Monthly Archives: March 2016

Australian Magpies Are Not Corvids

I’m often linked to adorable videos of Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen).  Videos of these charismatic clowns include them hanging upside down from laundry, playing with dogs, dive-bombing unsuspecting pedestrians and bicyclists, or generally chatting with the local pets.  Usually a friend links me to them, knowing I love birds in general, especially play behaviors, but more often I’m linked to them because I like corvids.  While I never mind, and generally welcome, a well-intentioned “this made me think of you!” (really, it makes my day), I realize that most people don’t know that these birds are not corvids.  What better place to talk about this than in my corvid blog?

An Australian magpie, which is not a corvid (left, photo by J. J. Harrison), next to a Eurasian magpie, which is a corvid (right, photo by Pierre-Selim).

What’s in a name?

The word “magpie” in the Australian magpie’s name is what most commonly trips people up.  It is true that the family Corvidae includes all manner of “magpie”, but the word is somewhat meaningless in determining how animals are related to one another (see family tree below), even though the word did originate with the black-and-white, long-tailed corvid, the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica).  Let’s break it down.  ‘Pie’ literally refers to the Pica pica bird, common in Europe.  ‘Mag’ is generally thought to be derived from a shortened nickname which means ‘chatterer,’ but I’ve also seen people claim it comes from ‘maggot’ (though I haven’t seen this backed up anywhere).  Because magpies in Europe were conspicuously black-and-white, the term ‘pied’ became synonymous with black-and-white.  ‘Piebald’ is also derived from the bird, when ‘bald’ meant ‘white streaked,’ not ‘lacking in hair.’  ‘Magpie’ therefore, also just means black-and-white.

You’ll notice animals with ‘pied’ or ‘magpie’ in the name are black-and-white, such as the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis), African pied wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), pied bush chat (Saxicola caprata), Australian pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax varius), magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata), magpie shrike (Urolestes melanoleucus), magpie mannikin (Lonchura fringilloides), magpie duck (a breed of domestic duck, Anas platyrhynchos domesticus), magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca), magpie-robins (Copsychus spp.), and of course, the Australian magpie.

In addition to the coloration, it was common for explorers and settlers to name wildlife in new places after wildlife they have back home.  The coloration and behavior of the Australian magpie probably reminded people of the magpies back home in Europe, thus the common name.  This has also happened to animals such as bison in America being called buffalo, wapiti in America being called elk (the European word for what Americans call moose), and pronghorn being called antelope.

An adult (left) and juvenile (right) Australian magpie (photos by J. J. Harrison).

So What Is An Australian Magpie?

Australian magpies are a species of butcherbird (the genus Cracticus, which means noisy or loud), within the family Artamidae, a group of birds found in Australia, the Indo-Pacific region, and Southern Asia.   The group includes the butcherbirds, peltops, currawongs (also commonly mistaken for crows/corvids), and woodswallows, some of which superficially look like crows with their long, deep bills, overall body shape, and muted colors.  These birds lack nasal bristles, which is one good indicator that they aren’t crows.  However, just because they aren’t corvids, doesn’t mean they aren’t super interesting.  In Australia and New Guinea, these birds are often found around human habitations and are a common sight, with distinct, musical calls (as evidenced in the videos above).  They are intelligent and very territorial, living in groups, and are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of invertebrates, small vertebrates, and plant matter.  Their brash personalities and playful nature certainly endear them to many people who live among them, but they can often be a nuisance, attacking people during the breeding season (only a small percent do this), displacing items in a yard, and relocating objects.  However, despite their transgressions, they are an important aboriginal symbol (playing a lead role in the Dreamtime story of The First Sunrise), and are used as a mascot for sports teams and even government.  They have also been introduced by humans into New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji.

Australian magpies (left, photo by “fir0002”) superficially look like hooded crows (right, photo by “Self”), but differ in the shape and color of the bill, color of the eyes, nasal bristles, and the distribution of light patches on the body.

Australian magpies feature prominently in human lives and culture within their range. The top photo is of a sign warning people about aggressive behavior during the breeding season (photo by Hughesdarren). Below are logos from the Condell Park Football Club, South Australian Government, and Collingwood Football Club. The official name for the bird on the South Australian flag is the “piping shrike”, which is simply another common name for the Australian magpie (which isn’t a shrike either).

So Which Magpies Are Corvids?

Even in the family Corvidae, you still run into the same naming issues. A number of corvids are named after the black-and-white, long-tailed Pica pica magpie, mostly because they either have a long tail or similar shape.  With advances in genetic and morphology studies, we know that even the “magpies” in family Corvidae may not be as closely related as they are to other corvids.  With that in mind, here are the “magpies” of the corvid family:

A family tree of genera within the family Corvidae. Highlighted in green are the “magpie” genera. Notice that only Cissa and Urocissa are closely related. This cladogram is by Jan Ekman and Per G.P Ericson from their paper “Out of Gondwanaland; the evolutionary history of cooperative breeding and social behaviour among crows, magpies, jays and allies,” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, May 2006 (volume 273, issue 1590).

Genus Pica

This genus has magpie classic, the bird that spawned the name and caused all sorts of nomenclature confusion for us today: the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica…Latin for ‘magpie magpie’).  This genus also includes the black-billed magpie (P. hudsonia) found in western North America and the yellow-billed magpie (P. nuttalli) found only in the central valley of California.  They all look very similar, with the only major difference occurring in the yellow-billed magpie that has, well, a yellow bill, along with variation in sizes.  The Eurasian magpie is broken into many subspecies across its Eurasian range.  There are small variations such as my favorite, the blue patches found next to the eyes of some of the northern Africa subspecies, but again, they all look like a basic black and white bird with a long iridescent tail.

The Pica genus of “magpies” in the family Corvidae. This group includes the bird responsible for the name that is now synonymous with “black and white”, the Eurasian magpie (left, photo by Pierre-Selim). In the center is the black-billed magpie of North America (photo by me, Jennifer Campbell-Smith), and on the right is a photo of the yellow-billed magpie, found only in the central valley of California (photo by Bill Bouton).

Genus Cyanopica

The genus name literally means ‘blue magpie’ (though isn’t actually the most blue of the ‘magpies’ I’ll talk about, see Genus Urocissa).  Cyanopica includes the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus…’blue magpie that is blue’) found in eastern Asia, and the Iberian magpie (C. cooki) found, shockingly, on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and Portugal.  (Ornithologists are very creative in naming.)  Both of these species look nearly identical and were only recently broken into two species.

The Cyanopica genus of “magpies” in family Corvidae. On the left is the Azure-winged magpie of Asia (photo by J. Patrick Fischer), and on the right is the Iberian magpie found on the Iberian Peninsula of Europe (photo by “Buteo”).

Genus Cissa

This genus, which is Greek for, you guessed it, ‘magpie’, includes the four species of “green magpies” in southeast Asia.  All of these magpies have green plumage that fades to blue between molts (see the Indochinese green magpie below), red bills and legs, black masks, and russet wings.  They are as follow, the common green magpie (Cissa chinensis), Indochinese green magpie (C. hypoleuca), Javan green magpie (C. thalassina), and Bornean green magpie (C. jefferyi).

The Cissa genus of “magpies” in family Corvidae. These green magpies all resemble one another and occur in east Asia. Photos, from left to right, are by Omprakash Hatua, “Quartl”, Ingo Waschkies, and Zhong Ying Koay.

Genus Urocissa

You probably guessed that the second half of this genus name means ‘magpie’, and it does, with the first half meaning ‘tail’.  These magpies have the longest tails in the corvid family, and are quite gloriously blue, with one exception, the white-winged magpie (Urocissa whiteheadi).  The white-winged magpie seems to have exchanged its blue markings for all black, and has a noticeably shorter tail than the rest of its genus members.  All the birds in this group do have red bills and live in south Asia and India.  The Taiwan blue magpie (U. caerulea), red-billed blue magpie (U. erythroryncha), and yellow-billed blue magpie (U. flavirostris) all appear the most similar in plumage, with the Sri Lanka blue magpie (U. ornata) exchanging black markings for russet.

The Urocissa genus of “magpies” in family Corvidae. All of these birds occur throughout Asia and sport bright red bills. Photos, in clockwise order beginning from the top left are by “wagtail”, Atul Dhamankar, Thimindu , Martin Kennewell and Dibyendu Ash.

But What About Magpie-Jays?

Generally species with two animal names within their common name are a member of the last name given.  For example, naked mole-rats are rodents like rats and not insectivores like moles.  In this case, magpie-jays are most closely related to other jays in the family Corvidae than any of the so-called magpies mentioned above.  They get their common name for their long tail, which resembles the shape and length of the Eurasian magpie.  Seems for European ornithologists, the Eurasian magpie was an excellent reference bird for naming other birds in English, Latin, or Greek.

Ornithologist 1: “Has a tail sort of like a magpie from back home, boss.”
Ornithologist 2: “Alright, let’s call it the magpie-tail bird.”
Ornithologist 1: “Urocissa it is!”
Ornithologist 2: “Greek, fantastic, that classes it up a bit.”
Ornithologist 1: “How about this magpie-shaped bird with bluish wings?”
Ornithologist 2: “Cyanocissa?”
Ornithologist 1: “Naw, we already used the Greek word for magpie, how about the Latin one?”
Ornithologist 2: “Cyanopica it is!”

Thankfully the magpie-jay genus was named for the Greek meaning “beautiful jay” (Calocitta), and not for their superficial magpie-like appearance.  They are indeed quite beautiful.

I hope this post has helped clear up some confusion for my readers about common names, and the confusion those names can cause when it comes to how organisms are actually related (“eagle” is just as dubious as “magpie”, but this is a blog about corvids after all, and not birds of prey).  The confusion common and local names can cause is why scientists employ scientific naming.  The names are consistent worldwide, across language barriers, and can be changed and adapted based on new findings about how organisms are related.  This all may seem like just tedious semantics, but quite the opposite.  Understanding how organisms are related helps us better understand their behavior, evolutionary history, radiation paths, genetic predispositions, special adaptations, and so much more.  So while they are not corvids, I also encourage my readers to learn more about Australian magpies, and the other Artamids.  They have a fascinating history, set of behaviors, and of course, are important to a large chunk of peoples’ cultural identity and history.