tasmania. It was introduced into New Zealand in the 1860s and is proving to be a pest by displacing native birds. Introductions also occurred in the Solomon Islands and Fiji, but these have not proved to be invasive.

It prefers open areas such as grassland, fields and residential areas such as parks, gardens, golf courses, and streets, with scattered trees or forest nearby. Birds nest and shelter in trees but forage mainly on the ground in these open areas. The Australian Magpie has also been recorded in mature pine plantations; birds only occupy rainforest and wet sclerophyll forest in the vicinity of cleared areas.

Behaviour

Magpies are almost exclusively diurnal, though they may call into the night, like all members of the Artamidae. Natural predators of magpies include various species of monitor lizard and the Barking Owl.

Diet

Magpies are omnivorous, eating various items located at or near ground level including invertebrates such as earthworms, millipedes, snails, spiders and scorpions as well as a wide variety of insectscockroaches, ants, beetles, moths and caterpillars and other larvae. Skinks, frogs, mice and other small animals as well as grain, tubers, figs and walnuts have also been recorded. The Australian Magpie is predominantly a ground feeder, pacing 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 will also take handouts from humans and will often venture into open houses to look for food. They may also eat their own digestive products.

Breeding

Magpies 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. The nest is a bowl-shaped structure made of sticks and lined with softer material such as grass and bark. Near human habitation, synthetic material may be incorporated. Nests are built exclusively by females and generally placed high up in a tree fork, often in an exposed position.

The Australian Magpie produces a clutch of two to five light blue or greenish eggs, which are oval in shape and about 27 x 38 millimetres (1 x 1.5 in). The chicks hatch synchronously around 20 days after incubation begins; like all passerines, the chicks are altricial. Chicks 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 of age. Chicks develop fine downy feathers on their head, back and wings in the first week, and pinfeathers in the second week. The black and white coloration is noticeable from an early stage. Nestlings are fed exlusively by the female, though the male magpie will feed his partner. Sometimes, immature magpies will stay with their parents long after leaving the nest, and will follow their mother asking for food, despite being capable of feeding themselves.

The Channel-billed Cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae) is a notable brood parasite in eastern Australia; magpies will raise cuckoo young, which eventually outcompete the magpie nestlings.

Swooping

Magpies live in urban areas as often as in the bush, and tend not to be afraid of people. Magpies are a familiar sight to most Australians, and their melodic song is widely enjoyed. However, during nesting, if magpies feel threatened by an inadvertent intrusion into their territory, they will often swoop at the intruder and audibly "snap" their beaks in an attempt to drive them away. Magpies generally swoop from behind, and without warning, so attacks can be frightening, particularly to children. For this reason, local authorities sometimes post warning signs during "swooping season", particularly in urban parks. Magpie attacks can cause injuries, typically wounds to the head and eyes. Being unexpectedly swooped while cycling is not uncommon, and can result in loss of control of the bicycle, which may cause injury..

To avoid swooping attacks, the best course of action is to avoid the territory of nesting magpies during the nesting season (between August and October). Magpies are a protected native species in Australia, so it is illegal to kill or harm them. However, this protection is removed in some Australian States if a magpie attacks a human, allowing for the bird to be destroyed if considered particularly aggressive. (For an example, see section 54 of the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act )

If it is necessary to walk near the nest, some people opt to wear a bicycle helmet or upturned empty ice-cream container as head protection. Magpies prefer to swoop at the back of the head; therefore, keeping the magpie in sight at all times can discourage the bird. Using a basic disguise to fool the magpie as to where a person is looking (such as painting eyes on a hat, or wearing sunglasses on the back of the head) can also prove effective, as can holding an object above one's head. In some cases, magpies may become extremely aggressive and attack people's faces; it may become very difficult to deter these birds from swooping. Once attacked, shouting aggressively and waving one's arms at the bird should deter a second attack. If a bird presents a serious nuisance the local authorities may arrange for that bird to be legally destroyed, or more commonly, to be caught and relocated to an unpopulated area.

It is claimed by some that swooping can be prevented by hand-feeding magpies. The idea is that humans thereby appear less of a threat to the nesting birds. As always when feeding wildlife, feeding should be irregular so as to discourage dependence.

Tameness

Australian Magpies are territorial, which presents an opportunity for people to become acquainted with local pairs and their offspring.

Magpies can also be hand-fed and can become quite tame if they interact with humans. The males are generally the bravest and will come quite close to a gentle hand that offers bread.

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