Australian Magpie


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Jan's Magpies Help Nom Butcherbird

 Nom - Juvi pied bitcherbird

 Nom is a one year old pied-butcherbird and a much loved friend of readess Jan & Victoria Anderson (remember the gorgeous picture of Pingu magpie with Vic). 

Nom and older brother Om were regular visitors to Jan's home along with their siblings and parents (see picture below).

Bird territorial rules are very complex. When another pied-butcherbird family moved into the area they felt Jan's yard fell within their boundaries and began to chase Om, Nom and family away much to Jan and Vic's dismay.

Around the same time Nom began to show symptoms of conjunctivitis. (Regular readers may remember our pied-butcherbird Butchie getting this terrible condition which often inflicts pied-butcherbirds and which can end in a cruel death for the bird.)  

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How to Speak Magpie - 1

One of the things that has amazed me, and amazed me over and over again, is the intelligence of Australian Magpies. They know how to talk to us, but do we know how to understand what they are saying? I have learned a few "phrases" in magpie language since meeting our Maggie Magpie, and I want to tell you one today that I learned from Maggie's wife Vicky.

I call this the J-phrase. Vicky has used it at least twice with Gitie and me. She might have used it even more than that, but we perhaps didn't notice and Vicky would probably have thought how dense these humans can be at times.

Here it is: Your magpie friend flies towards you, then flies at a very slow speed in a half-circle around you, about three metres away; then she stops:

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Breaking Through The Communication Barrier With Birds

by Francesca Doria (British Columbia)
In spite of all our New Year’s wishes, 2008 hadn’t begun well for my sister and I. Our Mum was bone-marrow transplanted and had been through a hard time, and our cat Émile, that had shared half of our lives with his endless care and reassuring love, was about to die of kidney failure. He had held out to help our mother and the two of us, but now he was wearing out, silently fading away. At the time our mother’s house had been restored, my sister and I had lived in until the inner works had started, so we had to move to our own flat where our mum already dwelt.
While I was staying with our mother and Émile, my sister Paola got back to the big house to tidy up and put in order everything. She immediately called me, informing that there was a jay she was feeding every day on my window sill and a pair of magpies building their nest on the top of our secular magnolia tree.
At first I was thrilled: I had always loved those elegant, intelligent, funny and noisy birds, and that news had surpassed my wish. But being in anxious state of mind, I nearly forgot both magpies and the friendly jay, until I came back home along with our mum, Émile and our other four cats.
The magpies were still at work: the male brought branches and other items, the female observed/examined them carefully, tried them out, sometimes discharged them, and he flew back and forth trying to find the best things to fit.
magpie nest in tree
The jay was still coming, curiously watching the new incomers. There also was a couple of large hooded crows, that were the undisputed owners of that territory, from a bird’s point of view.
We came back home on 4th March 2008: Émile made a huge effort to visit once again all the rooms of the house; although many things had changed dramatically (my sister’s room had a different entrance, one of the bathrooms had been rebuilt and much more) he recognized his house, blessed it and stood with us quietly and warmly as he had always done.
On 16th March he was put to sleep: until that day the sky had been beautifully crystalline and blue, the sun had shone bright, the moon at night was big and white in a starry sky, the sea was stunningly navy blue and glittering with sun sparkling, there were breathtaking sunsets. But that day the sky grew dark, and heavy drops of rain began to fall. They got heavier and heavier, like a machine gun; although I was dazed with grief, I couldn’t help thinking of the poor birds outside, especially the pair of magpies, whose nest was under that torrential rain. The female sat on her eggs and never moved; the male brought her food.
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Magpie Inheritance

Maggie Magpie and family with butcherbird friends
Maggie magpie and Butch butcherbird families

Until we met our magpies I had never really thought about animals having complex social systems. It’s pretty easy to think of animals as “dumb animals”! But our Maggie, sadly no longer with us, changed all that. By ‘adopting’ us into his family and introducing us to so many new friends of many bird species, Maggie opened a new world to us. All around us, birds (and, as stories from others show, other animals too) are conducting complex friendships, negotiations, and deals; they make promises, work to find good ‘positions’ in the world for their kids, and much more.

We humans get a bit uneasy when we discover we aren’t quite as far advanced beyond other animals as we like to think we are; laws of inheritance are a case in point. Surely no other animal has inheritance laws?

Well, there are clearly defined magpie inheritance laws. The countryside around our house is divided up in various ways by the various species. Magpies have one ‘map’ of the territory, on which they define the boundaries between their lands. The two species of butcherbirds here, pied and grey, share a single map between them. In other words, the magpies ignore the butcherbirds sharing their territories and vice versa, but the pied butcherbirds and the grey butcherbirds very much do take notice of each other and refuse to allow the other species into their zone. The butcherbird system has its own complexities, which I haven’t completely worked out, but I think I can tell you some details about magpie inheritance laws that might help you make sense of magpie activities around your place when a magpie dies.

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