Bird of the Month – Australian Magpie

The Australian Magpie. Photo: BirdLife Melbourne

THIS month’s bird is the iconic Australian Magpie.

They’re probably best known for their beautiful, warbling song. But there’s a lot to admire about these birds, which are curious, intelligent and charismatic.

In our part of Australia, the nape, upper tail and shoulder of the males are entirely white. Adult female birds have a light grey mottling on their backs as do juveniles up until two-years-old. Adult birds have chestnut brown eyes.

Australian Magpies are common and found throughout most of Australia wherever there is a combination of trees and adjacent open areas, including parks and playing fields. They’re absent only from dense forests and arid deserts. Groups of up to 24 birds live year-round in territories that are actively defended by all group members. Groups depend on their territory for feeding, roosting and nesting requirements. Territories are spaced every 200-300 metres. Group members can remain in the territory for 10-15 years.

Being omnivores, their diet contains insects, worms, small lizards, mice, nuts and seeds and even other bird’s eggs and nestlings. You may see them walking along the ground searching for insects, then cocking their heads to the side before striking. This is because they can hear small animals moving underground.

Magpies are one of Australia’s most highly-regarded songbirds. They make a loud, musical flute-like song, often performed as a duet or in groups. They have a wide variety of calls, many of which are complex, with their pitch varying up to four octaves. When alone, they can make a quiet, musical warbling noise. Louder calls are made to announce or defend their territory, raise the alarm for predators, or are begging calls made by juveniles. They can mimic more than 35 bird species, as well as other animal calls, such as the barking of dogs. Magpies have been noted to mimic human speech or even the cry of a baby.

Peak breeding season is August to November. The nest is constructed in the outer tree branches, a platform of sticks and twigs, with a small interior bowl lined with grass and hair.

Females lay three to five eggs which hatch in around 20 days. Chicks are fed for up to four weeks in the nest and remain in the group for up to two years, after which they join large groups of roaming ‘adolescent’ and non-breeding magpies until they can gain a place in a territory as an adult breeding bird.

Magpies are generally quite tame, but during the breeding season they can become aggressive towards predators/intruders who venture too close to nesting sites. They’re not actively trying to hurt people or pets; they’re just protecting their young in the nest for about six weeks of the year. Although it may seem like there are lots of swooping magpies, it is only the males and only 11 per cent of them will do it.

While we may have good intentions, feeding magpies inappropriate food such as dog kibble, bread or mince can cause more harm than good. Parents can take the food back to their young, so it’s crucial we provide them with the right nutrients to ensure strong growth, free from abnormalities like soft or broken beaks, bone deformities, or poor feather growth.

If you want to feed them, try turning over some rocks or digging up some dirt for them to forage over. Otherwise, this website is informative at shop.themagpiewhisperer.com/blogs/articles/feeding-magpies

Fun fact: Magpies are known to be able to recognise over 100 unique human faces, they can remember faces of people in their local territory for up to five years.

BirdLife East Gippsland meets weekly for Monday morning outings. New members are always welcome. Check the Facebook page and Birdlife Australia events page for more information.