Swoop Right Into Our Hearts: Four reasons to love magpies
We have a complicated relationship with the Australian Magpie: some fear being swooped, yet many of us voted it ‘Bird of the Year’ in 2017 and several of the country’s sporting clubs are named after magpies. It’s certainly not black and white!
Gisela Kaplan, Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of New England, believes the idea that magpies are ‘aggressive’ is one we need to change.
“Part of the reason why the magpie, a small and highly unlikely candidate for the fraternity of ‘dangerous animals’, is considered so is to some extent due to the way we use language,” she writes in her book Australian Magpie, Second Edition.
“‘Aggression’ is a value-loaded term that implies disapproval and alters and colours one’s entire relationship to a person or an animal because of its moralistic overtones.
“Nest defence is not ‘aggression’ but exactly what it says – a defence. It has nothing to do with ‘anger’ or ‘hatred’ and it is not an undirected, mean or deliberately nasty behaviour.”
Nest defence is what our children’s picture book, Swoop, explores. The story shows young readers that there is a reason for this behaviour. Magpie has one job, one desire, one purpose: keep the eggs safe.
There is so much to admire about these clever, cheeky and charming songbirds, so we thought we’d share four reasons to love magpies.
Magpies aren’t just talented singers, they are excellent mimics, too
Perhaps one of its most famous attributes is the magpie’s beautiful, warbling song. But these birds are also capable of incredible mimicry.
In Australian Magpie, Kaplan notes that “there are now more and more examples being found that some of the mimicry that birds acquire may not be ‘mindless’ at all, either because such mimicry may have important functions (even be deceptive) or because they have been applied creatively in new situations.”
One of her often stories involved a magpie that had learned to use the name of a dog to its advantage:
“The owners [of the dog] also had a cat that had tried everything to get rid of the magpie. When the cat approached, the magpie did not fly away but called out the name of the dog; the dog came running and chased the cat away. Calling the dog was not mimicry any longer but a most effective way to use the dog’s name.”
They love to get together with friends over lunch
Magpies are very social birds, and form pairs or families that work as teams to forage.
“Even if the magpies look as though they are singly foraging, at least a second one will be nearby,” writes Kaplan. “Indeed, pairs often set out on the day together. Magpies belong to the few groundfeeders that forage socially.”
Magpie parents share duties and are dedicated to their family’s welfare
“A good magpie male will regularly feed the female while she is brooding, reassure her by stopping by at the nest and even sharing the nest for brief periods,” writes Kaplan in her book.
The male is guardian, food deliverer and supportive partner until the young hatch. Then he is on alert for any threats to the nest. Eventually the chicks are finally old enough to be left for short spells, and “both parents will frantically provide food from dawn to dusk for months to come, introduce the offspring to the territory, lead by example and guide their young safely through the many risks and dangers that they might face.”
Magpies love to play around
According to Kaplan’s book, magpies belong to only a very select number of bird species so far known that engage in solo play, play with objects, and social play, as juveniles and even into adulthood.
“For a songbird, magpie play behaviour is highly unusual and has only been matched and confirmed in common ravens, a species that is considered cognitively highly advanced. It is akin to parrot behaviour and, indeed, even to that of dog pups or young primates, involving social play with another juvenile or an adult and individual play. They roll around, breast bump each other, pull on wings, run after each other, hide, crouch, engage each other with legs, play fight, peck, grasp, jump and even play hide-and-seek. Magpies are also insatiably curious.”
Australian Magpie, Second Edition dives deeper into the world of this fascinating and iconic Aussie bird, aiming to make learning about it more accessible to the many people who have an abiding interest in magpies.
Want to share the magpie’s story with younger readers? Swoop is about a magpie with one very important job: to keep the eggs safe. Written by award-winning children’s author Nicole Godwin and illustrated by Susannah Crispe, this delightful children’s book is ideal for readers aged between 5 and 9.