Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Magpies fighting

The Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen formally Cracticus tibicen), recently removed from membership of the butcherbird family, is one of our best-known birds. They are highly social and extended family groups occupy territories which they defend vigorously if/when the need arises. Attacks on humans by some magpies during the breeding season are well known however less well known are magpie attacks on other magpies

WARNING: This post contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.

While working outside on 14/01/18 I heard Magpies squabbling and went to see what the fuss was about and found two pairs on the ground locked together and wrestling. The two pairs were almost side by side.

Please click on photos to enlarge.

Not a good photo however I have included it because it shows the two pairs of fighting magpies and their proximity when I first found them.

Shortly after this photo was taken, one pair moved about 25 metres away into longer grass and continued fighting there so I then followed the pair in the shorter grass.

Using the times recorded on the photo files the fighting pair I followed were engaged in what looked increasingly like mortal combat for 14 minutes and 25 seconds. Allowing for the time it took me from first observing the fight to go inside and get the camera and return and take the first photo, at least 2 minutes, I estimate the fight went on for at least 17 minutes.

At first I thought the fighting was relatively harmless and would be short lived. However as the fight went on and blood was drawn it became obvious that this was a serious fight and not harmless play.

For the duration of the fight the two birds were locked together by at least one foot.

Throughout the fight it was obvious that one of the birds was dominant and generally had the upper hand so to speak. However at times the other bird seemed to fight back, or perhaps it was making an effort to break free then flee? The dominant bird certainly did most of the pecking and landed more damaging blows.

At times, they lay on their sides when I could see the dominant bird repeatedly pecking the other bird around the face, head and neck.

The dominant bird is on the left. As they lay on their sides the dominant bird pecked repeatedly at the head area of the other bird.

The underdog bird grabbed the bill of the dominant bird to ward off the pecks.
A few times the fighting subsided and they lay motionless, still locked by the feet, to briefly recover their energy before the fighting continued again.
The bird on the left has a bloody wound to the forehead.

The injured bird also has a bloody wound to the throat and the side of the face. The dominant bird is relatively unscathed.
I was starting to feel concerned for the bird on the left and briefly considered breaking up the fight however I decided to leave nature to take its course which is the principle I usually follow.

At times the birds rolled around in a wild melee. This may have been the underdog bird trying to break free and escape.

After about 10 minutes of fighting the other pair broke off and the dominant bird of that other pair flew over to the pair I was following. It initially looked like it was joining in the fight as it landed a few pecks on the underdog bird. It then stopped and stood by looking and carolling before walking off and leaving the pair to fight on.

The dominant bird from the other fighting pair arrived and landed a few pecks on the underdog bird.

Having landed a few pecks the bird then carolled before striding off.

The fight continued for the remaining pair for another 2 minutes and 50 seconds.

By this stage I was starting to think the dominant bird was going to kill or seriously maim the other one, however shortly after this photo the underdog bird escaped and flew to a nearby tree.
The victor briefly chased the beaten bird before it took flight.
The beaten bird takes refuge in a shrubby tree to recover before departing the area.

The beaten bird in the photo above looks to have some dark colouring on the mantle feathers so it may be an immature bird.

Later in the morning I found one of the beaten magpies sheltering in long grass under a fence. Two of the local adult magpies were in a tree nearby. As I approached the bird to see if it was OK it took off, then flew rather weakly away, down across the river and out of our resident Magpie territory. The birds in the nearby tree did not give chase.

The duration and severity of this fight was impressive. I have no sure understanding of what I witnessed and can only assume that the fight was motivated by either defence of territory, perhaps due to invasion of territory by birds from an adjoining territory, or perhaps it was adults driving away off-spring from a previous season’s breeding event.

I guess I would like to think that it was our resident magpies bravely defending their territory against intruders and after a long and bitter fight coming out the victors – however I have no evidence for this scenario as I do not know the territorial boundaries of our resident Magpies and I cannot recognise “our” birds let alone potential intruders.

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