Question: There is a pair of large black and white birds nesting in a tall tree behind my house. The chicks are fluffy and brown. I originally thought they were Australian Magpies, but now I’m not so sure. Can you tell me what they are?
Answer: The birds nesting behind your house are not Magpies, they’re Pied Currawongs.
The Pied Currawong, Strepera graculina
Photographer: Ian McCann, Source: Parks Victoria.
The Australian Magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, and the Pied Currawong, Strepera graculina, are both found throughout Victoria and are common around Melbourne. They are easily confused if you don’t know what to look for: both species are large and have black and white feathers, small beady eyes and very sharp beaks.
The Australian Magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen
Photographer: Gary Lewis, Source: Gary Lewis Photography Pty. Ltd.
However, there are some key features that can be used to distinguish between them. The three main ones are size, eye colour and the amount of white plumage on their backs.
- At 43-50cm, an adult Pied Currawong is larger than an adult Australian Magpie (38-44cm).
- Adult Magpies have a lot of white or whitish plumage on their bodies, particularly on the back and hind neck. Currawongs, on the other hand, are mostly black; the only white plumage tends to be on their wings, rump and tail.
- And if you look into their eyes, you’ll see that a Currawong’s eyes are bright yellow, whereas a Magpie’s eyes are red.
Both species nest at this time of year and have chicks that are heavily covered with brownish buff downy plumage that is replaced by their adult plumage when they leave the nest. Occasionally you will see traces of this downy brown plumage on free flying youngsters.
While there are obvious plumage differences in nestlings and fledglings, the calls of the chicks are remarkably alike. The calls of the adults, however, are quite distinct. The call of the Pied Currawong gives it its name: it sings “currawong, currawong” in a beautiful clear voice. Magpies are sometimes known as flute birds for their rich musical calls.