Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is a medium-sized black and white bird, closely related to the butcherbirds and currawongs. Early European settlers named it for its resemblance to the familiar European Magpie (which is a more distant relative).
Australian Magpies have a musical warbling call of extraordinary beauty. Noted New Zealand poet Denis Glover wrote "quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies say". In contrast, young magpies screech and squawk almost continuously. Adult magpies have pure black and white plumage: juveniles mix the stark blacks and whites with lighter greys.
There are at least four different subspecies of Australian magpie:
- The Black-backed Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen tibicen) found in Queensland and New South Wales, right across the Top End and most of arid Western Australia. In the future the black-backed race may be further split into four separate races, as there are regional differences between them.
- The White-backed Magpie (G. tibicen leuconata) found in Victoria, South Australia, and outback NSW.
- The Tasmanian Magpie (G. tibicen hypoleuca).
- The Western Magpie (G. tibicen dorsalis) in the fertile south-west corner of Western Australia.
At least two of the races were originally classified as separate species, but they are cross-fertile and hybridise readily. Where their territories cross, hybrid grey or striped-backed magpies are quite common.
Magpies tend not to be afraid of people, and they live in urban areas as often as in the bush, so magpies are a familiar sight to most Australians. If magpies are teased or feel threatened while nesting (typically in August-September in southern Australia), they will 'swoop' at their aggressor with their claws extended in an attempt to drive them away, clacking their beaks as a warning. Severely provoked magpies may actually strike out at a perceived agressor, which has occasionally caused injuries. However, this is uncommon. Cyclists tend to be particularly at risk, as they seem to particularly provoke the birds and an attack can cause a cyclist to fall off or change course in traffic.
To avoid swooping magpies, local environment authorities recommend that if possible individuals avoid the area immediately surrounding an agressive bird's nest during the nesting season. Provoking the birds in any way (for instance by throwing stones at them), or destroying nests, is not recommended, as (as well as being illegal, as they are a protected species) it is likely to make the birds more agressive rather than encouraging them to move. If forced to travel near the nest, some people prefer to wear a helmet. Additionally, magpies prefer to swoop at the back of people's heads, so keeping the magpie in sight at all times, or even using a basic disguise to fool the magpie as to where a person is looking (like painting eyes on a hat, or wearing sunglasses on the back of the head), can prevent an attack. Rarely, if a bird presents a serious nuisance the local authorities will arrange for that bird to be killed.
The Collingwood Football Club, has taken the magpie as its mascot.
- Page on swooping birds by the Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment
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