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!
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.