At this time of year, Homo australis often experiences, of a morning, one of the simple pleasures of a complicated life, when he awakes to the call of the magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen. Here in beautiful Bowden, around my mud-brick cluster, there’s a pleasant pack of them. Magpies tend to form groups of about ten in my part of the world, though the numbers can be quite a bit larger in less built-up areas. I’ve been meaning to write about them for a while, as they’ve always given me a bit of a thrill, but after going for a local ramble the other day, and watching a magpie hop and warble nearby as a sat reading in the park, I’ve decided today’s the day.
I was reading about how the universe is likely to end [not with a bang but a whimper], so it was pleasant to focus on something else for a while. I noticed this magpie on a picnic table a few metres away, being hassled by two hovering and semi-swooping magpie larks. It’s chick-raising season, maybe that’s the problem. The magpie larks were making these single, simple squealing sounds, while the magpie, when it was ready, came out with its distinctive quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, to quote from the popular poem by New Zealander Denis Glover.
The magpie’s call is one of the most elaborate of all bird calls. I once heard that this was because the bird is double-throated. I don’t know what that means or if it’s true. I also heard that each individual’s call is slightly different, and I don’t know about that either. As I often do, I’m writing this piece as a process of self-education.
It’s interesting, and perhaps not coincidental, that magpies and magpie larks are often found in the same areas. It’s hardly surprising that people confuse them. Names, too, are confusing, what with the magpie, the magpie lark, the murray magpie, the piping shrike, the butcher bird and the currawong. So let’s sort things out.
The magpie lark, Grallina cyanoleuca, is neither a magpie nor a lark. That makes sense, especially when you consider that the magpie isn’t really a magpie either. That’s to say, the Australian magpie was named after the European magpie, a completely different bird from the Corvidae family, allied to crows and ravens.
In South Australia the magpie-lark is also called the murray magpie. In Victoria and Western Australia it’s known as the mudlark, and the peewee in New South Wales and Queensland. The more I look into it, the more complicated it gets. These birds are fiercely territorial and not afraid to have a go at larger encroaching birds like my magpie.
The piping shrike, emblematic bird of South Australia, turns out to be just another Australian magpie, a subspecies also known as the white-backed magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen leuconata, common to southern and western Australia. Four subspecies have been identified, the others being the black-backed magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen tibicen, the Tasmanian magpie, G tibicen hypoleuca, and the western magpie, G tibicen dorsalis, found in a specific region in the south-west of Western Australia.
Neither the butcher bird nor the currawong are found in these parts, but they cause confusion elsewhere. Butcherbirds come in many colours, and it’s the pied butcherbird, Cracticus nigrogularis, which in fact inhabits most of Australia apart from our region and Tasmania, that I'm really talking about. The picture tells the best story.
The solid and crow-like pied currawong, Strepera graculina, is very much an eastern seaboard bird. And they’re plentiful over there as we all know. I’ve heard them referred to as magpies too [probably by South Australians or other invasive species].
So that’s the run-down of Aussie magpie-like birds. Now what about the magpie itself and its call? Is it double-throated and what does this mean? My net ramblings took me to the deadly double-throated cassowary [no explanation as to why it might be more deadly than a single-throated type], and double-throated fykes [a type of trap], but nothing much at all about what being double-throated entails [maybe the term is too obviously self-explanatory?]. Maybe I’ll return to the subject later – what I’m really looking for is something of the science of birdsong. Meanwhile I’ll enjoy the communications.