The secret lives of Australian Magpies

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Shirley Hardy
Shirley Hardy's picture
The secret lives of Australian Magpies

ITS ALL ABOUT THE MALE MAGPIE. Sounds like some human males I know.

You study one male Magpie for 18 years and you think you know everything about the bird. Wrong. I've done this with the resident male magpie and I'm still learning and he's about 20-22 human years old. I thought he was monogomous to his mate, as I'd only ever seen him with one female at a time. 

Over the years he has "adopted" a juvenile here and there into his family, and there have been territorial disputes with other families but it never sank in until yesterday of what was actually happening.

What is happening is "adoption" of a juvenile magpie that's the same age as this year's offspring means he has more than one mate despite never seeing this "other mate" in his main territory. The new offspring is also his kid and quite possibly a son but from a different mother. The family/territorial disputes is simply his other mate's family coming into the adult male's main territory and his first mate and family don't like it one bit. There's also a lot of fighting going on with both lots of offspring. 

The "adoption of the other offspring" is possibly the adult male's way of merging two families together - a reason to bond the two families into one family? I'm no expert but that's what it looks like to me. 

I've read, in the past, that adult male magpies will steal breeding females from another's territory - hence the invading territory disputes. In my opinion that doesn't seem to be the case at all, although it may be the case in some instances. Once, just once, the resident male magpie did steal a breeding female from a neighbouring family and all hell broke loose. That was only because his first mate suddenly took off like a maniac and never came back. He had to find himself a new mate to breed with.

Males stealing females to breed with doesn't always happen. It's rare but it will happen due to circumstances of an adult breeding male losing a mate. 

So, family disputes, generally, depend upon circumstances at the time, and always seem to happen after breeding has occurred.

Now, adult males generally have a territory in which they live their lives, forage for food in and breed in. They don't go outside that territory even if no-one else occupies that space. The resident male, a few years back, decided to extend his territory further south. There was no competition for territory by another male where he wanted to extend his territory. He now has his main territory (or homeland) and a secondary territory. His homeland and second territory are both breedable areas, apparently.

Now this is where is gets confusing. Prior to a second mate coming into an adult male's main territory, there is subtle divisions of the family. If you're observant its very noticeable actually. The juveniles in his main territory begin to bond together and hang out together all the time. They're always together. They stay faithful to their own biological/adoptive mother and always come back to where she is no matter what. If their father is feeding in a second territory the juveniles don't join him unless allowed to by the father. The father starts roaming his second territory and when back in his main territory appears grumpy and aggressive toward his offspring at first then calms down.

Its when the first (or prime) female is out of the main territory that you know something is just not right here. But in this case, just a few days ago, it was not the prime female who was out of the main territory as she recently was attacked by something and is incapable of flying. She went into hiding under a pine tree for almost an entire day. It was actually the adult male who was roaming his second territory. It continues......

Now to their feeding grounds. Adult males do seem to have special feeding grounds where food is freely found and in abundance. In the case of the resident male magpie its at the flats I live in. The special feeding ground is people food where bugs are also found (in this magpie's case) and its a special food territory all by itself.

At first, his new prime female, wasn't allowed to eat from this place when they first bonded and became mates prior to their first breeding together. Then she was allowed to enter it after about a week or two. She's always allowed in this food territory except when his second mate is around and in his main territory. But the kids to his main female are allowed into this food territory with his second female and her offspring here. It seems kids are an exception to the rule no matter their age.

Now, my brother asked me how do I know it's a female and not another adult male he's with? That's a very good question actually. So, I'll repeat what I said to my brother.......The resident adult male and the kids go off and argue with the invading magpies in the main territory of the resident adult male magpie. They fight, yell and fight some more. A lot of bonding singing is done amongst the magpies when the heat of the fight has died down. What I do know about breeding adult males is they are aggressive and domineering toward their offspring during breeding season. Its not breeding season now. That is gone and happened in August/September here. They get aggressive toward their offspring to prime them up to get them to leave when they are 2 years old as well as to just keep them under control and remind them that dad is the boss and what he says goes. Adult males don't boss around their mates nor are aggressive toward them. I've never seen the resident male be aggressive toward any of his mates. I've only ever seen him be aggressive toward his offspring and Magpie Larks and sometimes Crested Pigeons. I've never seen him aggressive toward people or other animals. So, the other adult magpie he was with was either another adult female or one of his sons whose all grown up. But, as adult magpie males are all about themselves and not about the females, then "his special feeding place" he would only share the privilege of entering of with another female. For any adult magpie to enter a special feeding place - its a "enter at your own risk" scenario. Its prime real estate for the adult male in his main territory. Only magpie children are allowed to enter but adult females are not unless "he says so".

To add to this, going into town a few years back, I was swooped by a breeding adult male Magpie. This adult male magpie was in the next territory over from my resident male magpie. My resident male magpie, one day, saw me getting swooped by that other magpie, from a distance. The very next day, going into town along the exact same road, I thought to myself the magpie is squarking madly again as I passed by it's nesting tree on the opposite side of the road. Nothing. It didn't swoop me. It stopped swooping me and has never swooped me since. I did see both adult male magpies in a neutral zone hanging about together which only lasted for about 4-5 days. Did my resident adult male tell the other adult male to stop swooping me? Who knows really. I'm thinking he probably did and I suspect the other adult male magpie was possibly a son to my resident male. Who else could boss another male magpie around and get away with it except a parent?

It sucks to be an breeding adult female magpie, in my opinion, but that's the law of the land of the Australian male Magpies. Adult male magpies rule everything!

TheBirdLover's picture

Well I cannot entirely agree with you, Shirley. You aren't wrong in any way, it's just that one magpie family around here is different.

 I feed two families of magpies and they are very aggresive against each other, often swooping and "clicking" their beaks at each other. Even the babies get involved (one poor youngster got attacked and had had a few feathers plucked out,).  

In one family the male is very respectful of the female and she is the big boss ...he never tries to get on the bad side of her otherwise she'll fight! The female gets fed first and she even steals food off the male. He is more timid whereas the female is not that shy at all. She sometimes flys right up to my face just to get the food [what a greedy guts]!

This probably isn't that normal but it is for this magpie family.


Shirley Hardy
Shirley Hardy's picture

I've seen that happen too (what you said happens at your place, TheBirdLover), here in Tenterfield, in other parts of town. Personally, I think magpies are as unique in personality as we humans are. Some are shy and timid; some are truly alpha bullies; others gentle and don't want to get into fights at all; etc, just like us humans.

Your two magpie families' feeding and interaction behaviour does sound normal to me. For that circumstance its normal. The question I'd be asking myself, if I was in your shoes and feeding 2 families of magpies, is which territory of magpie does your place fall under? Or is your place a neutral zone to both magpie families? Or your place could be a perimetre zone for 2 separate magpie families? 

Aggressive fighting especially amongst juveniles is usually just them climbing up the ladder so one is dominant over the other, especially with the males. Sorry, can't find the right words for it, so I hope you know what I mean. From what I can tell, through observation of this species, territory is everything as much as breeding rights with females. Its extremely rare for magpies to cross territories of other magpies let alone go beyond a neighbouring magpie's territory. Neutral zones are the only places where magpies will go to outside their territory for any length of time but not when it comes to food. That's what happens here anyway. Mind you, magpie territory here is pretty large and its mostly open space so I see lots and hear lots more than most people. 

Have you tried feeding the 2 families in two separate locations or feeding one family at a time? Sometimes we have to resort to nature just to get things done. I absolutely hate it when magpies fight at my place. In fact, if they do fight over food at my place I simply won't feed them. I'll show aggressiveness toward the magpies and shoo them all away. Magpies are capable of learning to not fight around food, but we humans have to teach them that, else they won't be fed. Think of it this way, "Our food, our rules." 

And on that note, if that alpha female flies right up to your face to get food, its not only a sign of aggression against you and she is domineering you to be submissive, it will worsen and she will attack you if she doesn't get her way. Your only solution to stop her from being aggressive around you like that is to simply target her out of the feeding. Your food, your rules, remember. Feed everyone else but her. Feed each magpie individually, and if this bully female steals food from the other magpies chase her away. But you have to make sure that you don't look at the other magpies (from both families) when you do this, else they'll be weary of you in no time flat.

Trust me, its okay to get angry with a magpie but not okay with the rest of them if they've done nothing wrong to you. She may be the alpha (female) of the 2 families but you are the alpha alpha of their food. REMEMBER THAT AT ALL TIMES. WHAT YOU SAY GOES!!!

I'm at Tenterfield, NSW. (Formerly known as "Hyperbirds".)

vk4liz's picture

We have lived in our house for almost 6 years and in all that time we have had a male and female magpie visit us. Over the years there have been several young ones born and when it's time for breeding again the male (Freddie) shoos away the baby and we never see them again.

The female (Maggy) is lovely - she comes and lets us hand feed her and she literally sings for her supper.

We have been very upset this week though as Maggy, Freddie and the baby from last year have all gone and have been replaced by 2 new magpiies.

What could have happened to our gorgeous adopted family who we love?????

Woko's picture

Hi there vk4liz. So sorry for your feelings of loss. It's very easy to become attached to animals such as Magpies & when they leave us we grieve!

Australian Magpies have very complex social networks which I once read about but can't remember much about. You might find it interesting to do some reading about the social lives of Magpies to gain an understanding of what might have happened. At face value, it's possible that the two new Magpies are a dominant couple & have simply displaced your "adopted family" which has departed for another location.

While it's great fun having birds come to us for hand feeding could I suggest that birds are better served if we simply provide them with natural habitats so that they can obtain their natural food. Some animals, in fact, become quite ill through people giving them human food which is considered to be good for them (& may not even be good for humans!). E.g., people who fed Eastern Grey Kangaroos at Gariwerd caused the animals severe constipation & quite a few died (kangaroos, not people!). If you type <artificial feeding> into the search box near the top of this page you'll find a range of views on this rather contentious topic.

Shirley Hardy
Shirley Hardy's picture

Sorry for the very late reply. Things are usually very straight forward with magpies and things can suddenly and unexpectedly change at the drop of the hat with them. The thing I do know about magpies is they are very aggressively territorial creatures. For a breeding pair to suddenly disappear for no apparent reason and be replaced by another pair of magpies is unusual. The one thing that does come to mind is where you live may have been a neutral zone or an outer area of your original magpie's territory. The new magpies are more than likely an offspring of the original magpies. I have observed here that 2-4 year old sons hang around with their dads outside their father's home range. And, in fact, the parents actually help their kids find their own home ranges/territories very close by.

There's also one other factor we must always take into consideration with magpies - rainfall. 

Your magpie family disappeared in mid summer which tells me there may be a lack of food in that magpies' territory, so that territory gets abandoned for the time being, or permanently. 

But then again, I've seen the exact same thing happen with my magpie family. In my family's case, the adult female became too friendly with me and was bonding with me. The adult male didn't like it and one day whilst the whole family was visiting me she got a heck of a fright by something and flew away then and there and never came back. Her mate and kids remained, dumbfounded, and he was forced to raise their offspring alone until he could find himself another mate. In sheer desperation he stole a female from a neighbouring magpies' territory. 

The thing is, when adult female magpies get too close and too dependant on us humans for food, the mate changes the rules and removes the female from the situation. Magpies are beautiful creatures and I love them around. But I've learnt if you want to keep the family in the same territory "under your roof" so to speak, don't allow the female to bond with you. Once the family leaves they will never come back - and I mean NEVER. To an adult male magpie, seeing his mate bonding with something else (humans) instead of him especially over food is (what is the word?) traitory. A female's place is to only bond with her mate and her kids but mostly her mate not a human. To put it another way, he was losing his mate to you and your mate. Something had to be done so the male magpie would not lose his mate to you - so he left taking her and his kid with him. Its that simple.

We humans don't generally understand the complexity of the social lives of animals and birds and we wonder why animals leave and never come back. With magpies, its plain and simple. They sing to bond with each other. Their singing strengthens their bond with each other. Their singing glues each family member to each other. A male and female mated pair will sing to each other to strengthen their bond all year long and until they die. Their singing = love for each other. 

You wanted to know what happened to your magpie family. This is the answer = you were stealing his mate (by enticing her with food). You are what happened to your magpie family. Yes, you were responsible for them leaving and were probably not even aware of what you did. My advice: learn the lesson and NEVER, EVER fully bond with a mated female magpie ever again.

I'm at Tenterfield, NSW. (Formerly known as "Hyperbirds".)

Termite's picture

Observed magpies mating and wonder why female shakes herself when it's over - as if she's drying off after a bath -

libran50's picture

I'm wondering do both magpie parents feed juveniles? I usually see one magpie parent with one juvenile. I don't now how many birds are produced in one mating cycle. But if it is just mother feeding I don't understand how she can feed all the fledglings.

Woko's picture

libran50, mothers can do a range of things simultaneously, especially feed kids! This seems to apply to Australian Magpie mothers, too. My own observations tell me that it's usually the female which feeds the young. The male or males are usually some metres away attending to their own feeding. I note in Michael Morcombe's Field Guide to Australian Birds "Young are fed by female; the male helps occasionally but is usually preoccupied with flock & territorial maintenance."

libran50's picture

Thanks for that useful info, Woko. I'm curious how mothers feed all the fleglings. They seem to only have one with them that is demanding to be fed.

Termite's picture

I'm always happy to talk about Australian Magpies, though I am not an expert and am happy to be corrected if I get it wrong.

From long-term observation I have found the following to generally be true:

The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs solo - the male may feed her.

For as long as the birds are nestlings the mother feeds them as the male is occupied with defending the nest .

Once the birds are fledged the mother feeds them predominantly but the male and other group members might also feed them - known as cooperative feeding.

When the male deems a juvenile bird to be capable of feeding itself it usually drives it away. I can't know for sure, but from what I've read, I suspect only the males get driven away.

They certainly are a great delight to see and hear - the youngsters practising their caroling - guaranteed to bring a smile

Happy bird watching

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