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A magpie by any other name

September 20, 2013

Black-backed

Black-backed

On a recent trip to Canberra I noticed many magpies patrolling public spaces (and stealing peoples’ lunches). They looked slightly different from the ones at home but I couldn’t work out why. When I came back I looked carefully at the magpies living in the hills around our place and there was a difference. In Canberra the magpies have a black head, a white back of the neck and an almost exclusively black back (see picture left). Even though I see magpies like these in Flowerdale, I predominantly see magpies that have a black head, but the white extends from the neck all the way down the back (see picture right).

White-backed

White-backed

Apparently a magpie is not a magpie is not a magpie. The Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) (from the Greek word kraktikos meaning noisy and the Latin word tibicen meaning flute-player) is a species with three different forms – the Black-backed (made up of three different races), the White-backed (three races) and the Western (two races) forms. Based on geographical location the Black-backed Magpie we see around here is most likely the race terrareginae and the White-backed Magpie is most likely the race tyrannica. As they can interbreed, the distinction between the races is not that clear. So when you next see a magpie, look out for what form it is.

The difference matters little to me. During the fast-approaching nesting season, black-backed and white-backed magpies alike will dive-bomb me as I ride my bicycle down Spring Valley Road on the way to the Post Office.

P.S. The first magpie swoop of the season was recorded at Moores Reserve at 1713 on 27th August 2013.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Terry Hubbard permalink
    September 20, 2013 3:19 pm

    Ron,

    Years ago, when I used to cut Joblins hay there were a number of magpies with a much greater than usual white plumage – don’t know if the strain still exists but I’m sure Steve would remember. Terry

  2. ccobern permalink
    September 21, 2013 9:09 am

    That’s a coincidence Steve and I were just talking about this yesterday while watching the black-backed form in Glenburn.
    What I’ve always know was that historically in out part of Victoria at least the White-backed form lived on the Melbourne side of the dividing range and the black-backed form on the other side, separated by the forested mountains. Once white man came and land was cleared through the forest the two forms crossed over and interbred occasionally.
    At my property in Kinglake West we have a mixture of the two forms.

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