The Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is a medium-sized black and white passerine bird native to Australia and southern New Guinea. Although once considered to be three separate species, it is now considered to be one, with nine recognised subspecies. A member of the Artamidae, the Australian magpie is placed in its own genus Gymnorhina and is most closely related to the black butcherbird (Melloria quoyi). It is not, however, closely related to the European magpie, which is a corvid.
The adult Australian magpie is a fairly robust bird ranging from 37 to 43 cm (14.5 to 17 in) in length, with distinctive black and white plumage, gold brown eyes and a solid wedge-shaped bluish-white and black bill. The male and female are similar in appearance, and can be distinguished by differences in back markings. The male has pure white feathers on the back of the head and the female has white blending to grey feathers on the back of the head. With its long legs, the Australian magpie walks rather than waddles or hops and spends much time on the ground.
Described as one of Australia’s most accomplished songbirds, the Australian magpie has an array of complex vocalisations. It is omnivorous, with the bulk of its varied diet made up of invertebrates. It is generally sedentary and territorial throughout its range. Common and widespread, it has adapted well to human habitation and is a familiar bird of parks, gardens and farmland in Australia and New Guinea. This species is commonly fed by households around the country, but in spring a small minority of breeding magpies (almost always males) become aggressive and swoop and attack those who approach their nests.
Over 1000 Australian magpies were introduced into New Zealand from 1864 to 1874 but have subsequently been accused of displacing native birds and are now treated as a pest species. Introductions also occurred in the Solomon Islands and Fiji, where the birds are not considered an invasive species. The Australian magpie is the mascot of several Australian sporting teams, most notably the Collingwood Magpies, the Western Suburbs Magpies and Port Adelaide Magpies.
The Australian magpie is almost exclusively diurnal, although it may call into the night, like some other members of the Artamidae. Natural predators of magpies include various species of monitor lizard and the barking owl. Birds are often killed on roads or electrocuted by powerlines, or poisoned after killing and eating house sparrows or mice, rats or rabbits targeted with baiting. The Australian raven may take nestlings left unattended.
On the ground, the Australian magpie moves around by walking, and is the only member of the Artamidae to do so; woodswallows, butcherbirds and currawongs all tend to hop with legs parallel. The magpie has a short femur (thigh bone), and long lower leg below the knee, suited to walking rather than running, although birds can run in short bursts when hunting prey.
The magpie is generally sedentary and territorial throughout its range, living in groups occupying a territory, or in flocks or fringe groups.
Be aware of magpie attacks during spring. Being aware of the dangers and how to respond can help you avoid most problems.
Most magpies defend against real predators (such as cats and larger birds) but about eight per cent attack cyclists and pedestrians. Research reveals most of this eight per cent have suffered a bad experience with humans, such as someone interfering with the nest or throwing rocks.