What bird is that?

25 November, 2007

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.

Comments (6)

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Athena 20 September, 2011 12:35
I saw 3 small finch-like birds on our windowsill at work in Parkville, Victoria. They were black with a copper colour just under their beaks. They were making squeaky, chirping sounds. Any idea what they are?
Discovery Centre 22 September, 2011 10:35

Hi Athena,

We would definitely like to answer this enquiry but require more information.  The brief description does not readily relate to any bird found locally, could a measurement be given of the birds length, also were there any other colours noticed?  What was the shape of the bill - long, short.  It was mentioned that they were on a windowsill, were they seen elsewhere (ground flowering bush etc.).

 Sorry that we can’t elaborate further on this.

Day 28 March, 2012 16:55
Wondering if you can tell me what type of bird I have living down the side of my home in warragul. there is 4 or five of them , they are small ( 10 cm ). Very long thin beak, plain in color except for a pale yellow chest. I think they eat the nectar from a red bottlebrush looking plant and love to play in the birdbath together. I have searched for two days now. please help. they are adorable and I would like to know more about them. Thankyou Day
Discovery Centre 29 March, 2012 15:49
Hi Day, Museum Victoria has a free identification service, but we can only provide definitive identifications with a specimen or a photograph. You can read about how to submit a photograph on our Identification Guidelines.

Birdlife Australia has an online Bird Finder, which you can use to identify a bird by selecting its size, shape, colour and any distinctive features. You might also like to download Museum Victoria's free iphone/ipad app: Field Guide to Victorian Fauna. The app contains images of the Victorian bird fauna, as well as biological and behavioural information, distribution data and bird calls.

Gay Price 25 June, 2014 17:26
We have this new bird that's visiting every day. Its pure black, has a beak like a Currawong but smaller than a Currawong and a forked tail. Nobody seems to know what it is. It has a nice song. Sort of like a Willy Wagtail on steroids.
Discovery Centre 12 July, 2014 13:45

Hi Gay - we would need to see an image if you can get one, and it would also be useful to know your location, as this could help rule out a few possibilities. Depending on your location, the description you gave sounds similar to a Spangled Drongo (fantastic name!); you can see images, distribution maps and hear a clip of it's call here. If you have any photos of the bird you'd like us to look at, feel free to send them to us via our Ask the Experts online form.

Hope this helps!

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