Ian’s Bird of the Week – Common/Black-billed Magpie ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter ~ 2/9/2015
The Australian Magpie of last week generated quite some interesting correspondence, about both it being an iconic species and bird names and their derivation. I also got a request for a BotW on Butcherbirds, which I’ll do soon, but in the meantime here is the original Magpie of the the Northern Hemisphere. It is, incidentally, on the Australian list, a record from Port Hedland in May 2007 having been accepted by the rarities committee. This species is quite sedentary, the nearest place it occurs naturally is China and Port Hedland is an iron ore port so you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out how it got there.
This, unlike the Australian Magpie, is a member of the crow family, Corvidae, and I think you’ll agree that the resemblance between the two species is fairly superficial, not that that ever got in the way of names. The Common or Black-billed Magpie – I’ll get back inevitably to names shortly – has beautifully iridescent wings and tail which can appear blue or green under different lighting conditions, which tells us that the colour is due to the prismatic microscopic structure of the feather rather than coloured pigment. The first photo shows one on a garden wall in suburban Dublin.
The second one was taken in Catalonia at the Northern Goshawk site. Like their cousins the Common Ravens the Magpies were quite brazen and prepared to steal a morsel of food from under the noses of much larger raptors. Also like the Ravens and unlike the raptors, the Magpies noticed the sound of the camera shutter and you can see this one peering warily at the hide. This photo shows the extremely wedged-shaped tail, which is very obvious in flight. The third photo shows a juvenile one in Ireland, very similar to the adult plumage but it still has the slightly swollen gape of a very young bird and, maybe I’m imagining it, an atypically innocent expression.
Common Magpies are iconic too, and as kids in Ireland we attached great significance to the number seen together, according to the nursery rhyme ‘One for sorrow, Two for joy …’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_for_Sorrow_(nursery_rhyme). Magpies, and other crows, have long been considered birds of ill-omen.
Back then, we called them just ‘Magpies’. In later decades, I became aware that, like The Kittiwake and for similar reasons, it acquired a coloured qualification ‘Black-billed’. In the case of the Kittiwake this was to distinguish the black-legged Eurasian one from the Red-legged Kittiwake of the eastern Bering Sea; in the case of the Magpie, it was because of the Yellow-billed Magpie of California, fifth photo, having a very restricted range that overlaps with the much more widespread Black-billed Magpie (fourth photo). The fifth photo, incidentally gives a good idea what the very similar Common/Black-billed Magpie looks like in flight and the white patches on the wing are very striking.
Plus ça change … as they say. I discovered while researching this BotW that Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW) and Birdlife International have accepted the split of the Black-billed/Common into three species: the Common Magpie (Pica pica) of Eurasia, the Black-billed Magpie of North America (Pica hudsonii) – fourth photo – and the Arabian Magpie (Pica asirensis), restricted to a tiny range in SW Saudi Arabia. So the European bird is back to where it started from.
I’m losing patience with avian taxonomists. Molecular studies over the past thirty years have led to countless changes in classification and naming, and not just at the species level. The 2014 HBW Checklist of Birds of the World, volume 1 (non-passerines) has many changes at every level up to order. I’ll repeat what I’ve said before that Linnaeus – he who tried to impose order on chaos – must be turning in his grave. Maybe he is just laughing, and perhaps that’s the right approach.
I used to think what the latest taxonomists said – starting with Sibley and Monroe in 1990 – was the gospel truth and a huge advance in our understanding. I don’t think that anymore! Here is a quote from Birdlife International on the fate of the Rainbow and Red-collared Lorikeets: Trichoglossus haematodus, … T. rubritorquis… (del Hoyo and Collar 2014) were previously lumped as T. haematodus following Christidis and Boles (1994), and before then were split as T. haematodus and T. rubritorquis following Sibley and Monroe (1990, 1993): Lump, split, lump, split!
On a lighter note, I’m giving a talk on ‘Australia: Land of Parrots?’ at the BirdLife Townsville AGM next Saturday 14 February at 2:00pm in the Sound Shell meeting room at Thuringowa. If you’re a local, and even if you’re not, it would be great to see you there. The talk is about parrot diversity and bio-geography – all the Gondwanaland stuff.
Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
I know and am acquainted with all the birds of the mountains, and the wild animals of the field are Mine and are with Me, in My mind. (Psalms 50:11 AMP)
Ha! Ha! Ha! Thanks Ian for saying what I have been feeling. Sounds like we both agree on all the renaming, splitting, re-shuffling and “Lump, split, lump, split!” (Birds, People and DNA)
The Magpies above are neat and I especially like that expression of the juvenile one. He (or she) still has the gape of an immature bird.
The Corvidae Family Crows, Jays, Ravens is where you will find the Magpies placed. (at this time). There are 130 members that make up this family.