Nocturnal Magpies

01 November, 2009

Kookaburra and Magpie in tree at Malcolm house.
Kookaburra and Magpie in tree at Malcolm house.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: I live in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Last night I heard a magpie carolling in my backyard until quite late at night. Is this possible, or was I imagining things?

Answer: Yes, this is possible, if not probable. The call of the Australian Magpie is often heard at the start of the day, but night-calls have also been recorded during the bird’s mating season from August to October. During this period, the magpie’s famous carolling can be heard from as early as 4am, and continue late into the night.

These calls are connected to territorial defence, serving as a sonic claim to a defined area. They are often made by a single bird then affirmed by a response from a partner; this “duet” asserts the pair’s control of the territory, and warns other magpies against intrusion. This control becomes especially important during the mating season, which is why adult birds can sometimes be heard nocturnally in this period. (This is also the season during which a minority of male birds will “swoop” at humans traversing their territory.) 

Furthermore, this night-singing serves to assist in the retention of a strong pair bond, an imperative which is again closely linked to the mating season.

The Australian Magpie is not the only diurnal bird species known for nocturnal singing – the Willie Wagtail is another noteworthy example. Nevertheless, the prevalence of magpies in Victorian backyards makes it relatively likely that this phenomenon can be witnessed by attentive humans. After all, the species was recorded in over half of Victorian backyard surveys, making it second only to the Red Wattlebird in terms of prevalence.

We hope that you have enjoyed your ornithological night-listening. If not, rest assured that the mating season for Australian Magpies ends soon!

Further Reading

Gisela Kaplan, Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird. CSIRO, Collingwood, 2004.

Darryl Jones, Magpie Alert: Learning to Live With a Wild Neighbour. UNSW, 2002.

Comments (15)

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Trisha Arblaster 7 August, 2010 14:31
Aug 2010: I do love waking to the sound in the night and it is happening right now in Blackburn North. I was discussing this very thing with people also waking in Eltham and Croydon, great to find a comprehensive answer. So much nicer to wake to than traffic!
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Ethan Hunt 10 August, 2010 01:00
Funny that! I'm in Blacky Nth and can hear them now. I'm glad that the male's finally found his partner. But it's not exactly doing wonders for my sleep. ~12:50am till dawn
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Mellissa 30 August, 2010 00:30
So great to find this info! I'm living south of Perth WA and have been hearing one lonely maggie everynight for the past week or so...its good to read that perhaps he's not so lonely after-all! I do love lying in bed listening to their sound :)
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Su Strafford 26 November, 2010 21:23
We are hearing these maggies as I write - in late November! Could it be the recent rains that have convinced them it's Spring again? They have been singing for quite a few days.
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Caz 27 November, 2010 15:34
I TOO have recently experienced late night carolling.. I live in Gladstone Park (near the Melbourne Airport).. We have quite a few magpies in these areas and theres one main family that lives nearby who are currently caring and raising 2 juveniles... About 2 weeks ago, we were in bed late at night at about 10pm and we could hear magpie carolling for quite some time.. and then again another night.. Then early this morning (1am) i was driving home from being out.. and 2 mapgies were chilling out on the powerlines next to my house! wide awake.. grooming themselves and just chilling out like its daylight.. It was the most bizzare thing ever! This is fascinating stuff and im glad i found it.. it makes more sense now. But my encounters are recent and outside of October....is the carolling i hear now & seeing them up at like 1am.. (mid November-late November).. still part of the whole mating thing?.. cheers
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Discovery Centre 29 November, 2010 15:11

Hi Caz and Su, our Ornithologist has said these are interesting observations and are similar to my own in some way. The magpie’s breeding season extends from late winter through spring so there is every likelihood of the songs being heard from late June to the end of November with an occasional extension simply to prove we are wrong in our observations.

As for their apparent wakefulness during the night we must place some of the blame on ourselves. I’ve noted that many birds, especially magpies are attracted to bright artificial lighting. Street lights cast a fairly bright light that in turn brings on intensified insect activity, the magpies maintain a vigilance to feed on these. If the lights were not there neither would there be magpies up and about. One thing that I’ve also noted, as have hundreds of others, is that on bright moonlit nights other birds, especially Willie Wagtails, are very vocal.

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Sally 1 August, 2012 00:56
Great to hear I'm not the only one experiencing this. I live in Doncaster East. I started hearing one last night at about 1.30am and tonight they've started early, before midnight! I wonder how many more days these fellas will go on for.
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Sally 30 July, 2013 11:36
They started last week again. Last night it started around midnight.
Sim Hepton 17 August, 2012 22:36
We have them carolling at present. Street lights outside our house. All makes sense now.
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BRIAN 25 July, 2013 23:27
11.25 pm and I've just been listening to this call, it was in trees about 300 yards away last night, tonight, 20 yards away, with reply(s) maybe 200 yards away, fascinating
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Russell 27 July, 2013 00:35
Near enough to full moon over the last week and I have heard them from up til 1 am and from 3am-6am.Occam says the go all night long on a full moon, sometimes.
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Aeron and Tilda 7 August, 2013 01:13
We are staying in a caravan park in Hastings on Melbourne's Mornington Peninsula and are laying here at 1 am listening to beautiful magpies. We are very happy to be able to find an explanation for something we have not previously heard. ;-)
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Jill 26 August, 2013 13:12
I live in Victoria Park (Perth WA) and nearly every night, every winter, for the last 3 years at least, hear a sort of whistle rising and then dropping away, usually without a response, and occurring about every 5-7 seconds - not sure how long it goes on for because I usually drop off to sleep.... eventually! Sometimes the call varies a little and at times there's a bit of a warble that does sound like a magpie. I've never heard the night-call during daylight hours and wonder if it IS a magpie and if so, why only at night and only in the winter months?? DO hope you can help, even though WA is not exactly round the corner from Melbourne!
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clint 6 September, 2013 10:36
glad I found an explanation. This has been driving me crazy and not sleeping well at all. They start here in Randwick Sydney at 1 - 2 and they stop at 6am and start up again soon after. I was thinking perhaps it was a distressed mum who had lost her chicks, and glad to read the correct explanation
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Michelle Meyers 21 September, 2013 05:38
Sooo happy to find this infofmation on Google. I just adore the caroling of Maggpies - the best of all bird calls - but for the last 2 or 3 months have been less enthusiastic as their songs continue nightly, unabated. Here in Perth it's 3:30am and they've been caroling every 15-20 seconds - since mabe 11pm...don't they get tired? sore throats? I love them but think I need a change of tune - gonna put on the radio - no wait - its 3:40 and they've gone quiet - eurekka!! Sweet dreams everyone - Maggie's included :)
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