Mudnest Builders: Grallinidae
Australian Magpie-lark (grallina Cyanoleuca): Species Account
Physical characteristics: The Australian magpie-lark has a black and white body. The male has a black back, chest, and face, with a white stripe above the eye. The female's face is all white. Both have white markings on their predominantly black wings. The birds' legs are exceptionally long, and adults have white eyes and beaks. Juveniles of the species have plumage coloring similar to adults, but their eyes and bills are white. Adult magpie-larks are 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 centimeters) in length and weigh an average of 3 to 4 ounces (80 to 115 grams).
Geographic range: The Australian magpie-lark is found throughout Australia (except in desert areas) and in southern New Guinea, Timor, and Lord Howe Island.
Habitat: Australian magpie-larks are highly adaptable birds, and make their home in a wide variety of habitats both near and far from people, including urban, agricultural, and residential areas. When they dwell in forests, it is usually near the edge or in a clearing where there is open space to forage. They choose nest-building locations where there is access to water and therefore mud.
Diet: Magpie-larks forage at ground level for insects, insect larvae, earthworms, and freshwater snails. They will also eat at backyard feeders.
Behavior and reproduction: Like other members of the family, the Australian magpie-lark builds a cup-shaped mud nest lined with soft grasses and feathers. Male and female magpie-larks are monogamous, and usually stay together throughout their lifespan, breeding each season as a pair. If a male leaves a female after mating for any reason, the female will abandon the nest.
Australian magpie-larks are biparental, meaning that both male and female take part in nest building, egg incubation, and in feeding their nestlings. The female lays a clutch of three to five oval-shaped white-to-pink eggs speckled with brown.
Studies of Australian magpie-lark breeding behavior have found that those pairs of birds who have bred together successfully in previous seasons will raise more fledglings in subsequent seasons than other newly-mated pairs. Researchers attribute this to the fact that established magpie-lark "couples" start breeding earlier in the season, allowing them to fledge multiple broods.
Magpie-larks aggressively defend their nest and surrounding territory, and have been known to attack other birds, animals, humans, and even images of themselves in mirrors or other reflective surfaces when they felt their nest was threatened. Human attacks are rare.
Incubation of eggs takes up to eighteen days, and the young birds fledge about three weeks after hatching. Young birds, and those adults who aren't paired with a mate, travel in large flocks that move northward in fall and winter and south in spring and summer.
Australian magpie-larks and people: The Australian magpie-lark, called the peewee by many Australians because of their "pee-o-wit" call, are not considered agricultural or residential pests. In agricultural areas their presence is often encouraged, as they feed on disease-carrying freshwater snails that can infect sheep and cattle.
Conservation status: Australian magpie-larks are plentiful and not considered threatened. ∎
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Simpson, Ken, Nicolas Day, and Peter Trusler. Birds of Australia Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Simpson, Ken, and Nicolas Day. Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, 4th ed. Ringwood, Australia: Viking O'Neil, 1993.
Davidson, Steve. "For These Birds, Fidelity's a Lark." Ecos (April–June 2000): 36.
"Magpie-Lark." Australian Museum. http://www.amonline.net.au/factsheets/magpie_lark.htm (accessed on June 14, 2004).