Makipai, the Australian magpie

Ausralian magpie

Magpies from John Gould's, Birds of Australia, 1840-48.

Makipai, the Australian magpie

I would wish that we did not always seem to be finding some reason for persecuting and killing birds.

In the past the Acclimatisation Societies, the forerunners of the Fish & Game Councils, declared an open season on the shags. They paid a bounty for each shag killed and between 1890 and 1940 many colonies were exterminated because it was thought they were eating trout. As I watch a flight of perhaps a couple of hundred fishing in the harbour, I wonder how long it will be before the cry goes up again to have them exterminated. Such wonderful birds; they fly so true and straight they have become a metaphor for rectitude.

In the 1971 rooks were declared an agricultural pest in the Hawke’s Bay and something like 35,000 thousand were shot, probably about half the population. Once again the cry has gone out to kill them when they do no real harm to anyone and certainly no harm to our native birds.

Now it is the magpies that are being exterminated. They stand accused, on the flimsiest of evidence, of persecuting our native birds, of destroying their nests and killing the young. There would seem to be nothing less than a national campaign launched against them.

The habitat here in the Valley for bird life is mixed, being close to quite extensive bush. It supports native birds as well as the introduced species but not too many kilometres down the road, where dairy farms are the norm, the situation is quite different. There one finds the birds which are typical of open farmland; Matuku-moana, the white-faced heron, Kahu, the Australasian harrier hawk, the skylark, bell magpies and Kotare, the kingfisher, the spur winged plover, the thrush and blackbird, starlings and the mynah. The simple fact is that these birds are occupying an ecological niche that the destruction of forest and the spread of farmland has made available to them.

There is no point, in my view, in killing off magpies unless one is prepared to change the habitat and ensure that there is a food supply sufficient to sustain native or indigenous birds throughout the year.

Our endemic birds, following an ancient imperative in the wintertime, sometimes descend to the coastal lowland areas looking for food supplies, only to find the area occupied by introduced birds who will naturally chase them off their territories. Even Tuis who have made a niche for themselves in our suburban gardens will hunt out a hungry visiting Kaka.

The magpie is condemned for its aggressiveness, but the most aggressive birds around here are starlings and the spur winged plover. I have often watched Kahu, the harrier hawk, flying upside down to present its claws to a plover intent upon serious harassment. Incidentally, it is the harrier hawk which makes a habit of robbing nests and is a far more serious threat to the nests of endemic birds than the magpie.

The bell magpie was brought to New Zealand by the Acclimatisation Societies to control pasture pests and was protected until 1951. Two sub species brought here were the white-backed magpie of Southeastern Australia and Tasmania and the black–backed from northern Australia and New Guinea, the two interbreeding where they meet. In New Zealand the white–backed predominates except in the Hawke’s Bay and in North Canterbury but one does see a black–backed magpies throughout the Bay. Following their introduction, Australian magies have probably been finding their own way across the Tasman, as was the case with the black swan, so should therefor be classified as native.

Though the magpies’ numbers have increased considerably since being introduced they are not prolific breeders. Females rarely breed successfully until they are three years old and males may even be older. They usually rear only one chick. Nests are usually built high in exotic trees such as pines, macrocarpras, eucalyptus or willows. The nest is a bulky structure mainly of twigs and material such as barbed wire, match boxes, old spoons, glass and pieces of china, hence its name.

Magpies are very intelligent birds and can be kept as pets. Some are reported to talk while others imitate a wide range of household noises. I take them to be a not altogether unwelcome addition to our meagre bird life.

Magpie attacks:

For most of the year magpies are not aggressive, but for four to six weeks during nesting they will often defend their territory vigorously. People walking past may be seen as ‘invaders’ of the territory, prompting the magpies to fly low and fast over the person clacking their bills as they pass overhead.

The experience of a magpie attack can be quite alarming, but it is usually only a warning. Only occasionally will a bird actually strike the intruder on the head with its beak or claws. If this unusual behaviour persists, there are ways of reducing the risk of physical injury to humans.

If a magpie swoops at you:

Walk quickly and carefully away from the area, and avoid walking there when magpies are swooping. Make a temporary sign to warn other people. Magpies are less likely to swoop if you look at them. Try to keep an eye on the magpie, at the same time walking carefully away. Alternatively, you can draw or sew a pair of eyes onto the back of a hat, and wear it when walking through the area. You can also try wearing your sunglasses on the back of your head. Wear a bicycle or skateboard helmet. Any sort of hat, even a hat made from an ice cream container or cardboard box, will help protect you. Carry an open umbrella, or a stick or small branch, above your head but do not swing it at the magpie, as this will only provoke it to attack. If you are riding a bicycle when the magpie swoops, get off the bicycle and wheel it quickly through the area. Your bicycle helmet will protect your head, and you can attach a tall red safety flag to your bicycle or hold a stick or branch as a deterrent.

Making friends with a magpie:

One of the best ways to make friends with a magpie is to feed it occasionally. Gradually, the bird will learn to recognise you as a friend and will be less likely to swoop at you. Worms, insects, dry cat food or meat are the most suitable food. You may be able to recognise your individual magpie friends by small differences in their black and white patterns, or by other physical characteristics. Be careful when feeding magpies. If you give them too much food, feed them too frequently or establish a regular feeding pattern, they will become dependent on you for food and may forget how to find food for themselves. This can lead to an inadequate diet. Also, ask your neighbours if they are happy for you to feed magpies occasionally.

Narena Olliver — Waiotahi Valley, Opotiki, 1998.

Australian magpie

From G R Gray's, The Genera of Birds, 1844-49.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Cracticidae
Genera: Gymnorhina
Species: tibicen
Sub Species: tibicen, hypoleueca
Other common names:  —

Black-backed magpie, western or white-backed Magpie.

Description:  —  Native bird

41 cm., 359 g., black and white.

Where to find:  — 

Widespread and common. Black-backed mostly in the Hawkes Bay.

More Information:  — 

NZ Herald article —
“There is no good excuse for killing introduced birds”

Youtube video  — & the song

Australian magpie

Poetry:  — 

The Magpie’s Song

Where the dreaming Tiber wanders by the haunted Appian Way,
Lo! the nightingale is uttering a sorrow-burdened lay!
While the olive trees are shaking, and the cypress boughs are stirred:
Palpitates the moon’s white bosom to the sorrow of the bird,
Sobbing, sobbing, sobbing; yet a sweeter song I know:
’Tis the magpie’s windblown music where the Gippsland rivers flow.

Oh, I love to be by Bindi, where the fragrant pastures are,
And the Tambo to his bosom takes the trembling Evening Star —
Just to hear the magpie’s warble in the blue-gums on the hill,
When the frail green flower of twilight in the sky is lingering still,
Calling, calling, calling to the abdicating day:
Oh, they fill my heart with music as I loiter on my way.

Oh, the windy morn of Matlock, when the last snow-wreath had gone,
And the blackwoods robed by tardy Spring with starlike beauty shone;
When the lory showed his crimson to the golden blossom spread,
And the Goulburn’s grey–green mirror showed the loving colours wed:
Chiming, chiming, chiming in the pauses of the gale,
How the magpies’ notes came ringing down the mountain, o’er the vale.

Oh, the noon beside the ocean, when the spring tide, landward set,
Cast ashore the loosened silver from the waves of violet,
As the seagod sang a lovesong and the sheoak answer made,
Came the magpie’s carol wafted down the piny colonnade,
Trolling, trolling, trolling in a nuptial melody,
As it floated from the moaning pine to charm the singing sea.

And the dark hour in the city, when my love had silent flown,
Nesting in some far–off valley, to the seraphs only known,
When the violet had no odour and the rose no purple bloom,
And the grey-winged vulture, Sorrow, came rustling through the gloom,
Crooning, crooning, crooning on the swaying garden bough:
Oh, the song of hope you uttered then my heart is trilling now.

Voice of happy shepherd chanting by a stream in Arcady,
Seems thy song this blue–eyed morning over lilac borne to me;
In his arms again Joy takes me, Hope with dimpling cheek appears,
And my life seems one long lovely vale where grow the rosy years:
Lilting, lilting, lilting; when I slumber at the last
Let your music in the joyous wind be ever wandering past.

— Frank S. Williamson

Illustration description: — 

Gould, John, Birds of Australia, 1840-48.

Gray, GR, The Genera of Birds, 1844-49.

Reference(s): — 

New South Wales, Australia, National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Oliver, W. R. B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.

Page date & version: — 

Sunday, 30 July, 2023; ver2023v1