Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Australian Magpie

If you're like me then you probably spend much of your "writing time" staring out of the window looking at birds. In our backyard we typically have 4 daily visitors: the common pigeon, the crested pigeon, the rainbow lorikeet and the common myna bird. They are all charming except perhaps for the myna bird which is an invasive species, very territorial and a sometime pest who frequently attacks children and cyclists and who drives out other birds. Mynas have twice come into our house to lay waste the land. Our cat will not go outside if there are myna birds around because he is terrified of them. Occasionally we also get seagulls, parrots and ravens; crows, of course, and now and again Australian magpies. I do miss having songbirds in my backyard but the lorikeets are a lovely splash of colour and they do sing or rather chirp in the morning. But the bird I want to talk about here is the Australian magpie. The Australian magpie has a strange throaty call but he is also an incredible mimic who can reproduce the calls of other birds, cars, dogs barking and machinery. Until very recently I had assumed that the Australian magpie (lower picture) was a corvid, a related species to the Eurasian magpie (pica pica) (above) which looks very similar. Its obviously a bigger bird more like a rook but since corvids began in Australasia and have more or less conquered the entire world since I thought that the Australian magpie was the original form and the European magpie a variation. This is not the case at all. The Australian magpie is in fact one of the cracticinae. As wikipedia explains:

The cracticinae gathers together 12 species of mostly crow-like birds native to Australasia and nearby areas. The cracticines have large, straight bills and mostly black, white or grey plumage. All are omnivorous to some degree. The female constructs bulky nests from sticks, and both parents help incubate the eggs and raise the young thereafter. The cracticines are highly intelligent and have extraordinarily beautiful songs of great subtlety.

But are Australian magpies of the class cracticinae as smart as their European non cousins? This is what a clearly impressed wikipedia says of the European magpie:

The Eurasian magpie is believed not only to be among the brightest of birds but among the most intelligent of all animals. Along with the jackdaw, the Eurasian magpie's nidopallium is approximately the same relative size as those in chimpanzees and humans, significantly larger than the gibbon's. Like other corvids, such as ravens and crows, their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to most great apes and cetaceans.

Magpies have been observed engaging in elaborate social rituals, possibly including the expression of grief. Mirror self-recognition has been demonstrated in European magpies, making them one of but a few species and the only non-mammal known to possess this capability. The cognitive abilities of the Eurasian magpie are regarded as evidence that intelligence evolved independently in both corvids and primates. This is indicated by tool use, an ability to hide and store food across seasons, episodic memory, using their own experience to predict the behaviour of conspecifics. Another behaviour exhibiting intelligence is cutting their food in correctly sized proportions for the size of their young. In captivity magpies have been observed counting up to get food, imitating human voices, and regularly using tools to clean their own cages. In the wild, they organise themselves into gangs and use complex strategies hunting other birds and when confronted by predators. 

Furthermore European magpies carry with them a lot of folk magic which I assumed also applied to the Australian kind but which probably doesn't now. Magpies have been seen as ill-omened, or lucky depending upon your point of view and I've told my daughters the one for sorrow rhyme which they sort of half believe but shouldn't because the magpies we're seeing in the park every day aren't the same birds at all. The Australian magpie is confusingly named but it is an intelligent, interesting, curious bird that I'm happy to see hopping about in the back yard, especially since observing only one of them is not the unlucky event I used to think it was now that I know it is of a different class entirely. 

Anyway here's the Spencer Davis Group singing the one for sorrow rhyme for the ITV series "Magpie" a kind of edgier funkier Blue Peter than ran from 1970 - 1980.