Australian magpies are not corvids

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.

magpie

A still frame from the infamously cute video of an Aussie magpie and a puppy play-wrestling together.  

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.

comparison

The nasal feathers are those thin, wire like feathers covering the base of the bill on the crow to the right, but conspicuously absent on the Aussie magpie to the left.  Australian magpie photo: Guy Poisson

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Being a scientist, Birding, Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Taxonomy

5 responses to “Australian magpies are not corvids

  1. Isn’t there a bio-geographical feature called the “Wallace Line” that separates areas where species native to Eurasia evolved and those with a more ancient ancestry evolved?
    Australia is famous for having such a strange and different evolutionary history and that such a successful body plan and suite of behaviors exhibited by corvids should evolve in a different lineage in a different place should be no surprise

    • Hi Andy, sorry I missed this comment for so long, something things get a little lost in the shuffle! You’re absolutely right, the Wallace Line plays a critical role in the distinctiveness and diversity of species we see in Australia vs regions that, as the crow flies, may not appear to be in fact that far away. And, yes, despite the fact we know these organisms took a distinct evolutionary path, convergent evolution means that some of them appear quite similar to animals in other parts of the world. Excellent point.

  2. Leon Budziszewski

    Hi Kaeli:

    I was wondering where that would leave the Rook. It has a partially bare face… not sure about nasal bristles though! Thanks for your blog. It’s AWESOME!

    Leon

    • Great question Leon. Rooks do have nasal bristles when they are young, but they lose them as they transition to adult plumage. There’s another corvid species with a similar story (the bare-faced crow, Corvus tristis). Those are the only two exceptions I know of! Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

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