Australian magpie Gymnorhina tibicen



Distinctive features: A medium-sized (slightly smaller than kereru) black and white crow-like bird with dull red eyes and a solid wedge-shaped bluish-white and black bill. Produces a distinctive musical warbling call.

Size: Adult magpies are 360-440 mm long, and weigh about 350g.

Droppings: No information, but generally typical of bird droppings.

Footprints: Moderate-large passerine footprint, one long toe pointing backwards, three toes pointing forwards.

Kill signs: Magpies eject pellets containing the remains of their predominantly insect prey.  Will also peck eggs and smaller animals.

Distribution: Throughout North Island and in most parts of South Island, although uncommon in Nelson and inland Marlborough and largely absent from Westland, except for the area between Harihari and Westport.


Ecological impacts

Australian magpies may adversely affect other bird species, including native species, by competing for food, preying on eggs and young, and aggressively defending their territories, although there is little evidence that they have permanent effects on populations of other bird species. They primarily eat invertebrates, potentially impacting some native species; however, they also eat large numbers of introduced invertebrate pests. Consequently, in addition to being a pest in some areas, magpies are probably also important because they eat a lot of agricultural invertebrate pests.

Other impacts

Magpies will attack humans who venture near nests during the breeding season. It has been reported that magpies peck at power-line fittings, sometimes causing lines to short circuit.  Electrocuted birds have been blamed for starting fires after catching alight and falling into dry vegetation below.

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We have no specific information aboujt magpie droppings.

Can be confused with:

We have no detailed information but magpie droppings are likely to look similar to those of other bird species.

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Footprints and Tracks

Paws and feet

Australian magpies have black feet. The feet are typical of passerine bird species: one hind toe and three forward-facing toes. All toes have claws. Adult foot size is estimated in the range of 61 to 74 mm long, although there is little information available on this. If you can help with this clue, we would be pleased to hear from you > contact.

They walk, rather than hop, when on the ground. 

Can be confused with:

Footprints of many bird species, especially the passerine (perching) bird species.

Dens and nests

Nests comprise a bulky platform of twigs, leaves, and can include man-made materials such as wire. The nest is lined with softer materials such as grass and wool.  It is usually high up in a tall tree; in the canopy or on a major side branch.  Preferred tree species are pines, macrocarpas and gums. Native trees such as tawa and southern beech are also used.

Nest building begins in June, in New Zealand. Normally a single clutch of eggs is produced per year: two to five light blue or greenish eggs, oval in shape and about 30 × 40 mm.  The colour and patterning of the eggs is highly variable between birds.

Can be confused with:

Australian magpie nests could be confused with those of rooks and kereru.  However, rook nests tend to occur in groups (known as rookeries) and kereru nests are much more flimsy in construction. Note, too, that rooks are mainly found in the southeast of the North Island compared to magpies' more widespread distribution. The eggs of some other bird species in New Zealand are also bluish-green but are smaller than those of magpies.

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Vegetation Damage

Understorey (less than 3m)

Ground-level vegetation, such as grassland, can be damaged when Australian magpies search the ground for their main food, invertebrates. They will stab their beaks in the ground to extract food, which could leave holes in the ground.

Can be confused with:

Other birds such as rooks, blackbirds, thrushes, seabirds (such as black-backed gull) and wading birds (such as variable and South Island pied oystercatcher) can sometimes also dig up invertebrates in fields. Pūkeko can also pull up seedlings.  These similar types of damage may be hard to attribute to a particular species unless they are caught in the act.

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Kill Sign

Fur, feathers or scales (vertebrate)


Magpies occasionally prey on small birds. Little is known about what evidence they might leave in the way of a corpse or feathers but remains may be seen in pellets ejected from the mouth.


Magpies occasionally prey on mice or feed on carrion. The remains may be seen in ejected pellets.

Lizard and frogs

Magpies occasionally prey on lizards or frogs. The remains may be seen in ejected pellets.

Can be confused with:

Kill by pther predators and with pellets ejected by other bird species (such as morepork, falcon, Australasian harrier, rook, and kingfisher). Remember, too, that animal remains might have been scavenged.

Insects or snails (invertebrate)

Australian magpies are omnivorous (will eat most things), with the bulk of its varied diet made up of invertebrates. The pellets Australian magpies eject from their beaks can include the hard parts of their invertebrate prey, which includes grass grubs, weevils, porina and army worm caterpillars, worms, spiders, ants, flies, crickets and snails.

Can be confused with:

Pellets ejected by other bird species (such as morepork, falcon, Australasian harrier, rook, and kingfisher) could be confused with magpie pellets, although they are likely to contain a greater proportion of vertebrate remains.


Australian magpies occasionally eat eggs of other bird species.

Can be confused with:

Eggs pecked by magpies may be confused with eggs pecked by other predatory birds. Remember, too, that egg remains might have been scavenged.

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Other Clues


Australian magpies have an array of complex vocalisations, including a distinctive peeling or carolling song which is wonderfully described as “quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle” in The Magpies by New Zealand poet Denis Glover. The call is particularly noticeable at dawn and dusk.  Magpies can also mimic other birds and will occasionally mimic humans, dogs and horses. 

When alone, a magpie may make a quiet musical warbling. These songs have been recorded up to 70 minutes in duration and are more frequent after the end of the breeding season. Pairs of magpies often take up a loud musical calling known as carolling to advertise or defend their territory.  Birds will adopt a specific posture by tilting their heads back, expanding their chests, and moving their wings backwards.  A group of magpies will sing a short repetitive version of carolling just before dawn (dawn song), and at twilight after sundown (dusk song), in winter and spring.

Fledgling and juvenile magpies emit a repeated short and loud, high-pitched begging call. Magpies may indulge in beak-clapping to warn other species of birds and have several high pitched alarm or rallying calls when intruders or threats are spotted.

Can be confused with:

The song of the Australian magpie is not easily confused with that of any other bird species but it can be confusing if the magpie is mimicking other bird species.

Body covering

The Australian magpie has distinctive black and white plumage. 

Can be confused with:

Other medium sized, black-feathered bird species in New Zealand, such as the rook, or pūkeko. However, the rook is all black and has a more limited distribution, mainly in southeast North Island, while the pūkeko has a breast that is deep blue/violet and a red bill, and is almost three times larger than a magpie.

Magpies in trees are sometimes mistaken for kereru, especially when seen in silhouette, but notable differences are the longer magpie’s bill and the kereru's white belly.


In New Zealand, the Australian magpie is found throughout the North Island and in most parts of the South Island, although it is uncommon in Nelson and inland Marlborough and largely absent from Westland, except for the area between Harihari and Westport. White-backed forms are throughout the North Island and eastern South Island, while black-backed forms are found in the Hawke's Bay region.

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The Australian magpie is native to Australia and was introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s in Canterbury, Otago, Auckland (Kawau Island), Hawke’s Bay and Wellington to control pasture pests and were legally protected until 1951. Eight subspecies are recognised in Australia, of which perhaps three were introduced to, and persist in, New Zealand. White-backed forms are assigned to two subspecies: the larger G.t. tyrannica (introduced from south-east Australia to the North Island) and the smaller G.t.hypoleuca (introduced from Tasmania to parts of the South Island). The black-backed form is assigned to the subspecies G.t. tibicen and seems more prevalent around the Hawke’s Bay. The introduced populations here expanded slowly, remaining separate for many years. The original Otago population disappeared although magpies have since re-colonised the region.


White-backed magpies: adult males are black with a white hind-neck, mantle (top of the back), rump, and shoulder patches. The upper two-thirds of the tail and under-tail coverts (the smaller feathers covering the bases of the main feathers) are also white. The adult female differs in having a grey mantle and less iridescent black plumage. Black-backed magpies are similar but have a black mantle. Both species have a blue-grey bill with a dark tip and dull red eyes with a black iris.

Juveniles have grey and brown feathers amidst black and white plumage. Two- or three-year-old birds of both sexes closely resemble and are difficult to distinguish from adult females. Immature birds have dark brownish eyes until around two years of age.

Size and weight

Adult magpies are 360-440 mm long and weigh about 350 g.


The Australian magpie is almost exclusively diurnal (awake during the day) although it may call into the night. 

Their social organisation is complex. The most common groupings seem to consist of single pairs or pairs with young from the previous season. Juveniles generally remain with their parents until the winter but are evicted before the onset of the next breeding season. Other magpie groups consist of a varying number of adult birds, some of which may be previous offspring which have been allowed to remain; within such a group, usually only one female breeds successfully but the other birds may help feed and raise the chicks. These groupings tend to be territorial but non-territorial flocks of up to 80 evicted juveniles and sub-adults can also occur.  In spring a minority of breeding magpies (almost always males) become aggressive and defend their nests by swooping and attacking those who approach, including humans.

Australian magpies generally live to around 25 years of age, although ages of up to 30 years have been recorded.  The reported age of first breeding varies but is usually between the ages of three and five years. The chicks hatch on the same day about 20 days after incubation begins, emerging pink, naked, and blind with large feet, a short broad beak and a bright red throat. The chick’s eyes are fully open at around 10 days. Nestlings are fed exclusively by the female of a breeding pair, though the male magpie will feed his partner. Juveniles begin foraging on their own three weeks after leaving the nest and will be mostly feeding themselves by six months old. Some birds continue begging for food until eight or nine months of age but are usually ignored.


Australian magpies mainly feed on invertebrates, taken mostly from the ground. They stab their beaks into the ground to extract them. Earthworms dominate the winter diet and insects the remainder of the year. Pasture pests, including porina moth grass grubs and weevils, are consumed. Other invertebrates eaten include army worm caterpillars, crickets, wasps, spiders, stick insects, cicadas, and snails. Like owls, magpies eject pellets consisting of the hard parts of these insects. Occasionally magpies consume carrion, lizards, frogs, mice, small birds and their eggs and chicks. Seeds and grain may be taken occasionally.


Their preferred habitat is open grassland and cultivated paddocks with tall trees nearby for shelter. They are frequently found in paddocks, city parks, playing fields, on the edges of native and exotic forest, and occasionally on mountains up to 1700 m above sea level.


Australian magpies are good mimics and in Australia have been heard imitating over 35 species of native and introduced bird species, as well as other animal calls, such as those of dogs and horses. They can be playful, especially when young, such as rolling on the ground playing with their siblings and parents, and will use objects as playthings.

How to get rid of it

Australian magpies are intelligent birds and quickly learn from experience, which can make them very difficult to eradicate. Those that pose a risk to the public are often shot. Baited live capture traps can be used for low to medium infestations, and sometimes a magpie distress call recording or a decoy bird is used to lure birds to the traps. Large populations of magpies, particularly non-breeding magpies, can be successfully and quickly controlled using poison.


Heather, B.D. & Robertson, H.A. (1996). The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland.

Williams, M.J. (2013). Australian magpie. In Miskelly, C.M. (Ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. Retrieved in March 2017 from