Ah the Australian magpie. With its glossy tuxedo plumage, heavy bill, and charismatic reputation it’s no wonder it’s a favorite among corvid lovers. Why then, do scientists keep insisting that it’s not, in fact, a corvid? This insistence of ours can feel arbitrary, even perhaps insulting, to a bird that superficially looks and acts like the corvids we know.
To address this question, corvid expert and my colleague, Jennifer Campbell-Smith, recently penned a terrific piece to lay the confusion to rest. I recommend everyone take the time to read it in full.
If you do not have time, the short version of the story is that physiologically, Australian magpies, like the other butcherbirds they are classified with, lack the nasal bristles indicative of corvids. Genetically, DNA work done in the late 80’s also showed that, while they share a common ancestor, are are phylogentically distinct from other corvids. There has been some back and forth since then on the details, but there’s no scientific evidence that we should be lumping them in with corvids.
Why this bums so many corvids lovers out is a curious mystery to me. Personally, I find the convergent evolution with respect to both appearance and behavior much more interesting than if we simply made a taxonomic mistake. As for whether corvid lovers should continue to find joy and fascination in observing these birds well, I’ll direct you to this video and let you be the judge.