Animals, Australia, Environment
Comments 15

Leader of the Pack

“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:

The Welcome Committee.

The Welcome Committee.

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:

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This is the standard size of the tribe. Sometimes it’s even bigger. You can see the leader bursting into triumphant song.

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.

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This one reminded me of one of my favourite Korea pictures…

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..’Three Godfathers’.

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.

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Standing Tall.

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.

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Corporal Cavendish leads the troops with typical enthusiasm.

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.

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“Right, I want you to form three orderly lines. No shoving, no squabbling.”

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.

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Magpies are nothing if not adventurous eaters.

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.

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Corporal Cavendish, the sassiest young magpie in the Northern Suburbs.

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:

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Hitching a Ride.

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No backpack is really complete without a hood ornament.

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You might find this hard to believe, but I sometimes find human passersby giving me weird glances.

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.)

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Showing off his/her best side.

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A sports field just the way I like it: empty of players, crowds & sport of any kind, just a few carefully chosen friends and a comfortable place to sit & catch up on the news.

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Congratulations, you’re adorable. Take a bow.

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Ruffled Feathers, Dusk.

Singin' in the Rain.

Singin’ in the Rain.

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:

Feathered Perfection.

Feather Envy. Note the skulking crows at the rear.

Showing Off.

Showing Off. Crows still keeping their distance.

When a Stranger Calls.

When a Stranger Calls.

Unwelcome Company.

Unwelcome Company.

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.

The Starting Line.

The Starting Line.

Ever had the feeling you're being followed?

Ever had the feeling you’re being followed?

Surrounded.

Park & Recreation.

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.

Aerial Manoeuvres.

Aerial Manoeuvres.

The Loner.

The Loner.

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Chris enjoys a visit to the tribe.

"So, little dudes...what's new?"

“So, little dudes…what’s new?”

"That's it, just a little to the left...that's the spot."

“That’s it, just a little to the left…that’s the spot.”

*          *          *          *          *

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

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15 Comments

  1. It was a pleasure reading your description of the magpies. The lady’s daughter is right to name you the magpie man.Those magpies certainly are fond of you, then again why wouldn’t they, they have to show their appreciation for the food you give them. The shots you took of your favorite birds are awesome.

  2. Maggies are fantastic birds. Their clean, striking colour, their amazing call, their perfect flight, their intelligence (oh so much more intelligent than peewee’s which I do not like at all) – you have detailed everything I admire about them.
    The funniest recollection I have of a magpie though was from many years ago. I was riding my bike up at the school oval, and had been eyeballing the pair of magpies in the gums at the end for a while, pretty certain I was going to get swooped as I rode away. Sure enough, as I peddled as fast as the damp ground would let me, the attack came. I must have sensed him somehow – either that or it was pure good luck – but I turned to see if it was near and gave and aggressive “Arrrgh!”; the bird got such a fright!
    But I don’t know that I’d recommend that as a strategy. Had it been closer he may have struck my face instead of the back of my helmeted head.
    Still, at the time it was amusing to have turned the tables.
    I didn’t go back with my bike until well after breeding season!

    • Another magpie fan, terrific! Great story, thanks! I’ve been enjoying the Japanese crows. Most of the locals seem to hate/mistrust them, and they are scary-looking brutes, but very entertaining.

  3. dstrongbow says

    Another great post – thanks! Always nice to read about our relationship with other species and the interaction that goes on. Good luck with your next adventure(s) and look forward to your next posts. 🙂

  4. Steve says

    Thanks for that! I haven’t fed my locals but have got to know a few different groups by their territory here around home. Pretty sure a couple of them get any dried dog food left in my yard.
    I have a 7km walking loop that goes through a uni grounds with a lot of native vege & love the interaction as they come to check on who’s in their ‘hood 🙂
    Might start taking some treats!

    • Wonderful how much there is to discover in one’s own neighbourhood. I never really thought there was that much to magpies until a few years back. Very underappreciated, very clever and charismatic.

  5. This is an absolutely delightful post. I am feeling a tad envious (in a nice way) because you have so many Magpies in your park. I have Magpie friends in my local parks, but no more than two pairs per park. They are incredibly friendly and they all remember their names. I think they are wonderful birds and well worth taking the time to get to know. It’s lovely to read of your love for them, plus your photos are great. They made me laugh. Thanks 🙂

    • Thanks for the great comment, glad you liked the post. It really was a labour of love and I look forward to continuing it when I get back home.

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