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Widespread, Abundant, Noisy, Native… Magpie-larks

By Keith Hutton on November 18, 2010 in Other

Photo: Toby Hudson

There are three common native birds that occur in Australia that are easily seen and probably recognised by all Australians. They are all black and white, and they are the three birds most often recorded nationally in Australia. Australian Magpies are the most common, Willie Wagtails are second and Magpie-larks, also called Peewees by many Australians, come in third.

Magpie-larks are noisy and demonstrative medium-sized birds, smaller than a magpie and bigger than a Willie Wagtail, usually seen singly, in pairs or in family groups, but up to 40 or 50 young birds may gather together in loose flocks to feed and roost in autumn and winter. They walk with a characteristic back-and-forward head movement and frequently wade in shallow water or perch on power lines. They have broad rounded wings and fly with fluttering, lapping wing strokes, lifting and dodging lightly in the wind, with movements exaggerated when calling and alarmed. They are best identified by this behaviour and their strident, well-known calls, as well as by plumage details.

Magpie-larks occur throughout mainland Australia but they are vagrants in north and east Tasmania. They are generally sedentary and territorial, but some migrate in winter to the Northern Territory, Cape York, south PNG and Timor. Anywhere there are trees and mud for nest building is suitable habitat for Magpie-larks, and localities near rivers or wetlands with grassy groundcover are preferred. Dense forests and dry deserts are avoided but Magpie-larks are widespread in urban areas, including the Eastern Suburbs.

A Magpie-lark’s diet consists mainly of small insects and their larvae, small animals such as earthworms, snails and occasionally frogs, and less frequently seeds of grasses. They forage on the ground in open areas and rarely in trees, and feed in modified habitats or near human activity, including paddocks, suburban parks and gardens, orchards and the sides of roads; they are particularly attracted to pools of shallow water. They can be seen searching for food walking across open ground or wading at muddy margins of wetlands where they collect prey by gleaning, flushing and chasing, or occasionally by sallying into the air.

Magpie-larks have mostly benefited from changes that provide more open habitats, such as clearing of forests for agriculture. However, in some urban areas loss of grassland and wetlands is thought to have caused local declines. Also on the negative side, cats, and sometimes dogs, kill Magpie-larks, and collisions with motor vehicles often result in deaths, particularly for fledglings and immature birds. Furthermore, poisoning has occurred following direct ingestion of rodent baits, contaminated carrion and water snails in polluted water. Nevertheless, there is no evidence of any decline in populations of Magpie-larks, which remain abundant and appear to be thriving despite the species being significantly less likely to be recorded using new bird atlas survey methods.