“Hey, little dudes! How’s it goin’?”
My magpie welcoming party always assembles the same way: one sharp-eyed individual — The same one each time? Who can say? — leaves its fellows, takes to the air, and swoops low over the grass to bank and land with breathtaking pizzaz just in front of me:
By the time its relatives have spied my approach and joined the party, the first arrival has usually burst into that ecstatic warble that is such a familiar presence in the Australian landscape, rural and urban, beginning before dawn and continuing at irregular intervals till the sun goes down or even later:
The tribe takes up position. There are always at least a dozen, usually several more, and several of these will herald my return with an infectious and oft-repeated eruption of glorious song, puffing out their chests till they seem set to explode, tilting back their heads, pointing their formidable beaks at the sky as they sing.
It’s the largest group I’ve ever observed — “our” magpies at home form a tight family group of a breeding pair and up to half a dozen juveniles that drop by the back verandah several times a day for their feeding tithe; I’ve counted 24 members of “my” park tribe (try counting a constantly moving flock; it ain’t easy), which corresponds fascinatingly with the assertion on this site that groups of up to 24 birds live year round in territories that are actively defended by all group members.
I’ve known my little dudes for a few months now. I used to see them as I cut through the local park on my way home from my morning walk and coffee.
Struck by the size of the flock and its members’ devotion to foraging over the same stretch of soccer/cricket oval turf each day, I tossed some remnant granola bar to the nearest maggie as a sign of my peaceful intentions.
He or she (supposedly males have a nape of a purer white than females, but it’s often a tough call) remembered — and told the tribe. Before long I was made an honorary member, and as my snacks improved in quality (chicken-based scraps are their current faves), so did my standing in the tribe.
I had become a god among magpies.
You might recall my troubles with a testosterone-crazed male magpie in September last year. Early Spring being the Season of the Beak in Australia, I was selected by this one over-protective daddy for personal attention each day a few minutes from home, leaving me a nervous wreck when I finally reached the yard.
He wasn’t the first: I came home bleeding from a beak-wound to the head in previous Septembers. This short-lived swooping spree has given the magpie a lot of bad press, but it’s actually a beautiful species, smart, engaging, melodious and always entertaining.
A lot of Australians take them for granted as they’re a ubiquitous presence in most open landscapes and backyards, but few could deny that their warble choruses are as evocative as sounds in this country get.
Magpies are considered to have one of the most complex avian vocabularies. They’re also, like so many Australian birds, highly social, very territorial, and prone to aggression in certain circumstances.
It’s only recently that DNA analysis has shown that, far from the perceived wisdom that our idiosyncratic fauna developed in an evolutionary backwater independently of the Northern Hemisphere “mainstream”, three major groupings of birds worldwide actually started here.
As the transcript from a recent ABC science show, Catalyst, reveals…
We know Australian birds are special and the rest of the world does too. Songbirds like our lyrebird are the most amazing mimics on earth. Our parrots are incredibly smart and adaptable. Our pigeons eat fruit, move seeds and shape entire forests. But for most of the last century, scientists from the Northern Hemisphere assumed that our birds are just a second-hand fauna, descended from theirs…
That’s where birds had evolved, that’s where you had “normal” birds. What was going on in Australia? It was a bit whacky. And you could get away with that ’cause it was this lost continent in the south…
It was only in recent decades that Australian scientists dared to challenge the orthodoxy from Europe and America. And now at least three different groups of birds have revealed something amazing that rocked the world of science. They all had their evolutionary origin in Australia before spreading to the rest of the world, not the other way around.
Those three groups: songbirds, parrots and pigeons. So the maggie (and its relative the butcherbird, another ubiquitous resident famed for its beautiful song) can claim some credit for being a musical pioneer.
It was an explosive finding that shattered the prevailing dogma. The world’s 4,500 species of songbirds, like the jays, thrushes, robins and mockingbirds from the Northern Hemisphere, all had ancestors that traced back to Australia.
Here’s a sample if you haven’t had the pleasure:
Visiting my birds has become one of the highlights of each day. They always get me laughing, though they do take a few liberties. I never throw them a snack right away — sometimes I force them to just enjoy me for who I am — and while I stretch out on the grass taking portraits, I’ll often end up with a bird on each knee, and perhaps one each on my shoulder or head:
After breakfast is over (in a blur of gnashing beaks and blasts of song), I enjoy chillin’ with the gang before heading home. Inevitably, I’m shadowed like the Pied Piper by most of the gang, on foot for the most part, which is a hilarious sight. One afternoon recently a passing lady told me “My daughter calls you the Magpie Man.”
Perhaps my favourite time to visit is just before dawn. In the chill of a Winter’s morning, with fog seeping from the grass, it’s a beautiful thing to watch the tribe emerge from the nearby mangrove thickets where they appear to nest, and take up position on the same stretch of power lines.
As the sun appears beyond Shorncliffe, the song begins. Almost immediately, I’m spied (their vision is incredible) and the leaders swoop down to direct their melodies at me — or at least that’s how it comes across. If I’m walking away from them, one will often “dive-bomb” me from behind, kicking me gently in the back of the head as though to say “Hey, sport, where you think you’re goin’?”
(I’ll include some sunrise shots in my next maggie post.)
Sometimes a couple of wary butcherbirds will join the feeding frenzy — trust me, it’s no place for the faint-hearted; a magpie beak centimetres from each eyeball is quite confronting — and they’re mostly tolerated by the tribe.
But if there’s one outsider no magpie (or other species for that matter) can stand getting too close, it’s the crow. I wouldn’t say I love crows, but I do respect them — damned hard to photograph, though.
All this free food is tempting for these opportunistic survivors, and sometimes they get a little too close to the tribe for comfort:
People used to say you shouldn’t feed native birds as they’ll somehow forget how to feed themselves. I can tell you that’s nonsense. Naturally, you should avoid giving them complete junk, but the amount even our regular visitors at home get each day is just a minuscule part of their daily diet overall.
I’ve also witnessed one of our frequently fed young butcherbirds leave the verandah to pick off a large tree snake which it promptly killed before hauling it up into a tree, securing the bounty, and starting on lunch.
There are a few more reasons I enjoy supplementing my birds’ diets with occasional treats. For one, it provides an excellent interface between our closely lived but utterly alien worlds. I’ve learned a lot about their behaviour from watching them feed and interact and my respect for them has only grown.
For another, it’s often said that magpies you feed are less inclined to take your eyeballs out in the Spring. A lot of our neighbours help out their maggie co-residents. I’m hopeful that the fortune I’ve spent on meaty snacks will be repaid in greater enjoyment of September walks!
Finally, the news is not all good for the apparently indestructible magpie. As adaptable as they are to human habitation, recent nationwide surveys have shocked researchers with the finding that maggies are among several common species in decline in some areas.
This local mob seems to be thriving, and it feels good to give them a helping hand. And honestly, you couldn’t ask for a more charismatic and entertaining collection of photographic subjects.
* * * * *
This will be my last post from home turf for a little while. Some exciting plans for the next few months are about to come to fruition. I’ll outline my approaching adventure in the next post, and share some more pictures of my tribe before too long.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote