November 27 - December 3, 2022: Issue 564


The Australian Magpie: Our Suburban Caroller

Although this wonderful suburban bird may be often taken for granted, it has a LOT going for it and is one of our most beautiful and musical suburban birds and also one of the few suburban birds that offers 'protection for other birds in a way as the yellow-rumped thornbill (Acanthiza chrysorrhoa), willie wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys), southern whiteface (Aphelocephala leucopsis), and (less commonly) noisy miner (Manorina melanocephala), often nest in the same tree as the magpie. 

A pair of magpies will mate for life and often return to the same tree year after year o use as a nesting place. Once the eggs hatch the young remain in the nest for about 4 weeks while being fed by the mum. During this time the nest is defended by the male. The family group will help protect and educate the young with the dad teaching them foraging skills. 

The young magpies, once they leave home, will move around together in a group called a 'tribe' although the collective word for a group of magpies is also listed as 'tidings'.

As one of Australia's most accomplished songbirds, the Australian magpie has an array of complex vocalisations. It is omnivorous, with the bulk of its varied diet made up of invertebrates (insects) although it will eat seed, tubers, walnuts and figs.

On the ground, the Australian magpie moves around by walking, and is the only member of the Artamidae to do so; woodswallows, butcherbirds and currawongs all tend to hop with legs parallel. The magpie has 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.

The Australian magpie was first described in the scientific literature by English ornithologist John Latham in 1801 as Coracias tibicen, the type collected in the Port Jackson region. Its specific epithet derived from the Latin tibicen "flute-player" or "piper" in reference to the bird's melodious call. An early recorded vernacular name is piping poller, written on a painting by Thomas Watling, one of a group known collectively as the Port Jackson Painter, sometime between 1788 and 1792. Other names used include piping crow-shrike, piping shrike, piper, maggie, flute-bird and organ-bird. The term bell-magpie was proposed to help distinguish it from the European magpie but failed to gain wide acceptance.

Port Jackson, consisting of the waters of Sydney Harbour, Middle Harbour, North Harbour and the Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers, is the ria or natural harbour of Sydney.

Artamidae is a family of passerine birds found in Australia, the Indo-Pacific region, and Southern Asia. It includes 24 extant species in six genera and three subfamilies: Peltopsinae (with one genus, Peltops), Artaminae (with one genus containing the woodswallows) and Cracticinae (currawongs, butcherbirds and the Australian magpie). Artamids used to be monotypic, containing only the woodswallows, but it was expanded to include the family Cracticidae in 1994. 

The word 'Artamidae' means 'wood swallows'.

There are also a lot of old stories associated with this bird.

In the old languages of this island home, according the Noongar Dreaming of Western Australia, the sky was once so close to the ground that trees could not grow, people had to crawl and all the birds were forced to walk everywhere. Working together the birds managed to prop up the sky with sticks, but it threatened to break the sticks and collapse to earth again. The magpies, known for being clever, took a long stick in their beaks and pushed it up and up until the sky sprang into its proper place, revealing the sun and, with it, the first dawn.

The magpies' lovely carolling singing each morning is to remind everybody of their important role in creation. Their unique song is reflected in its Noongar name: "Coolbardie". Similarly, the mining town of Coolgardie means "magpie" in the local  Aboriginal dialect.

In Queensland the indigenous peoples of the Cloncurry district (N. Q.) have a strange legend concerning the moon. They believe that in the past, and before white men mixed with them, all indigenous peoples were turkeys. 

One of them happened to damage his foot very badly, and asked a female aboriginal, then a cockatoo parrot, if she knew where the nearest water could be found. She said, "There is no water here." He then asked a green parrot if he knew where the water was, and as his foot was becoming more painful he requested him to cut it open, but the green parrot said that he was unable to do this. He thereupon successively appealed to the crow (an aboriginal doctor), an eagle-hawk, and the moon (white-fellow doctor), to render him the necessary assistance, but they all said that they could not undertake the job. 

As a last chance he begged the earth-grub to give him relief. The grub promised to do his best, and he bit into the swollen flesh, sucked all the putrid matter out, and cured the patient. A large corroboree was then held, and galahs, storm-birds, white and black cockatoos, butcher-birds magpies, bowerbirds, opossums, porcupines and bandicoots, all took part. 

While the turkey and the earth-grub together with the cloud and skies shifted their position (for the last named until then had always remained on the surface of the ground) the whole party began singing, "there goes our brother up," and of course, both creatures stayed up there! But so that the people below should always remember what a good physician he had proved himself to be, the earth-grub sends a moon regularly every month to bear him in mind, for the moon is a brother of his and like him, bores his way out of the ground, rises up again on high, sinks once more, and then dies. This worm has plenty of brothers, and so he sends a different moon every month!

Others speak of the carolling song of the magpie, telling us; 

'the koolardi, or grey bell-magpie, is known in parts of the bush as the 'rain bird.' This does not appear to arise from any reputation it has made as a weather prophet, but from the fact that its notes sound like 'It's going to rain.' It is a frequent prediction of the koolardi, no matter what kind of weather it may be enjoying. By way of a change it sometimes announces that 'Two and two are four.' Its relative, the kurrawong, or pied bell-magpie, is more common. Its notes, flung out in a loud, ringing voice as it flies through the forest, sound like 'Come along! Come along!' and give the impression that it is impatient and in a hurry. The aborigines interpret the notes as 'kurrawong.' Many of their bird names are derived from, or suggested by, the birds' own notes. In some places the kurrawongs and koolardis are called scrub magpies and black magpies, though they resemble the choughs' more than the magpies.' - Sydney Mail (NSW : 1912 - 1938), Wednesday 11 July 1928, page 18

Of course, nowadays we know that magpies carol to reinstate their territory - this is the same reason kookaburras sound out at dawn and dusk - to let other birds know the tree they are in, of ten with their children, and that this is 'their place'. 

However, it is this letter penned to the Sydney Morning Herald in the Spring of 1933 that celebrates this wonderful melodic music we hear from our local magpies we like best - we hope you like it too:



Sir, One word more and let my excuse be the fullest recognition of Australia's finest songster-the magpie, whether he be the black and white friend we all know or the white-backed so praised by the authorities. The departure of winter has meant the departure from my valley of the "snowie," for he likes his colder home country best. Still I can find no lessening in the volume of cheery magpie song. I admit his half-brother abounds here aplenty, and this being nesting season, and both pa and ma busy putting the new shack in serviceable order, their song from tree to tree resounds the whole live-long day. Theirs is the belief that the finest work in the magpie world is the building of a home. A couple of small sticks dropped into position gives occasion for an admiring joyful chorus, then off again to work. What a pity the Broadcasting Com-mission does not add to its opening morning session the gay, hopeful carol of the magpie. The old kookaburra is good in his way, but he always sounds as if he had the laugh on us.

I must thank the correspondents to your columns for correcting my impression regarding the non-singing of the snow magpie. To those, too, who, in fond recollection of a youthful home pet, have written me personally, I offer the gratitude of a nature-lover. I cannot but admit now that the "snowie" under some conditions must warble. Most of my correspondents recount Victorian experiences. Could it be that the Victorian atmosphere had such an enheartening effect upon their bird spirits that they responded in praise to life in that more pleasant State? To the opinion of Mr. Owen Litchfield, of Cooma, I pay every respect, because he has seen with his eyes and heard with his ears what my eyes and my ears have failed to give me over the past twenty odd winters. (As I write, the black and white fellows are carolling away in the orchard in rain and cold wind as if the sun were shining in the very brightest and best of worlds, and no such thing as a depression existed). 

Mr. D. G. Stead's views on nature subjects are ever enlightening. Perhaps next winter, when Kiandra's white mantle sends down to us again the annual migration. I may be able to induce him to share my corn beef and damper for a few days while we endeavour to find out the reason for the silence while here of the handsome "snowie." And he may be able to discover also what causes such great mortality among them some winters when first arriving here; they drop dead from the trees in scores, seemingly plump and health.

September 16.

CAROL OF THE MAGPIE. (1933, September 21). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from