The Australian Magpie: A bird that has never been just black and white (re-issue).

Just prior to Melbourne’s 6th lockdown I was fortunate to explore the Mallee country of Victoria’s North West. The landscapes, birds and wildlife are well-worth driving several hours to get there. And the locals are amongst the friendliest and most hospitable people that you will come across in the Australian bush. One gentleman was giving me the lay of the land, pre-empting the year’s weather up that way.

‘We’re going to have an early Spring’ he told me without an ounce of doubt. He was talking about crops, temperatures and other indicators that he has become attuned to over his decades. The coming of Spring can mean many different things to different people. For me, my thoughts turn to that of The Australian Magpie, its reputation and its habits.

The Guardian Australia held its inaugural poll for Australia’s favourite bird in 2017. The Australian Magpie won that poll, highlighting its place in our national consciousness. The Australian Magpie is more than just a bird to Australians. Families of them are a familiar sight on the front or back lawn. People relate to their social behaviour and family feeding sessions. And their call – or caroling – is a quintessential Australian sound. Many people even develop a bond with the Australian Magpies that patrol the lawn and feel compelled to feed their wild avian residents.

So isn’t it strange that a bird that is widely revered is labeled as a public enemy during Spring? I write this post as much of Australia is starting to move into what we know as ‘Swooping Season’. Each year, largely during Spring, Australian Magpies will attack people who they perceive to be a threat within their nesting territory. The guilty birds are the males of the species and it is estimated that only 10% of male Australian Magpies will swoop. People have genuine fear of the birds during this period, particularly cyclists and joggers. The proportion of swooping birds may well be small but they have been capable of real terror. People have suffered terrible facial injuries, lost eyesight and, tragically, there have even been fatalities caused by the swooping of Australian Magpies. If you are interested in finding out how seriously people take Swooping Season please visit the Magpie Alert web site.

For a bird that is visually Black and White the Australian Magpie is a bird whose life and history is very grey. I have been using the common name of Australian Magpie, which differentiates it from the true Magpie. What do I mean True Magpie? Well, strap yourself in and try to keep up as things might get a little weird. But, the reality of what we commonly refer to as a Magpie here in Australia isn’t a Magpie at all! See, I told you that it’s a little weird.

The misnomer began when Europeans arrived in Australia, noting that their new country had a bird species that was black and white in colour just like the widespread and common Eurasian Magpie.The Eurasian Magpie is a species within the Corvidae Family of birds (over 120 species). To simplify this in taxonomy terms, the Corvidae Family is where you will find bird species such as Crows, Ravens and Jays. The genus Pica comprises the world’s four true Magpies that are spread across Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa.

‚ÄčThe Australian Magpie belongs to the Artamidae Family of birds (24 species). This family includes Currawongs, Butcherbirds and Woodswallows. The Family name of Artamidae comes from Greek and Latin meaning Butcher.

The Australian Magpie’s identity was always going to be confusing. The first European to have described and named the bird was the famed British Ornithologist John Latham in 1801. Latham named the bird as Coracias tibicen – the genus Coracias containing Rollers within the family group Coraciidae. While one can see comparisons with Corvid species from within the Corvidae Family, Coraciidae includes groups such as Bee-eaters and Kingfishers. The very name of Roller also indicates the bird displays acrobatics during courtship or territorial disputes – none of which is the case with the Australian Magpie. For much of the 20th Century the Australian Magpie was considered three separate species, depending on which part of the country you lived in.

There have been other Common Names that the Australian Magpie has had since the bird was discovered by the British. These include Piper, Piping Roller, Piping Shrike, Piping Crow-shrike, Organ Bird, Singing White Crow and Maggie (a name still commonly referred to today).

As if the Australian Magpie isn’t confusing and confused enough there is the Magpie-Lark, a bird often seen in the same circles as the Magpie. If you didn’t know any better you could assume that this smaller bird is a juvenile version of the Magpie. But, despite its name, this bird is neither Magpie…nor Lark. The Magpie-lark is one of only two species within its genus – the other being the Torrent-Lark of Papua New Guinea.

Aside from sharing the Magpies’ colour scheme, the Magpie-Lark also shares a list of fascinating Common Names, many of them still commonly used. It’s not unusual to hear this bird being referred to as Peewee or Mudlark. One of its early names was Pied Grallina while some people in the state of South Australia would know it as a Murray Magpie or Piping Shrike – also an early name of the Australian Magpie just to confuse matters.

As for the Australian Magpie, we maintain have an uneasy relationship throughout our Spring months. And then we return to a truce where we forget about the swooping and enjoy their calls, behaviours and interactions…until the return of Swooping Season again next year.

The Joy of Birds: My first time

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua

Discovering birdwatching and the open road of new species is an exciting and addictive past-time. It’s still exciting to find a new bird of course, but early on just about every species is a new discovery. The world of the internet has made it much easier to stay on the pulse of significant bird sightings. I’d keep an eye on various forums and birdwatching feeds for reports of anything that I was yet to encounter and was reasonably close. Being easy to find wasn’t always part of the deal, but sometimes you would be fortunate to have clues to a fairly finite area.

My first sighting of a Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) couldn’t have been much easier back on the 27th of May, 2009. It happened to have been living in a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, one of central Melbourne’s parks where office workers would have lunch or undertake physical training. I commenced a game of find the owl amongst the dense Autumn foliage of the giant Elm trees. Although my photographic equipment was limited to a 300mm kit lens it still enabled me to get a view of this wonder of nature. Here it was, a silent killer living in the middle of the city while hundreds of people would walk directly underneath unaware that they were being watched. But the humans need not worry. Powerful Owls do not have humans on the menu.

I stood there on that day, craning my neck for an angle to point my lens between leaves and branches. A gentleman sidled up beside me and asked ‘are you looking for that Powerful Owl’? I excitedly told him that I had managed to sight it, but for this man the novelty had already worn off. He introduced himself as the secretary of the City of Melbourne lawn bowls club, which is based within the grounds of Flagstaff Gardens. The man then continued ‘that thing causes a mess. I need to get here early to make sure that I collect the possum heads that it leaves on the bowling greens’. Yes, that’s right, the Powerful Owl has an appetite for possums, fur, bones and all.

A Powerful Owl’s ability to decapitate or otherwise dismember a possum is certainly enough justification for its imposing name. Besides Brushtail and Ringtail possums Powerful Owls’ diet can extend to fruit bats and even large birds such as Australian Magpies or Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

The second time around

I didn’t have to wait too long for my second sighting of a Powerful Owl, and one that was pure chance. My first sighting was in the middle of Melbourne on the 27th of May, 2009. The second came while on a study field trip on the 28th of May, 2009 in the Yarra Ranges, beyond Melbourne’s metropolitan boundary. Whereas the previous day’s owl was up high and tricky to spot owl number two was in the open, a little above head-height. The few photos that I took of this moment were worse than dreadful. I put this down to a number of factors: the terrible, overcast sky, my photographic inexperience or a panic to keep up with my class group.

And there was that stare. Having an eye-to-eye moment with a Powerful Owl is a wonderfully intense moment. Part of you is transfixed that you have this moment, while you wonder if there is the potential to learn how this owl got the name ‘Powerful’. There have been reports of Powerful Owls not taking kindly to human intrusions into their territory. Dr Beth Mott, Birdlife Australia’s Powerful Owl Project Officer, summarised a Powerful Owl/human encounter as ‘generally (been) scratching, but there’s definitely a risk of psychological trauma from getting swooped by such a big bird’. Personally I’d rather be attacked by a family of Australian Magpies than take my chances with one Powerful Owl. At approximately 67cm and over 2kg in weight

Thankfully I have had more encounters with Powerful Owls since those back-to-back days of 2009. And thankfully my photography has improved since then. Powerful Owls tend to be creatures of habit and will return to their favourite roosting trees each year, particularly when adding to their family. For a bird so cryptic and shy it is possible to find them in regular annual roosting areas. Even if you visit a roosting sight several years apart there is a good chance to find a Powerful Owl in that same spot.

Regardless of the photographic evidence, each encounter with one of these amazing birds is a special memory that one doesn’t forget. Those of us who live in Australia’s east coast cities are fortunate to have these special birds living amongst us. And we should do what we can to ensure that future generations keep returning to our suburbs to watch over us…and eat possums.

Graham, Wild Ramblings