Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca)

Also known as: Australian magpie-lark, little magpie, mudlark, Murray magpie, peewee, peewit, pied grallina, pugwall
Synonyms: Corvus cyanoleucus
GenusGrallina (1)
SizeLength: 25 - 30 cm (2) (3)
Male weight: 63.9 - 118 g (2)
Female weight: 60 - 94.5 g (2)
Top facts

The magpie-lark is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Despite its name, the magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) is neither a magpie nor a lark (3) (4). This striking Australian bird was given its name by early settlers, who thought that the bird’s plumage looked like that of the European black-billed magpie (Pica pica) and that its body shape was somewhat lark-like (3).

The bold plumage of the magpie-lark is black and white, and although both sexes are similar in appearance, there are subtle differences in their patterning (5). The adult male has an entirely glossy black forehead, throat and face, with a white eyebrow (2) (3) (4) (5), while the female has an all-white face, forehead and throat (2) (3) (4), and lacks the white eyebrow (3) (4). The male magpie-lark also has a white panel on the side of the head below the eye, whereas the female has a broad black band extending from the crown down the side of the face to the breast (2) (3). Behind this band, a broad white area runs from the eye down to the shoulder (2).

The underparts of the magpie-lark below the upper breast are white, and the legs are dark bluish-grey to blackish (2). The bill is fairly long and thin (3) (4), and is an ivory to cream colour with a blackish nasal groove (2). The eye of the adult magpie-lark is white to pale yellow or pale greyish (2) (3).

Juvenile magpie-larks have plumage resembling a mixture between the adult male and female (2). Much like the male magpie-lark, the juvenile has a black crown and a white stripe above the eye (2) (4), but the throat and band running from the eye down to the shoulder are white, as in the female. The black parts of the juvenile magpie-lark plumage are dull, unlike the glossy sheen seen in the adult birds. The eye of the young magpie-lark is dark brown, and the bill is dark grey to black (2).

The loud vocalisations of the magpie-lark are described as being rather metallic (2) (5), and its distinctive ‘pee-wit’ or ‘pee-wee’ calls have given rise to this species’ alternative names (4). The magpie-lark is one of only about 200 bird species to perform duets (4), with one bird calling ‘tee-hee’ to which the partner responds immediately with ‘pee-o-wit’ (3).

The magpie-lark is distributed throughout most of Australia (3), with two subspecies that occupy slightly different ranges (2). Grallina cyanoleuca cyanoleuca occurs in western, central, eastern and southern Australia, while Grallina cyanoleuca neglecta is only found in northern Western Australia, and east to northern Queensland (2).

This species is also found on the island of Timor (2) (5), in the eastern Lesser Sundas, and possibly in southern New Guinea (2).

The magpie-lark is found in most types of open vegetation, including parks, gardens and farmland (3), and it is also well adapted to living in cities and towns (3) (4). As this species requires a supply of surface water, it is not often found in arid areas such as deserts (2) (3), instead occurring beside rivers or swamps (3).

Within its habitat, the magpie-lark requires soft, bare ground or short grass for foraging purposes, as well as a supply of mud for nest building and a tree in which to build the nest (4).

Generally a lowland species in Australia, the magpie-lark usually occurs up to elevations of 1,000 metres, and occasionally up to 1,200 metres (2).

The magpie-lark is generally a non-migratory species, although it may be partly migratory in some areas (2). Adults may join flocks of immature magpie-larks in autumn and winter, forming large flocks of up to 3,000 individuals. These birds frequently display communally, demonstrating incredible feats of acrobatic flying (3).

The magpie-lark is primarily a carnivorous species (4), feeding mostly on invertebrates such as insects, spiders, worms and crustaceans (2). However, small vertebrates, including reptiles and frogs, are also sometimes taken (3), and seeds are occasionally eaten (2). The magpie-lark is beneficial to humans as it feeds on pests, and in northern Australia it is known as a ‘stock inspector’, as it can often be seen perching on the backs of livestock, picking off ticks (3).

Feeding singly or in pairs, the magpie-lark mainly forages on open ground, including exposed tidal flats and urban lawns, opportunistically picking up food items or scratching at the ground to uncover prey. This species also uses a foraging technique known as ‘foot-trembling’ on very wet mud, which brings prey items to the surface. A very active species, the magpie-lark is constantly calling and fluttering about, and will sometimes take aerial prey during brief sallies into the air (2).

Breeding in the magpie-lark is related to rainfall (2), and usually begins after the onset of rain in the wet season (3). In southern Australia, breeding normally occurs from August through to February (4). Male magpie-larks advertise for mates at the beginning of the breeding season by making ‘pee-o-wit’ calls, and several males may compete for a single female. Once a female has chosen a male, the pair set up a territory (3), which is fiercely defended against other birds. The pair generally mate for life (3) (4), and often keep the same territory year on year (3).

In south-western Western Australia, nest building usually starts in July, with egg laying in August, whereas magpie-larks in south-eastern Australia do not begin nesting until late August, with egg laying in September (2). This species often nests near lakes or rivers (3), and the male and female magpie-lark both gather wet mud to construct the bowl-shaped nest (2) (4), which is built on a horizontal branch up to 20 metres above the ground (4). The magpie-lark uses its breast to mould the mud, reinforcing the nest walls with grass, feathers and horsehair (3), and lining the nest with soft vegetation and feathers (2) (4).

Each magpie-lark clutch contains between one and six eggs (2), although three to five is most common (3) (4). The eggs are incubated by both sexes (2) (3) (4) (5), for between 17 and 19 days (2). The chicks are cared for by both the male and female magpie-lark (2) (4) (5), and fledge at 19 to 23 days old (2). The young become independent approximately five weeks after fledging (2), and form flocks with other young birds (3). When conditions allow, second broods are commonly produced (2) (3) (4).

The magpie-lark first breeds at two years of age (2) (3), and has a lifespan of ten years or more (2).

There are currently no known major threats to the magpie-lark.

There are currently no conservation measures specifically in place for the magpie-lark, as it is a common species in Australia. Its population is believed to be increasing as a result of ongoing habitat degradation from extensive agricultural and pastoral development, which is creating new areas of suitable habitat for this striking species (2) (6).

Find out more about the magpie-lark:

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2009) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 14: Bush-shrikes to Old World Sparrows. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia: Leopard - Marten. Marshall Cavendish, Singapore.
  4. Daniels, C.B. (2011) A Guide to Urban Wildlife: 250 Creatures You Meet on Your Street. HarperCollins Australia, Sydney.
  5. BirdLife International (2011) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London.
  6. BirdLife International (September, 2012)