Some years ago, the tall trees in our garden attracted a small family of these very intelligent birds. We gave them added security by turning on a daily supply of hamburger mince laced with high-protein cereal, calcium and wheatgerm. There are now over 20 birds, including four new fledglings born in November 1998 and five in 1999.
Adult males are recognisable by their pure white back. Females, juveniles and fledglings have speckled backs of black, white and grey. It takes about two years for the young to mature, when their grey-brown feathers become jet black and their dark grey beaks lighten to a bone-white colour.
We have noticed with interest that two of this year's young have an unusual red coloration over their eyes (like eyebrows). We have named one Rufus, for he seems to be stamped as a male by very aggressive behaviour. We guess the other to be a female and have named her Ruby.
The adult male bird pictured above has become exceptionally tame and we have named him Pavarotti (or 'Pav' for short) because of his special talent for singing--and for having a repertory of operatic proportions, including wolf whistles and other phrases he has learned from us. The drawing, like others on this site, is my own (laborious) work, drawn from a photograph using DrawPerfect 1.1.
Another very distinctive personality, Marmy, is an elderly female who was among the first arrivals. She has half a toe missing from her right foot and always behaves as though she is at the bottom of the pecking order. That is probably the case, because Australian magpies do not usually tolerate deformities and have a (probably undeserved) reputation for killing weak members of the family. We have never observed this to happen, though we have seen serious attacks made on a lost or orphan fledgling from another family (who then failed to reappear).
[UPDATE, July 2000 - Marmy has not been seen for several weeks and it is likely, alas, that she has been killed or driven away to die. Her demotion in the pecking order must have related to her advanced age.]
Magpies are hunters and gatherers whose diet includes insects, worms and small reptiles found on or below the ground. Some individuals are equally fond of seeds such as wheat. They are nest-robbers and have been seen carrying ducklings from nearby wetlands.
We have been well able to observe the territorial behaviour of the family. For six years, its members were never seen to fly past our house to the north, where a rival family lived. However, as their numbers increased past twelve, our birds asserted ownership over the front garden and adjoining roadside trees, some of which have low branches ideal for fledglings learning to fly. Different types of tree are needed for purposes of resting, keeping lookout and nocturnal roosting.
Such is the awareness of territory that actual conflict with intruders is very rare. Species other than magpies are tolerated within the territory and, at feeding times, we frequently have resident pied butcherbirds and kookaburras perching alongside the magpies. Occasional mild aggro is initiated by Rufus or other juveniles who have not yet learned the rules.
All species cooperate in raising the alarm when a raptor, such as a hawk or brown falcon is seen in the neighbourhood. We have learned by experience that wild birds need to be fed (if at all) in an area which is screened from distant sharp eyes!
Links to photos of magpies and other Australian birdlife