Here are 4 things you definitely didn’t know about Aussie magpies

By Angela Heathcote 30 April 2019
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Magpies basically have their own judicial system.

AUSTRALIAN MAGPIES are Aussie icons, but there’s probably a lot you don’t know about these incredible birds.

What you do know is probably negative: they swoop, they’re territorial, they don’t like people or they’re overly aggressive.

But they’re also incredibly intelligent and successful as a species.

Legendary ornithologist Gisela Kaplan has released the second edition of her book Australian Magpie, which details the unique behaviours Australians are less familiar with.

Here are four that took us by surprise.

They love sunny days just as much as any Australian

Image credit: shutterstock

Have you ever seen a magpie in the middle of your lawn, sometimes with their wings spanned and their feathers fluffed?

Well, they’re actually sunbathing, which is one of the birds’ favourite leisure activities.

And it has health benefits.

The reason they attempt to spread their feathers is so the sun hits their skin and disturbs any parasites living underneath.

Magpies are known for being very, very clean.

When they’re not sunning themselves, they’re happy to play in water and spend their day preening themselves.

So next time you see an injured-looking magpie lying despondent on your lawn, enjoying the sun, let them be.

They can ‘hold court’

Image credit: shutterstock

One of the most bizarre behaviours detailed in Gisela’s book is observations from one man living in Canberra who witnessed what he described as magpies ‘holding court’.

Basically, he saw 1020 magpies standing in a circle, while one magpie stood in the centre. The magpie looked scared, but didn’t fly away.

Individually, each magpie would step forward to peck the magpie in the centre of the circle. After that, the magpies flew away leaving the defeated magpie behind.

Admittedly, this is a rare event (Gisela’s only seen it once in 20 years). But it may be evidence of the first “rational deliberate act” by an animal.

Gisela equates the behaviour to how our judicial system operates. “They were orderly and coherent,” she says.

They have close mother-daughter relationships

Magpies are known to form close friendship groups, typically for the purpose of maintaining territory (as we all know).

But in some cases, mother magpies form particularly strong bonds with their daughters.

The female of one breeding pair observed by Gisela, formed a close relationship with her daughter, despite in the past having made sure all her offspring had left the nest before the breeding season began.

Gisela says they seemed almost inseparable, spending most days together well beyond the breeding season.

Overall, the mother allowed the daughter to stay within her birth territory for two years, which Gisela says, would have given her a significant head start in life.

Motherly love!

They have incredible memory

Image credit: shutterstock

Ever thought about being mean to a magpie? Well, you should reconsider because they won’t forget.

Magpies recognise faces.

Yep, you read correctly.

And they can remember an individual’s face for years, recalling whether that person was good or bad.

This behaviour ultimately comes down to risk assessment, identifying their enemies and making sure that person stays far away from their breeding territory.

But don’t be scared, because if you’re nice, they remember that too.

If you avoid contact, help them when they’re in need, keep your dog away from them or slip them some food, it’s unlikely they’ll ever attack.

Some Australians have formed such good relationships with their backyard magpie that the magpie will actually show off their young to (nice) people.

No warning swoops necessary here.

Australian Magpies by Gisela Kaplan is available here.

Related: Everything you need to know about magpie season