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.

​The 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.

‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean?’

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.

While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

Podargus strigoides Tawny Frogmouth.

In this episode of the series I am being a little self-indulgent as the subject matter is my favourite bird species, The Tawny Frogmouth. And it’s not only my favourite bird. There are over 10,000 species of birds throughout the world and the Tawny Frogmouth is the world’s ‘most Instagrammable bird’. This curious-looking bird can be a master of camoflage. Tawny Frogmouths are surprisingly common, but seldomly noticed by most people. They are active at night, but stationary during the day blending into their tree roost.

A rather confusing bird.

For many of those who do have the pleasure of sighting this enigmatic bird their initial reaction is ‘oh, look, it’s an owl!’ For those of us with some knowledge of birds the automatic response is ‘no, it’s not an owl…it’s related to the Nightjar family’. The below exchange on a recent Facebook post is quite typical of the regular confusion:

Tawny Frogmouth meme photo
Tawny Frogmouth owl meme: unknown source.

Person A: ‘Is this beautiful owl a Tawny?’

Person B: ‘Tawny Frogmouth. A night bird, but not related to owls’.

Person C: ‘As mentioned above. It is a Tawny Frogmouth- which is in its own family, more closely related to the Nightjars.’ 

Person D: ‘Definitely not an owl. Definitely a Tawny Frogmouth from the Nightjar family.’

            Person C: ‘Nope, from the frogmouth family.’

Person D: ‘A beautiful nightjar, not an owl.’

            Person E: ‘While they are closely related with Nightjars, the Frogmouth are actually in their own family Podargus.’

As you can see, it’s a discussion that brings out the inner pedant in birdwatchers. The meme below is good symbolism of that pedantry.

Why all the confusion?

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus…neither an Owl, nor Nightjar…or Frogmouth for that matter.

Perhaps the regular innacurate naming of the Tawny Frogmouth can be excused. An earlier common name of the bird was in fact Frogmouth Owl. There are similarities in size and shape between a Tawny Frogmouth and a Boobook Owl, which probably doesn’t help with identification issues.

The modern common name of the species is fairly literal and descriptive. Tawny refers to the grey/brown colour while it’s broad, gaping mouth is reminiscent of that of an amphibian species.

The scientific name of Podargus strigoides was given by the famed ornithologist John Latham in 1801. The bird was the first of the three species within the Podargus genus to be described by an ornithologist. As you will see below, there is quite some detail within the two words that comprise the bird’s name. As detailed as it is, the name probably doesn’t do much to clarify the ongoing confusion with owls.

A bird with origins in myths and legends?

So let’s break it all down to try make some sense of all this: Pod-argus strig-oides:

Pod: Greek for foot. Think podiatry, pertaining to feet.

Podargus: relating to the medical term Podagra. Podagra is the medical condition of Gout, relating to inflammation or arthritis of the foot. For the purpose of birds within the Podargus genus it translates to ‘weak-footed’.

Strig: derived from the ancient Greek and Latin ‘Strix’. In ancient mythology, the Strix (plural Striges) had a number of incarnations throughout different regions of Europe. These interpretations usually involve demons who would take the form of or transform into owls or owl-like creatures. These myths usually involved the demons – or witches – being women. And they would often feast on livers and other internal organs. If you’re interested in more reading on this please look up Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals by John Cuthbert Lawson, 1910.

The term Strix would be carried across these ancient times of folklore and would be applied to actual owls. The largest family of owls, Strigidae, are also known as ‘True Owls’.

Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa (a ‘true owl’)

Oides: Ancient Greek meaning likeness or resembles

How does this relate to our beloved Tawny Frogmouth?

We have deconstructed the scientific name of the Tawny Frogmouth, now let’s translate that deconstruction.

Gout tends to be a medical condition that affects the feet of people who drink too much beer or eat too much red meat and are generally overweight. While I have seen some large Tawny Frogmouths I am not aware of any whom drink any amount of alcohol. Their diet is certainly carnivorous, but I don’t suspect them of overeating red meat. Tawny Frogmouths are considered to be ‘weak-footed’ though.

Their feet give them great balance and stability for roosting over many hours. But Tawny Frogmouth’s feet are not strong enough to catch or tear at prey. They use that broad mouth to catch their prey in flight or as the prey passes the bird’s roost.

The species name of strigoides simply translates to ‘like Striges’, effectively ‘like an owl’. The Tawny Frogmouth’s scientific name of Podargus strigoides means a bird that has weak feet and is ‘like an owl’… but it’s not an owl of course!

The Joy of Birds

I remember a day about a decade and a half or so ago when Laura and I were having some sort of conversation about Australian wildlife. ‘What about birds?’ Laura asked. ‘Birds are just so common‘, I replied, Yes, I meant that in a derogatory way. I must have been chasing sightings of Echidnas, reptiles, anything else but ‘birds’.

I was missing the point at the time. Yes, bird sightings are much more common than mammals and reptiles, but that is the wonder of them – they are all around us in all habitats. Some of the species, such as Silver Gulls, Noisy Miners and Eurasian coots seem to be everywhere and are certainly very common. But some bird species are certainly a rare and special find. And most can’t be found everywhere. It’s fair to say that my simplistic and blinkered view of our feathered friends has shifted somewhat since that day when I scoffed at the ‘commonality’ of the avian branch of the Animalia kingdom. People will often ask me if I developed my interest in birds from a family member at a young age, but my conversion was from a much more technological introduction.

Noisy Miner

Many hardcore traditionalist birdwatchers will often wonder why one needs to point a camera lens at a bird when a pair of binoculars will more than suffice. But for me I can thank my first DSLR camera for revealing the joy of birds. I was fortunate to live in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Altona when I would take my new toy for a walk or a bike ride around the neighbourhood. I was just looking for interesting ‘things’ to point my 300mm kit lens at. It was only from this exercise that I realised that my suburb had a diverse range of birds that I had never noticed before. Altona has a range of habitats; besides its beaches it has wooded areas, grasses, wetlands and creeks. According to eBird, Altona has recorded at least 169 species in a suburb that is only approximately 10km from the heart of Melbourne. So I had a great range of wonderful birds to hook me in to this wonderful interest.

Royal Spoonbill

Birds such as Black-shouldered Kites, Darters, Brown Falcons and seasonal shorebirds were a wonderful discovery. The size, shape and colours of these birds were a perfect subject for my camera. Yes, some of them were more sedentary and easier to photograph than others (and that is something that never changes by the way). But it was a fascinating challenge all the same.

Black-shouldered Kite

I also wanted to know who these birds were and study their behaviour. I wondered why some birds would be there at some times of the year and not others. I would learn who lived where and what they would eat. And then came the books: my book shelves would start to fill with Field Guides, bird literature and anything else that could fill my head with bird knowledge. Well, they did that, and also managed to tempt me to go find amazing birds that I never knew existed. My camera wasn’t the only technology that came in handy. I was glad to find that the internet was growing with bird-related information and discussion.

While my Canon 400D was my initial medium for finding the joy of birds in the first place, birdwatching has become a medium in its own right. I established a social bird photography group where people could learn together. I made some good friends and learned a lot from being the organiser of this group.

Birdwatching is wonderful excercise on a number of levels. Aside from the walking and carrying of equipment in pursuit of an amazing sighting there is a lot to be said for exercising your senses.

Birdwatching could possibly be nature’s optometrist. Try sighting a tiny Brown Thornbill as it zooms in and out of Acacia implexa. It’s one thing to sight the bird, but another to track its movement patterns as it disappears behind a tree twenty metres away. I now always seem to be on Tawny Frogmouth lookout whenever walking around Melbourne. The species does very well to blend into trees, most people walking right past the stationary bird.

Brown Thornbill

One of the many wonderful thing about Australia’s birds is that they are some of the world’s greatest songbirds. Not only is one of life’s simple pleasures to hear these songs and calls, but it’s a great listening and memory test to attempt to identify birds that you can’t see. Learning bird calls is akin to learning a language. I have even seen people who do a remarkable job of impersonating bird calls. I have even seen birds who are masters of mimicry themselves!

Superb Lyrebird

As you can see, bird watching is a multi-faceted interest. And it is one that anyone can do to any degree; you may become fascinated by what lives in your garden or local park, or you may be someone who spends great money and time, travelling to see as many bird species as possible. The phrase ‘The Joy of Birds’ has become a much used one, but it’s easy to see why.

The fascination and quirks of the avian world is enough justification to turn this into an ongoing series of articles that I hope that you enjoy. Maybe you’ll even be converted to birdwatching along the way.


They can be found Hiding in Plain Sight

I tend to notice birds who try to remain unseen. My ‘super power’ is spotting Tawny Frogmouths. I have had fun watching friends trying to spot one that I’ve seen in North Eastern Melbourne’s habitat that hugs the Yarra River. That reserve, Banyule Flats, was my local playground and a haven for ‘Tawny spotting’. In fact, I would also spot them in the small park across the road from our apartment block.

Work circumstances caused us to move from the relatively green suburb of Heidelberg to the ultra-urban inner city of Melbourne’s Docklands. I knew that the prospect of seeing Tawny Frogmouths was very unlikely. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of wildlife at all really.

Walking along the polluted, degraded waterfront I soon noticed what others didn’t; my new neighbourhood has its own hidden bird, the Nankeen Night Heron. A regular stream of humans pass unaware of its presence amongst the rotting bollards. To me it became a new friend who I always look out for. I now know at least three of these beautifully sleek birds live down there. Whether they are noticed or not, it’s important to me that they continue to live there.

Melbourne’s a perfect city for Urban Birding. Get in touch for an tour.

Originally written for Urban Field Naturalist (

The things that we ‘collect’

As a resident of inner-Melbourne I confess to having fallen for the incidental pastime of ‘collecting’ UooUoos. You may well be wondering what a UooUoo is at this point, which is quite understandable. In case you’re unaware of the existence of these, they are a collection of 100 fictional fibreglass quadrupeds, each decorated. The official description of a UooUoo is ‘an imaginary Australian creature whose shape is loosely drawn from the wombat and dugong’.

Whatever your initial thoughts are, the existence of UooUoos has prompted people to ‘collect’ them around Melbourne and surrounds in this post-lockdown era. People ‘hunt’ the creations and cross them off on the official App. The UooUoo concept is not new and has been conducted in various guises in cities across the world for many years; as far back as 1999 Chicago started Cow Parade, which has inspired several thousand cows across 80 cities around the world.

Nintendo, the originator of Pokémon Go is doing quite well out of people searching for virtual creatures. as of November 2020 people around the world had spent $US 4 billion since it came into non-existence back in July 2016; in the first ten months of 2020 alone revenue for Pokémon Go was $1US billion. At its peak in 2016 45 million people around the world were playing Pokémon Go per day. That figure has bounced up and down since, but there’s still a healthy number that play the game each day – the lowest it ever dipped to was 5 million people after the initial hype died off in 2016.

turned on iphone displaying pokemon go charizard application
Photo by Anton on

Perhaps the most famous and most successful example of such ‘collecting’ is that of the Pokémon phenomenon. In this format there are no fibreglass statues to visit and record however. The Pokémon are ‘virtual’ creatures. To many of us that may seem like an abstract concept to get our head around. But millions of people around the world push on regardless, searching for creatures that don’t exist.

People have collected many different type of things throughout history: shells, stamps, coins, swap cards, shoes… As a child I dabbled in stamp collecting as many did. In my early twenties I started collecting beer bottles of the brews that I had tasted. But that wasn’t very practical in a townhouse with limited space. So the natural alternative was beer glasses…but that likewise grew faster than the specimens were dropping on the floor.

My interests evolved into a different direction after getting my first digital SLR camera. Through the lens I had noticed something that I hadn’t before. Birds. I soon became fascinated by the diversity of them, watching them and finding them. I began ‘collecting’ bird species that I had sighted or photographed. While photography initially drew me in, I wanted to find out more about these living individuals that I hadn’t noticed before: what were their names? How common are they? What is making that call? Is that a species that I have seen before or one that looks similar?

Birdwatching became my new obsession. Not just ‘collecting’ birds, but being interested in everything about them. There are of course levels of obsession when it comes to this pastime. One might be a birdwatcher, a birder or a twitcher. A birdwatcher can be classified as a more casual of these categories, while a birder is someone who is fairly active in their activities. A Twitcher, however, is the more extreme of the categories. Lately there has been a rare bird attracting people from all over Australia to Cairns in North Queensland. The possibility of seeing this one individual bird (a Nordmann’s Greenshank for those of you interested) is enough for people to book a trip to add one more to their ‘life list’.

The term ‘Twitcher’ originates from Britain in a time long before the internet and even mobile phones existed. These extremists would communicate via landline to inform of an unusual or rare bird. Some reports say that people would drop everything, even in winter, travelling across the country and shivering – or twitching – from the cold. Another story details two men in particular who would fuel themselves on so much coffee that they would be uncontrollably ‘twitching’ as they got to the destination. There is never a guarantee that the bird being ‘twitched’ is going to be there by the way.

While I’m not a twitcher I do enjoy the discovery of new species and it’s a nice bonus if I get a good photo to add to my collection. I have also become much more aware of the natural world and the impact that we’re having on it and the birds and other living things. I think that most bird watchers are good people who believe in making the planet better. As for my collection, I don’t need to ‘catch them all’ as is the case in the Pokemon world, but I enjoy the ones I do find.

I was curious about the Pokémon phenomenon and what causes people to be so engaged with it, so I asked some of the local people who participate in it. There were similarities with birdwatching, such as getting out and being around nature while sharing the experience with family or friends. I can’t help but wonder if we can convince some of the world’s massive Pokémon fanbase to try birdwatching. Then we may end up with people who are more tuned to the state of the natural world around them and the challenges it is increasingly facing

If you would like to try ‘collecting’ birds why not consider joining me on a Birdwatching Tour?