Length: 37-43cm Common
One of Australia’s best known birds and common throughout the continent. It is found in bushland, farmland, cities and country towns in all states and territories.
The distinct black and white markings vary slightly around the continent. The West Australian male magpie has a white back. The female has a white nape only but her dark back feathers are edged in white. The juvenile closely resembles the female and is often difficult to tell apart.
Magpies feed mainly on worms, ground dwelling insects and invertebrates and spiders. They can be seen pecking and probing into any crevice and often seen standing quite still as they listen for sounds or vibrations of beetle larvae underground. They will also eat frogs, small lizards, meat scraps and grain.
Magpie’s social behaviour is very complex. It lives in groups with a strict hierarchy setup of a dominant male, 2 to 3 females and any number of up to about 20 individuals. Magpies occupy permanent territories and can live for about 20 years.
Famous for “carolling”, the Australian magpie has one of the world’s most complex birdsongs. It has incredible ability, flexibility and range in the sheer number of songs and calls it can make – it also mimics such sounds as the human voice, a dog’s bark, sirens and other birds.
During the breeding season the male Magpies fiercely defend their nests and territories by basically ‘dive bombing’ any perceived threat whether in the air or on the ground. People walking past may be seen as ‘invaders’ which can sometimes result in a jab to the back of the head or at least a huge fright. The first you know of it is when wings are beating beside your ears! They seem to be particularly infuriated by bicycles. Nearly half of people attacked are riding bikes at the time.
Breeding occurs from July to Feb. The female makes her own nest consisting of a rough basket of sticks. She lays 3 -5 eggs incubates and rears the young unaided for approximately 3 weeks. During this time the nest is defended by the male.
Once the young have left the nest, all members of the group help in educating, protecting and caring for them. Survival rate for chicks is only 14 percent in good conditions. Most fall prey to snakes, goannas, birds of prey and domestic animals.
It has been discovered that “pair bonding” between magpies varies as much as it does in humans. There are monogamous magpies and others who are hopelessly promiscuous. One similarity among all magpie males however, seems to be a thriftiness in the courtship stakes. The blokes rarely partake of anything more than the most cursory of foreplay.
Also an unusual trait that sets magpies apart from other Australian birds is their playfulness. They are regularly observed on their backs during play, behaviour found as submission in subordinate adults. They roll around, breast bump each other, pull on wings, run after each other, peck, grasp, jump and even play hide and seek!
Magpies are highly intelligent animals, outstanding communicators and have the ability to solve problems which suggest a cognitive framework that is probably in the higher domain. A Magpie may have capabilities comparable to that of a dog.