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magpies

The Australian magpie is a very clever black-and-white bird, about 40cm long, which thrives in the urban environments of modern Australia. Despite the name, they are not related to European magpies. They’re wonderful songbirds, and members of the Artamidae family, making them closely related to currawongs and butcherbirds.

Their life expectancy is around 25 years. They live in groups of around 5–20, and spend a lot of their time defending the borders of their territory against neighbouring magpie groups. They are omnivorous, also spending a lot of their time foraging for worms, insects, snails, and to a lesser extent nuts and seeds. They have also been known to eat slightly larger creatures, like mice or frogs. People should not feed them bread (which isn’t good for any types of birds anyway) or minced meat (the phosphorous in which leeches calcium from magpies’ beaks and bones). The best thing to feed them really would be insects, but failing that, a little bit of nuts (particularly walnuts) is OK. Don’t feed them too much, so they don’t fall out of the habit of foraging for their own food.

Magpies are known to be able to form bonds with friendly humans. Gar­den­ers seem particularly popular targets for magpie friendship, as they spend a lot of time digging and airing soil and thus making it easier for magpies to find tasty insects to eat. There are certainly lots of videos online of magpies hanging out with humans, and even playing with friendly pet dogs and that kind of thing. When a magpie feels safe in an area, they are indeed very playful, and enjoy knocking baubles around, playfighting with each other, and things like that. This ABC article(external link) talks about them playing hide and seek and a swinging game (where a juvenile magpie clung on to a towel on a washing line, and the other magpies swung it around).

In addition to being probably the most popular Australian songbird, magpies are also known as talented mimics. They have been known to try to imitate the sounds of a number of different species, and even of human speech.

Magpies are somewhat notorious in Australia for swooping people, mainly over a few weeks in the spring (“swooping season”) when their babies are small and especially defenceless. The vast majority of magpies (over 90%) don’t seem to swoop, and of the minority that does, they are almost all male (over 99% of them). Even the vast majority of these magpies don’t just swoop indiscriminately, though; they swoop people that they perceive to be a threat. Cyclists are often targeted because they travel so fast that magpies can perceive that as inherently threatening (luckily, cyclists are required to wear helmets in Australia anyway!). Magpies also have excellent memories, and are thought to be able to distinguish up to 100 different people, so they also tend to target people they remember as having been hostile to them in the past. What this also means, though, is that it’s quite possible to get “on the good side” of your local magpies, by greeting them in a friendly voice when you see them or giving them a little food treat now and again. In this way, you will make yourself safe from swooping :)

Did you know? I’ve posted other content tagged ‘magpies’! If you want to see what else I’ve written on this topic, you can do so here.