Magpies

Article and Illustration: Cathy Morison (Canberra Organic – Summer 2021)

Magpie (Illustration: Cathy Morison. Reference Photo: David Cook)

One thing I believe most gardeners have in common is a love of birds. I have loved birds for as long as I can remember. I kept and bred birds for many years and, after learning that my bird photography skills were mediocre at best, I recently began dabbling in drawing them instead. To combine my love of both birds and gardening, I have planned a series of articles called ‘Drawn to the garden’. It is a corny play on words, but it sums up what I would like to achieve — drawing the native birds that gardeners in our region regularly see in the garden and including some information about their benefits and how they can be attracted to our backyards and gardens. While I will acknowledge that not all our backyard bird visitors are totally welcome in the veggie plot, this article’s feature species — the magpie — should be.

A long-lived bird with an average lifespan of 25 years, Gymnorhino tibicen (literally the bare-nosed flute player) is artfully adapted to co-habiting in the backyard with people. In fact, magpies can reportedly recognise 100 human faces and are able to store that information under the category ‘friend’ or ‘threat’ (https://www.bhg.com.au/what-to-feed-magpies). That will explain why the infamous dive-bombers will swoop some people and not others. It is a common occurrence in the COGS community gardens that a gardener will pick up a shovel only to be joined by one or a family of the local maggies looking to reap the bounty of the freshly turned soil. They are happy to receive a handout of an unwelcome (for us) scarab grub, and they won’t turn their nose (beak) up at a worm or spider. Having resident magpies in the garden will reputedly help keep snails away. However, territorial by nature, they may also keep away other welcome bird such as rosellas and other parrots.

As a species, magpies are very congenial and are happy to befriend their human gardeners. They are almost universally good at begging for handouts — particularly when they are trying to share the load of a nest full of hungry mouths. They will knock on doors and windows and are happy to enter your home looking for their regular donations. While feeding them does make us feel like we are doing a good turn, magpie-lovers should probably be aware that they could be ‘killing them with kindness’. “People do feed them in their backyards but technically they are doing the wrong thing … The main things people will feed them is mince or dog kibble, but both are not good for magpies. Mince is too high in different nutrient levels — often too much fat — as in the wild, they are feeding on leaner foods.” (Shannon Muir, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary).

Magpies usually nest in suburban trees, so their young can often be seen on the ground before they can fly. According to WIRES (Wildlife Information and Rescue Service) “baby magpies leave the nest without being able to fly properly. For the first week or so they will just be able to flutter and rely on their parents for protection and food. Day by day their skills at flying and feeding will improve. If you see a baby magpie sitting on your lawn don’t rush out and grab it. Keep pets and people away and watch carefully to see if parents are in attendance. If the parents are attending to it and the chick is in no immediate danger, it should be left with its parents” (https://www.wires.org.au/wildlife-information/magpies).

If you would like to attract more magpies to your garden, install a birdbath and regularly change the water. If the birdbath is shared with smaller birds, don’t make it too deep or provide refuge footing in the middle of the birdbath. Magpies also love to forage under mulch and leaf litter. Adding these to your garden helps both you and your visitors.

Drawing this magpie allowed me to spend many hours focussing on the details of the feathers, beak and legs. They are a strong bird that combines a little bit of fierceness with intelligence and loyalty, a sense of humour and enviable parenting skills. They are the consummate suburban avian.