Do you like magpies? Many people have a deep dislike of the intelligent Eurasian Magpie due to its reputation. Then there are those that feel it is unfairly demonised and wish to improve its image. But, underneath the superstitions and bad press is an interesting bird that we should learn more about. It even has a curious cousin – of sorts – over in Australia. So, let’s learn more about these birds. How long do they live, how do they differ from the Australian Magpie, and should we change our attitudes to these birds?
As a general rule, the life expectancy of the average Eurasian Magpie is estimated at 3-4 years for those that make it past their first year. However, there are numerous accounts of adult birds living long and healthy lives due to advances in ringing birds. In contrast, the Australian Magpie has a much greater life expectancy which, on average, around 25 years of age.
But with a survival rate of around 69%, these figures do not tell the whole story. Continue reading to learn why there is such a difference between the UK and Australian Magpie life expectancy.
How Long do Magpies Live?
There are two different figures to consider when looking at Eurasian Magpie mortality. First, many sources say that the average life expectancy is only a few years. However, studies suggest a survival rate of 69% for adult birds with an average lifespan of 3.7 years for those that make it past their first year. This is when you consider the number of juveniles that fail to reach adulthood and both the natural and unnatural deaths of young birds. However, there are also cases of adults living long and healthy lives.
Ringing birds allows us to understand life expectancy better. As things stand, the oldest reported Magpie in the UK was 21 years and 8 months old. It was ringed in 1925 and reported in Coventry after being shot in 1947. This fate raises two important points. First of all, there are questions over how long that bird may have lived if it hadn’t been shot. Secondly, it highlights a critical factor in mortality rates.
Why Are Mortality Rates So High For UK Magpies?
Magpies may not survive their first year due to predation or competition for food. Young birds and those injured in confrontations could be an easy meal for a keen predator like a Sparrowhawk, Red Fox, or even a domestic cat. There is also the risk that adult birds may be killed on the roads when scavenging roadkill.
However, there are also plenty of unnatural causes of death for magpies. Eurasian Magpies are protected unless people have a license to shoot them. Unfortunately, this is common for landowners and gamekeepers who want to protect their birds from potential predators. Magpies and other corvids face the risk of poisoning and trapping too.
Many people strive to deter these birds from their gardens to protect songbird populations, further demonising the creature and limiting access to food or nesting sites. In addition, there is the belief that predation of chicks exacerbates the decline in songbird numbers when this is merely a natural form of population control. Besides, the magpies have their own young to feed.
Australian Magpies Are Long-Lived Compared To Their UK Cousins
When we talk about magpies in the UK, we mean Pica Pica, the chattering member of the crow family that occasionally raids the garden for food. However, if you read stories online about magpies, you may see a different-looking bird. That is because there is also an Australian Magpie. This bird can live a lot longer on average, typically around 25 years of age. However, there are cases where birds have been reported to live into their 30s and there could be unreported cases of even older birds.
This long lifespan is surprising considering all the potential threats facing Australian Magpies in the wild. UK magpies don’t face too many threats from predators unless they are sick, injured, or ambushed. However, in Australia, some more deadly species can take magpies, including Monitor Lizards, Barking Owls, and some snake species. Some will take adults but others may take unattended nestlings. There is also the risk of death on the roads or in powerlines and poison after eating baited prey.
Despite all this, the Australian Magpie gets to lead a pretty long and successful life compared to the Eurasian Magpie. They have found some clever tricks for a varied diet and there are even stories of magpies and humans forming a friendship over this time. However, they sound like very different birds to our British magpies, so what are the similarities and differences?
Are Australian Magpies And UK Magpies Related?
The Australian Magpie looks like the UK magpie based on its plumage. There is a similar look to the black and white feathers, although the placement and pattern do vary. However, that is where the connection ends. The Australian bird was named after the European one because of its resemblance.
When creating common names for animal species, scientists often use the term pied to denote the presence of black and white markings. The Pied Wagtail and Pied Flycatcher in the UK showcase this tried. Both types of Magpie are pied birds. Yet, the name Magpie is also used for black and white species, hence the Australian Magpie and British Magpie Moth.
The UK Magpie Is A Corvid While the Australian Magpie Is A Passerine.
The most significant difference between the two birds is that they come from different families. The Pica Pica Eurasian Magpie is related to the corvids and has similar Pica cousins in other countries, such as the North American Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia).
You will find many Corvids close to home in the UK, such as Carrion Crows, Rooks, and Jackdaws. We also get the larger Raven in coastal areas and the brightly coloured Jay in woodlands and parks. Scotland is also home to the rarer Hooded Crow.
The Eurasian Magpie is one of the most distinctive of the UK corvids. It is hard to mistake it for anything else in Europe. There is another magpie species on the continent – the Iberian Magpie on the Iberian peninsula – but the rest are this Eurasian or Common Magpie species.
The distinguishing features are the plumage and the tail. While most corvids have primarily black feathers and shorter, broader tails. This bird has a long tail that is more than half of its entire length. There is also a striking mix of black and white feathers across the body and a beautiful iridescent sheen in the right light.
While the Australian Magpie looks similar in shape to the Eurasian Magpie, it is actually a passerine, not a corvid. This means that it is a perching bird, more like the songbirds in our gardens. It is most closely related to the Black Butcherbird in its native country. Also, there is a series of 9 sub-species of the Australian Magpie. This means that different regions will see a slight variation in the physiology of the birds, but they are still the same species.
Both The Eurasian And Australian Magpie Are Smart Birds
Intelligence is a common trait with corvids as they are quick learners and able to use their environment to improve their chances of getting food. Some can solve puzzles and use tools, and the Eurasian Magpie has passed the mirror test. While the Australian Magpie isn’t a corvid, it is still pretty bright and has learnt to take advantage of urban environments. It is also a surprisingly good mimic. For example, some were noted making the noise of emergency vehicles during the recent bushfires.
Another Shared Trait Is The Dislike Of Each Bird Display By Some Human Neighbours.
Neither the European Magpie nor the Australian Magpie is well-liked by some humans who share their territory. Although there are different reasons for these attitudes, this could explain some of the perceived links between the two birds.
The British Magpie isn’t going to do us much harm when visiting our garden. It may take a lot of food for other species and predate nests, but it will generally mind its own business. Still, its reputation persists and old superstitions help to fuel dislike for the bird. The old “one for sorrow” song still portrays a single magpie as a bad omen.
Meanwhile, the Australian Magpie is often seen as an aggressive and defensive bird. A small number of stories have led to the notion that all Australian Magpies can get aggressive during the breeding season. The reality is that as few as 9% are observed doing so in urban areas, and it also tends to be male birds only.
Still, there is one story in Australia that has sealed the bird’s fate. A 5-month old child died after their mother tripped trying to escape magpies. This led to calls to remove the birds from the area and further fuelled the bad reputation.
The reputation of the Australian Magpie can also depend on its location. It is appreciated in more rural areas with calmer populations, and some sporting teams use it as a mascot. However, in dense cities with swooping birds, it is less popular. It is also unpopular in New Zealand, where it is viewed as a pest. Here, over 1000 Australian Magpies were introduced into the country between 1864 and 1874. This act of bringing in a non-native predator has caused problems and displaced native birds.
Is It True That Magpies Can Leave Gifts And Befriend People?
The negative reputation of divebombing magpies is a little unjust because of this small percentage. There is another side to the relationship between Australian Magpies and people. Some families with birds in their gardens can form bonds and friendships.
The birds may leave little gifts for their humans, such as shiny trinkets they have found, as a possible sign of their appreciation. There are also cases of adults leaving youngsters in the gardens of friendly humans because they believe it is a safe place. It is also reported that magpies won’t swoop at people they know to be friendly. They have the memory to remember the faces of about 100 people, so they should get a pretty good idea of who lives in their territory. Visitors may get divebombed, which may also explain why cyclists wearing helmets are often targeted.
Both Species Of Magpie Are Opportunistic Feeders.
Magpies in both countries will happily use gardens as food sources as they are omnivorous birds with diverse appetites. The Eurasian Magpie will eat meat, often scavenging for it in fields and by the side of the road. But they will also take fruit, insects, worms and more.
The Magpie has learned some clever tricks to improve its menu in Australia. It eats an array of potentially harmful creatures in addition to the other insects and carrion. For example, it knows to flip over cane toads and only eat the safe underparts; it will remove bee stingers and has the skill to rub off the hairs of poisonous caterpillars.
Can You Feed Magpies In Your Garden?
This idea of magpies being opportunistic feeders, and the issues of the bird’s demonisation, leads to one final important question. Can we feed magpies in our gardens? The choice is up to you. You may decide to try and humanely deter magpies for the sake of your nesting songbirds. Or, you may decide to welcome any creature that wants to make use of your garden. You can set up a bird table with natural foods like fruit and insects.
Dried mealworms will be appreciated if you don’t want to use live ones. Please don’t give them human food or bread as they are low in nutrients and could contain dangerous levels of sugars and salts. Also, make sure the birds have enough access to water.
Magpies: Friend or Foe? Opinions on magpies will always be divided as some people try to protect other species and livelihoods and others welcome these intelligent birds to their gardens. The UK species will remain controversial, while the Australian one will either divebomb people or gift them gifts depending on the nature of the relationship. The surprisingly low life expectancy of the Eurasian Magpie compared with the Australian Magpie shows that they could use our help sometimes. Australian Magpies that don’t divebomb people are considered friends and form life-long bonds. Perhaps we could see more of this with different attitudes in the UK?
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