What your local magpie can teach you about communicating


Photo by Sanderson on https://www.flickr.com

What’s in a tune?

For magpies, there is a lot to sing about! These Australian icons are highly social and communicate continuously throughout the day. From territorial carolling in the morning, to alarm calls and daily chatter between birds, magpie songs are amazingly complex.

For starters, magpie songs are hugely diverse. Science has found there are big differences between the calls of male and female magpies. Females are louder and spend a lot more time chatting the day away than male birds. Interestingly, magpies aren’t limited to their own warbling sounds either. They are talented mimics, having been heard imitating dog barks, car sirens, and even human voices.

Magpies can also communicate different levels of threat through their song. Studies have shown magpies calls become more frequent when predators are close by, and less frequent when predators keep their distance. Their ability to communicate not only the presence of danger but escalating levels of threat is an amazing skill. It requires complex language that few animals besides humans possess.

A call to action

These complex warning calls of magpies are trusted by other birds, studies show. The danger call of a magpie encourages birds of other species to work together to scare away a threat or predator. This happens more when magpies sound the alarm compared to warning calls of other species like wattlebirds. This shows how important magpies are as information sources in the bird world.

Australia’s greatest eavesdroppers?

Authors own.

The key to great communication is great listening. Not all people seem to understand that, but magpies sure do. They are very discerning listeners who can get a lot of information from the sounds of the world around them.

Firstly, magpies can spot a liar. And no, you didn’t read that wrong! Magpies assess a danger call based on the reliability of the source which means they ignore unreliable calls. Scientists learnt this from a cool experiment where they played two magpie alarm sounds to a group of magpies. When the first alarm was played, scientists showed a taxidermized predator so that magpies learnt that this call meant real danger. When scientists played the second alarm, they didn’t show the predator. The magpies learnt that the first alarm sound was accurate, and the second one was not. When the first sound was played again, magpies shared the danger call and were extra vigilant. But when the unreliable call was made, the magpies didn’t share it because they knew it was all talk. So, it pays not to cry wolf if you’re a magpie.

Not only are magpies discerning listeners amongst their own species, but they can also interpret sounds of other species like noisy miners and even humans. Studies have shown that magpies can identify the voices of different people. Unfamiliar human voices made magpies a lot more vigilant than ones that they had heard before, meaning that magpies can identify us based on only our voices!

So, if you’re looking for something to listen to on your next walk, why not learn from the magpies and tune into your surroundings. If you’re lucky, you may even hear the complex warble of a magpie.