Conservation status Least concern
The Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is a medium-sized black and white bird, closely related to the butcherbirds and currawongs. Early European settlers named it for its black and white coloration, similar to the familiar European magpie, which is a more distant relative.
Adult magpies are fairly solid, well-built birds with pure black and white plumage: juveniles mix the stark blacks and whites with lighter greys and browns. Males and females are generally similar in appearance, though a few exceptions noted under individual varieties below.
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 generally smaller and stockier, while magpie larks are delicate birds with white eyes.
Some magpies have lived up to 30 years.
There are currently thought to be eight subspecies of Australian magpie. The black-backed magpie, originally known as Gymnorhina tibicen tibicen, has been split into at least three black-backed races:
- G. tibicen tibicen, found in eastern New South Wales
- G. tibicen terraereginae found across Queensland, central and western New South Wales and into northern South Australia
- G. tibicen eylandtensis, found across the Northern Territory
- G. tibicen longirostris, found across northern Western Australia
The White-backed Magpie, originally G. tibicen hypoleuca, has similarly 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
- 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) in the fertile south-west corner of Western Australia.
These three races, tibicen, hypoleuca and dorsalis, were for many years considered separate species; however, they were noted to hybridise readily where their territories cross, with hybrid grey or striped-backed magpies being quite common.
Australian magpies have a musical warbling call. Noted New Zealand poet Denis Glover wrote "quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies say". In contrast, young magpies squawk almost continuously.
Magpies mate throughout the year, but generally in winter. Nesting takes place in winter, and chicks hatch in early spring. By late summer the babies either form their own flock or separate from their parents but remain in the same flock.
Magpies were introduced into New Zealand in the 1860s and are proving to be a pest by displacing native birds.
Magpies tend not to be afraid of people, and they live in urban areas as often as in the bush, so magpies are a familiar sight to most Australians, and their melodic song is widely enjoyed. However, if magpies feel threatened while nesting (typically in August-September in southern Australia), even 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 somewhat terrifying, particularly to children. For this reason, local authorities sometimes post warning signs during "swooping season", particularly in urban parks. Magpie attacks sometimes cause injuries, typically minor wounds to the scalp; however, this is uncommon.
To avoid swooping attacks, the best course is to avoid the territory of nesting magpies during the relatively brief nesting season. Magpies are a protected native species in Australia, so it is illegal to kill or harm them.
If it is necessary to walk near the nest, some people prefer to wear 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. If a bird presents a serious nuisance the local authorities may arrange for that bird to be legally euthanised, or more commonly, to be caught and relocated to an unpopulated area.
Australian Magpies are territorial, and this presents the opportunity for people to get acquainted with the local pairs and their offspring.
The magpie is a commonly used emblem of sporting teams in Australia, most notably the Collingwood Football Club, the Port Adelaide Magpies Football Club, the Western Suburbs Rugby League Club and the Souths-Logan Magpies Rugby League Club.
The white-backed magpie has been featured on the South Australian flag since 1904 and coats of arms since 1984 under the name Piping Shrike.
- BirdLife International (2004). Gymnorhina tibicen. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 12 May 2006. Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
- Page on swooping birds by the Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment
- Kaplan, Gisela, Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird, CSIRO Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-643-09068-1
- Magpies - Queensland Government
- Use Of The Piping Shrike - South Australian Government
- Magpie Alert: Learning to Live with a Wild Neighbour Dr Darryl Jones. (2002) University of NSW Press