Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 4, 2022

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Patricia on Australian Magpies

Photo of Australian Magpie by JJ Harrison via Wikipedia

One of my good friends, Patricia, hails from Washington, D.C. That’s the only place I’ve ever spent time with her, but she grew up in Australia, as can be inferred by my nickname for her, Rosella, which refers to some beautiful, very colorful Australian parrots.   

After I talked about Australian Magpies last week, Pat wrote to tell me that these magpies “are beloved by people, even though they are opinionated and bossy!  They are probably as affectionately regarded as kookaburras.” She wrote:

They are omnipresent -- when I see an Australian movie or TV program, I almost always hear magpies chortling in the background. While they are beloved, they are also maddening -- woe to anyone getting even remotely close to the nest in a high tree! The birds will swoop down as you walk underneath, shouting defiantly and striking hard at the offender's head. Such large birds with their big bills can do real damage! And yes, they do remember people -- one of my cousins had yelled at them and was forever in trouble after that. He couldn't go out in the garden without being attacked from the air.

Bird smarts are hardly limited to Australian Magpies, American and European corvids, and parrots. The Eurasian Blue Tit, related to our chickadees, is famous for the way individuals figured out a new skill and culturally passed on that information. A hundred years ago, back in the early 1920s, people getting milk deliveries in the small town of Swaythling in Hampshire, England, suddenly started finding the foil caps on their milk bottles pierced. It didn’t take long to figure out who the vandals were. One or two of those social little blue tits figured out how to get the rich cream at the top of each bottle, and showed members of their own flock and neighboring flocks how to do it. Those birds shared the trick with their own flocks and neighboring flocks, and soon milk bottles were being vandalized not just throughout the U.K. but in an increasing swath of Europe. 

People started leaving heavy cups on their porches for the milk deliverer to put over the milk caps. The custom among the birds has mostly died out because people started buying low-fat and skim milk—the birds were only interested in high-fat cream—and people also started homogenizing milk so even with fat-rich whole milk, the cream no longer rose to the top. And people now usually buy their milk in plastic containers with hard caps. 

Eurasian Blue Tits got all the press in ornithology textbooks about this fascinating development, but they were not the only birds raiding milk bottles. My friend Pat grew up with Australian Magpies and writes:

When I was a kid, we used to have the milk delivered to the gate in big bottles with hard cardboard tops, and since we got up early, we didn't have a milk box but just ran out and brought it in almost as soon as it arrived. But when modernity came, the dairies changed the thick cardboard tops to pretty coloured foil. The magpies discovered that the foil was easy for their bills to pierce and allowed them to get a nice drink of the cream on the top of the milk, and they seemed to follow the milk cart as it rolled behind the horse. That was when my family got a milk box.  

I never cease to be amazed by the number and array of wonders our little planet holds. Robert Frost famously wrote, “Earth’s the place for love. I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” It’s also the only place in the known universe with birds, some 10,000 species covering this tiny mote of dust in the cosmos. In my lifetime I’ve seen barely more than a fifth of them, and on some winter days at home, I’m lucky to see one-tenth of one percent of them. But three of the most easily found backyard birds up here—chickadees, Blue Jays, and crows—each are so rich in brains and beauty that I could spend a lifetime studying just them.  

The precise opposite point on earth from Duluth—our antipode—is somewhere in the Indian Ocean, which borders Australia. That makes those Australian Magpies about as far from me as a land bird can get. But I love knowing how beloved they are, bringing joy and fun, along with a tiny edge of mischief, to Australians. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. 

Click on photo or here to see and hear a really cool 12-second video by Jason Antony (Alexanderino) of these magpies singing together!