Bird Photography with marysejansenart
Common black and white bird is a highly musical companion
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A serenade for breakfast
I’m sitting on my back deck, having breakfast. I’m enjoying a sunny morning in spring and sit there listening to the birds. An Australian Magpie comes to check me out… or is it more interested in my breakfast?
Generally, I don’t feed birds, as they don’t need it and it’s unhealthy for them to eat my food. There is plenty of food to find in my garden, which I always let them know they are welcome to help themselves to. But it turns out this Magpie is not after my breakfast at all as it breaks out in song. These birds have a stunningly beautiful song and without any sudden movements I gently grab my phone and start filming this early morning serenade! What a great start of the day!
A common bird with black and white plumage
The Australian Magpie’s song is a very familiar sound to Australian people, as they are found across most of Australia and common in natural as well as urban areas. They prefer open areas with few trees or adjacent to a forest. So chances are high you will see them in your garden or local park.
The Australian Magpie is about 40cm, so a fairly large bird. The male is completely black and white, while the female has some grey feathers on the back of her head. The eyes of the Magpie are a dark red and the bill is lead-grey with a hooked, black tip. As these birds are so widespread and common, slight variations occur and various subspecies and races have been defined. These are split into two groups by the most obvious difference: the colour of their upper back. Accordingly, there are Black-backed Magpies and White-backed Magpies.
Here in south-east Queensland we observe a black-backed form (Gymnorhina tibicen tibicen). By the way, note that Australian Magpies are not at all related to Magpies elsewhere in the world!
Australian Magpie is one of the most vocally complex songbirds in the world
The unique warbling call that I was serenaded with is maybe the most familiar of the Magpie calls, but it has many more in its repertoire. In fact, they are one of the most vocally complex songbirds in the world! They are most vocally active during winter and spring which is their breeding season.
A lone Magpie can sing its warbling song quietly for more then an hour! Carolling is a louder and higher pitched musical call that is usually practised by a pair. They use it to advertise or defend their territory. One bird may start the call, and the other joins in. Sometimes more then two birds join in the carolling call. During this call they straighten up, tilt their heads back, puff their chests up and bring their wings backwards. It is quite a display!
The Magpies live in groups and at dusk and dawn they perform a special song together which is a short, repetitive version of carolling.
Other calls are less melodious, such as the begging call of a hungry fledgling or juvenile, and several high-pitched alarm calls. Like Noisy Miners, Magpies also make snapping sounds with their beaks to warn intruders.
Furthermore, the Magpies are excellent mimickers! They possess a range of four octaves of which an average human singer will be jealous! This enables them to mimic the calls of dozens of other birds and even other animals such as dogs and horses!
Their communication is quite complex. Recent research showed that Magpies were able to distinguish reliable from unreliable information. In other words: they could tell if another bird was ‘lying’! Two recorded alarm calls were played to a number of groups of Magpies. One was from a bird that spotted a snake and another from a bird that didn’t see a predator or wasn’t sure of danger. The first call was responded to as if there was danger and the second call was ignored! Amazing, right?!
How many Magpies will be counted this year in the Australian Bird Count?
This week, 17-23 October 2022, is the week of the Australian Bird Count, organised by the bird conservation organisation Birdlife Australia. Since 2014, the count has become an annual event. The goal is to get an insight in the numbers of common species that live around people. Comparing the data from year to year is an indication of how the species are doing and thus how healthy the environment is.
The Australian Magpie has been sitting steadily on 3rd position in the Aussie Bird Count every single time so far! Will it be the same this year?
This morning I did the count from my own backyard. There were certainly a couple of Magpies present, singing their beautiful song but the flock of Little Corellas flying over made this bird the winner in this moment. Here are my results:
I would like to invite you to join in and do your own bird count this week! If you’re in Australia, you can join up here: https://aussiebirdcount.org.au/. If you are not in Australia it would also be a very interesting exercise to do your own bird count where you are. If you have any questions on how to do it, read the FAQ on the page I just provided a link to. Or maybe a similar event is held in your country that you could take part in? Whether you do it in Australia or somewhere else in the world, I’d love to hear about your observations in the comments!
Check out my post about the Aussie Bird Count in 2021 and read about the winner: the Rainbow Lorikeet!
You might also enjoy ‘The Song of the Laughing Kookaburra’, another iconic Australian bird with very special singing skills! This morning, a Kookaburra burst out in laughter just after I had finished my count, so it didn’t make it on the list, but I still enjoyed listening to its call.
If you are interested in purchasing ‘Australian Magpie’ or would like to see what it looks like on the various products, please head to my shop. In my ‘Australian Bird Gallery’ you will find images of a number of other birds that I spotted this morning, and many more! Click here to visit!