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Magpie - Jonathon Howard

Birds of a Feather

By Jonathon Howard

Some people confuse currawongs with magpies. Both birds are common to our gardens. Both birds are similar in size and are black and white in colour, however, there are significant differences.

A keen ‘birdo’ will tell you the black and white colour extends to the top half of a magpie, while a currawong is only black and white on the bottom. Their eyes are different: currawong have distinctive yellow eyes. But we shouldn’t ‘judge a book by its cover’:  there are also fascinating differences in diet, behaviour and intelligence.

Magpies commonly eat beetles, worms, and grubs, that live on or just under the surface of the ground. Currawongs have a more agnostic diet and will eat fruits and berries, as well as larger animals such as nestlings. Indeed research suggests currawongs are responsible for dispersing much of the privet that has invaded our bushland.

In terms of behaviour, the currawong is generally sedentary, although populations at higher altitudes do move to lower areas during the cooler months. By contrast, magpies are generally territorial.

Indeed, the magpie is a bird of remarkable behavioural contrasts.  Occasionally the males swoop and intimidate people who approach their nests. Yet these very same birds can be the ones that visit a nearby household for food. Australians also love the magpie for their songs:  the pitch can vary across four octaves and may mimic other birds. This combination of occasional aggression, tameness and beauty means the magpie is often rated amongst our most loved and most hated native bird.

There are some remarkable stories about a magpie’s intelligence: an urban magpie once wanted a particular cat to go away, so it learned to mimic calling the nearby dog’s name.  This might sound astounding, but I remember as a kid we had collect our milk particularly early because the currawongs had learnt to pierce the top, drink what they could, and then move onto the next bottle.

No doubt Australian birds are clever, but in Japan there is a similar bird, called the carrion crow, who has discovered how to eat nuts that are too hard to crack.  They drop the nuts over a pedestrian crossing- wait for a car to run over it.  Then fly down to the curb, wait for the lights to turn red, then go and collect the nuts in safety. That’s pretty smart!

Magpie – Jonathon Howard