Massed Magpies: June Bird of the Month

From Gladstone’s Notebook:   Bird of the Month for June

A much smaller assembly of magpies than the one discussed in this article.  Image:  Ben Ashton.  Wikimedia Commons.

Image courtesy Wayne Weatherstone
 This is number 6 in a twelve part series inspired by Gladstone Weatherstone (pictured left), a dedicated and knowledgeable amateur naturalist who lived on Lyndfield Park near Gunning from 1941 until his death in 1996.

Between 1962 and 1981 he recorded bird sightings on and near his farm in a notebook.  We still have this notebook today.   Each month we look at one of the birds that Gladstone recorded, try to place it in context and see if we can glean any lessons about the recent history of our district.

On 9 June 1975 Gladstone noted “Unusual number of Black-back Magpies coming around, over eighty being counted in front of house.”  That the number was “unusual” suggests it was not unprecedented.  But it is the only time he ever recorded massed magpies so it clearly made an impression on him.  Is 80 plus magpies in one place a record?  Are such numbers rare?  Why were they there?  Do we still have Black-back Magpies today?  We’ll have a go at these and a few other magpie related questions.

Magpies – Singular and Collective

Image of Eurasian Magpie: Royal Society for the Protection of  Birds
The very first British colonists were, in the main, entranced by the new birdlife they encountered (although, as we shall see, these favourable impressions did not fully last through the next two centuries). 

When a new species here resembled a familiar bird from home they tended to give the local bird the same English name.  Hence, our Australian Magpie carries the same common name as the Eurasian Magpie they knew.

They are different species, the Eurasian Magpie being a member of the Crow/Raven Family (Corvidae) while the Australian Magpie is in the Family Artamidae, the Woodswallows, Butcherbirds and allies.

The Australian Magpie’s scientific name Gymnorhina tibicen means bare-nosed or joyful flautist – a fitting title for a songbird with such a big repertoire and vocal range.

Gladstone recorded, correctly at the time, that he saw “Black-back Magpies” (or, for the perfectionist, “Black-backed Magpies”).  Taxonomists now deem white-backed (found largely in the southern and western parts of Australia) and black-backed magpies (which predominate elsewhere including our district) to be two of the nine sub-species of the Australian Magpie.   

What might we call a large assembly of magpies?  A Late Middle Ages English hunting tradition created collective nouns called “terms of venery” for animals.  This practice was largely lost by the 1700’s but has since been revived by humorists and word lovers.  Under terms of venery a group of English magpies could be called a charm, congregation, gulp, murder, tiding, titter or parliament.
There is no generally accepted Australian term of this sort so we can only say Gladstone saw a lot of magpies.  Almost certainly, we can also say they were in a particular category called flocking magpies.

Why Were the Magpies Massed?

Life is hard for Australian Magpies.  Like us, they need to meet basic needs for food, water and shelter.  The main quest in their lives is to achieve home ownership – their own territory.  Magpies are sexually mature after their first moult (age 1 year) but they cannot get straight into breeding then.  On moving out  of (or being ejected from) their natal home they join flocks of juveniles and bachelors.  These flocks feed together, usually on poorer country not held by established groups.  For many, this is where they will remain for life.  Perhaps no more than 14% ever achieve the great magpie dream of successfully holding a territory and raising offspring.  

Holding its territory.  A Magpie seeing a Brown Goshawk off the premises.  Image:  J J Harrison. Wikimedia Commons.

There are other categories of marginal and mobile bands of magpies without established territories but flocking magpies tend to be the largest groups.  It is a reasonable bet to say that Gladstone’s birds were flocking magpies.  These flocks generally comprise up to around 30 birds but, as we shall see, larger numbers are possible.

Flock sizes vary with the seasons and conditions.  Professor Gisela Kaplan, Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of New England and author of two books featuring the Australian Magpie, told me unattached juveniles cannot land in occupied territories.  They tend to get the poorest pastures and may have to keep moving if they want to stay alive.  If food becomes desperately short, small bachelor flocks may join forces in specific purpose strategic alliances as a strategy of survival (more eyes see more).   These larger alliances usually fall apart once the specific purpose is served and they the revert to living in smaller groups.

Was this a bad year in which large flock numbers might be expected?   In the first 5 months of 1975 the rainfall at very nearby Gunning was 234 mls, about 77% of the average for the same 5 month period during which Gladstone  kept his notebook – not too dire a season but not great either.  The previous year’s rainfall of 601 mls was relatively dry and, although not in the drought category, perhaps dry enough to have made conditions hard for magpies.

Why Would Homeless Magpies Visit Lyndfield Park?

Gladstone was a sensible well respected farmer who paid attention to scientific advances and adopted progressive practices aimed at maximizing output.  During much of his time at Lyndfield Park leading edge wisdom encouraged the productive farmer to sow introduced pastures, use the latest artificial fertilisers and run large stock numbers to maximize profit.  The triple bottom line and benefits of biodiversity were not well known concepts.

These practices often brought a “sugar hit” of increased production for a time.  But they came at a cost and were not always sustainable.   Stressed pastures and plants become more prone to attack by pests and diseases.  Initial production gains fall.  Perhaps this was the case at Lyndfield Park.  This would make the paddock in which Gladstone saw the magpie flock less attractive as a territory to breeding magpies – hence it was open to homeless hordes to use for a period.

 Alternatively, as stressed pastures are more subject to pests, it may have carried insect larvae in
Image: Prayetka. Wikimedia Commons
plague proportions – just the right thing to attract a very large flock for a while. 

Lyndfield Park later became a very successful pioneer of sustainable and regenerative farming which could comfortably support good numbers of both farm animals and wildlife.  But that is another story.

Does Gladstone Hold the Massed Magpies Record?

Has anybody matched or bettered Gladstone’s 80 plus magpies in one place?  I have asked members of the large and active Australian Magpie Facebook page.  I have also asked members of the Crookwell Native Flora and Fauna Club.  Nobody from either group has volunteered similar or larger sightings.

But one man believes he has easily trumped the 80+ figure from 1975.  Gladstone’s son, John, recalls an occasion when he thinks 80 would have been a conservative estimate. He remembers what he thinks was a flock of well over 80 non breeding magpies scattered all over the hillside feeding on the ground near the Lyndfield Park driveway.

Image courtesy Duane Paton.
 Estimating bird flock sizes is like guessing turnouts at demonstrations – difficult and prone to viewer bias and misperception.  However, both John and Gladstone are experienced and reliable observers..  Further, Professor Kaplan believes such numbers to be neither improbable nor impossible.

Both Gladstone and John’s sightings should be accepted as being accurate to the extent possible - but falling short of the strict eligibility criteria set by the Guiness Book of Records.  Also, while towards the upper limit of a maximum flock size, the Lyndfield Park sightings are likely to have been exceeded many times.


 Massed Magpies Maligned as Menaces

Gladstone took up farming on Lyndfield Park in 1941.  Barely five years earlier on 27 May 1937 the Gunning News column of the Yass Tribune-Courier reported:

27 Dead Magpies

Before Mr W F Britts in the Gunning Police Court on Tuesday, Eric Croker was charged with using poison for the destruction of protected birds, to with, magpies.  Defendant pleaded guilty and was fined £1, court costs 8/-.

The police stated defendant had a crop of oats and he stated the birds attacked the oats and he used wheat poisoned with arsenic to destroy them.  Twenty seven dead magpies were found.
Mr Croker’s conviction for magpie murder is the most recent one I can find in the district.  He looks to have been among the last in a long line of farmers across the country who, first legally and later in defiance of the law, killed magpies believing them to be agricultural pests.  During the late 1800s and early 1900s the controversial “Magpies: Friend or Foe” question was the subject of heated debate in the press, in parliament and at pastures protection board meetings.

Gunning Courthouse where, in 1937, what is probably the last magpie murdering trial in the district was held.
Some farmers, seeing magpies descend on recently sown fields, thought the birds were seeking the newly sown grain.  In fact, they were destroying grubs made readily accessible by the plough.  While some oats may have been collateral damage, the birds were removing grubs – a practice overwhelmingly of benefit to the farmer.  Scientists and observant farmers proved this to be so repeatedly.  However, even after magpies were officially recognised as beneficial and declared a protected species some farmers, like Mr Croker, found this new fangled knowledge hard to accept.

Professor Kaplan says “As to magpies as pests: how little we knew then. Today, any farmer needing grazing country for sheep or cattle welcomes magpies with open arms— scarab larvae infestations can kill entire paddocks and magpies are the only bird species that will find them, dig them up and destroy/feed on them, thereby saving the grazing land. Magpies are the quiet helpers and the real heroes of farming.

Photo at left of a magpie working to prevent the destruction of grass cover by Toby Hudson.

Real Heroes of Farming in Need of Quality Real Estate

Magpies are highly visible birds.  We see them everywhere – on farms, in city parks and backyards, in villages like Gunning.  There is a common view that magpies have benefited from the changes we have created in our landscape.   They certainly like grass and pasture full of grubs in lightly timbered country where they can survey their territory easily.  In a an ABC science news article  Professor Darryl Jones from Griffith University is quoted as saying "There is no question at all that there are many more magpies in Australia now as a result of all the changes that [Europeans] have brought to the environment here"*.

Perhaps so.  It is certainly not the full story.  Speaking to ABC news  Sean Dooley of Birdlife Australia said that, while these open grassland and woodland birds had benefited from the agricultural and urban environments we have created, there is now cause for concern.  Birdlife data shows that between 1998 and 2013 Australian magpie numbers declined by roughly 20% in the South East Mainland Region.**

Why this decline?  The area of land magpies need to hold for successful living and breeding varies depending on its quality.  They need a manageable area which can provide food and water as well as trees for roosting and nesting.  Relentless tree clearing means there is a shortage of mature trees for roosting and nesting for many bird species, including magpies.

Image courtesy Duane Paton.

That’s not all.  The same Birdlife data also reflected a dramatic decline in kookaburras and birds of prey, suggesting carnivores were potentially more vulnerable to the same environmental changes.  Second generation rodenticides are likely contributors to the loss of these birds.

While we may see magpies just about every day, some of these may well be losers in the magpie housing market, living in sub standard conditions.  And the need for roosting and nesting trees can only increase in the heating climate we now experience.  Magpies, like many other species, are susceptible to heat stress – their ability to forage effectively beginning to reduce at around 270C.  As heatwaves become more frequent more magpies without adequate shelter will die as temperatures begin to exceed 420C.

The many revegetation programs referred to in earlier “Gladstone’s Bird of the Month” articles will benefit the Australian Magpie as will the increasing and heartening trend for land managers to take up regenerative farming practices.

Further Information

Australian MAGPIE Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird by Gisela Kaplan is a really informative and interesting book which is well worth a read.

Lyndfield Park; looking back moving forward.  John Weatherstone  2003 tells the story of Gladstone’s former property as it moved from conventional to restorative farming.

You can obtain a short biography of Gladstone Weatherstone as a PDF file by emailing 

You may also be interested in an earlier Gunning History Blogspot article, Gunning’s First Ever Magpie Shooting Competition a Banging Success about an 1880 novel sporting shooters event.  You can find it at

Thank You

Thank you to:

Nicki Taws, Program Specialist – Ecologist, Greening Australia and Dr Tony Saunders, ornithologist and President of the Crookwell Native Flora and Fauna Club.  Tony and Nikki are regular reviewers of articles in this series.

On this occasion I was also given valuable advice by:

Professor Gisela Kaplan, Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of New England who provided very helpful advice and direction for this article.

Mark Clayton,  former Senior Technical Officer (retired), CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology and keen birder who has now joined Nicki and Tony in reviewing these articles before publication.

Thank you also to John Weatherstone for providing a transcription of Gladstone’s Notebook and fielding lots of follow up questions on various Gladstonian matters.