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Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird

Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird

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Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird

507 pagine
5 ore
May 1, 2019


The Australian magpie is one of our nation’s most popular and iconic birds. It is loved for its impressive vocal abilities, propensity to play, excellent parenting and willingness to form enduring friendships with people.

Written by award-winning author Gisela Kaplan, a leading authority on animal behaviour and Australian birds, this second edition of Australian Magpie is a thoroughly updated and substantially expanded account of the behaviour of these birds. With new chapters on classification, cognition and caring for young, it reveals the extraordinary capabilities of the magpie, including its complex social behaviour. The author, who has devoted more than 20 years to studying and interacting with magpies, brings together the latest research on the magpie’s biology and behaviour, along with information on the origin of magpies, their development and health not published previously.

This fascinating book has a wide appeal to bird lovers, amateur ornithologists and naturalists, as well as those with a scientific or professional interest in avian behaviour and ecology and those interested in the importance of native birds to the environment.

May 1, 2019

Informazioni sull'autore

Gisela Kaplan is Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of New England and an Honorary Professor at the Queensland Brain Institute. She is the author of more than 250 research articles and has conducted ground-breaking research into vocal learning, communication and cognition in birds and other vertebrates. She holds two PhDs and an honorary DSc for her contributions to life sciences. In addition to extensive field research on birds, for the past two decades she has also raised and rehabilitated injured native birds. Her other recent books include Bird Minds: Cognition and Behaviour of Australian Native Birds and Tawny Frogmouth.

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  • The magpie’s song is reflected in its Noongar name koolbardie. The mining town of Coolgardie, West-ern Australia, means ‘magpie’ in the Goldfields’ Aboriginal dialect.

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Australian Magpie - Gisela Kaplan




Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird


© Gisela Kaplan 2019

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO Publishing for all permission requests.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of Australia.

ISBN: 9781486307241 (pbk.)

ISBN: 9781486307258 (epdf)

ISBN: 9781486307265 (epub)

Published by:

CSIRO Publishing

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Clayton South VIC 3169


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Front cover: Australian Magpie, photo courtesy of Andrew Skeoch,

Photographs are by the author unless stated otherwise.

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CSIRO acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the lands that we live and work on across Australia and pays its respect to Elders past and present. CSIRO recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have made and will continue to make extraordinary contributions to all aspects of Australian life including culture, economy and science.

The paper this book is printed on is in accordance with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council®. The FSC® promotes environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.




Chapter 1 Origins

Chapter 2 Which is the ‘real’ magpie?

Chapter 3 Anatomy

Chapter 4 The brain and the senses

Chapter 5 Diet and cognition in foraging

Chapter 6 Managing a territory

Chapter 7 Bonding and breeding

Chapter 8 Caring for the young

Chapter 9 Social rules and daily life

Chapter 10 Song production and vocal development

Chapter 11 Communication

Chapter 12 Magpies and humans

Epilogue: The success of magpies





A book of this kind would not be possible without the substantial endeavours by researchers and by committed ornithologists. I also wish to extend a general thank-you to the members of the public from most states and territories of Australia who, over the years, have taken the trouble to write to me about their experiences with magpies, and even sent tape recordings. This information has given me a valuable insight into the magpie’s role in Australia’s culture and psyche, and alerted me to behaviours that may have been rare or unusual and required explanation. I wish to thank the New England Branch of WIRES for its permission to allow access to some of its local rescue records, and Rebecca Con for preparing WIRES data. A special thanks also to the University of New England Natural History Museum for allowing me free use of its selection of magpie specimens to study anatomical details. The museum is an invaluable resource. My sincere thanks go to Professor Lesley Rogers who has read the entire manuscript of this edition closely and has made many valuable suggestions. My thanks go also to the University of New England for supporting my grant applications, which have allowed me to conduct ongoing field research in magpie behaviour; to Nick Alexander (first edition) and Briana Melideo (second edition), of CSIRO Publishing, and the entire staff at CSIRO for their guidance and conviction in the importance of this project.


In our bird-rich nation, the Australian magpie, one of the foremost songbirds in the world, is arguably the most researched and also perhaps the best known native bird. According to the survey conducted by BirdLife Australia in conjunction with Guardian Australia in December 2017, it is now ‘official’ that the magpie is the most popular bird in Australia.

Indeed, the Australian magpie enjoys the status of a culturally important icon. The kookaburra may signify Australia but the magpie has a special place in the hearts of Australians. This may be so because magpies, unlike kookaburras, are found almost anywhere in this country. They often share suburban backyards and rural properties with human populations.¹ Because magpies are territorial, they tend to stay in the one place for as long as they can hold it and this tends to facilitate contact with humans.

Added to the tremendous general interest in the species, a significant number of people form strong personal attachments to magpies. Sometimes, of course, magpies cause us problems and these too are part of our heritage and interaction, as will be discussed.² We can get to know magpies well because they also tend to live relatively long lives. Their life expectancy is around 25 years, and some claim even longer, up to 30 years.³ A magpie’s life span is thus greater than that of most domestic companion animals and such a stable presence may also bring about close acquaintances with long-term human residents. Most importantly, though, magpies themselves show signs of being amenable to warming to humans as companions (see figure on next page).

For some, it is irresistibly attractive that magpies volunteer to come to the back porch and actually communicate with the inhabitants of the house. Some may even stray into the house on foot and, without any sign of fear, investigate the kitchen and living quarters. Among the nicest stories are those recounting the transfer of the relationship between bird and human to the magpie’s offspring, thus increasing the number of magpies appearing at the back porch. Friendships with magpies will be discussed in great detail in the last chapter, including why such friendships are possible at all and why the word ‘friendship’ applies in its inherent meaning of reciprocity.

Magpies take an active interest in their environment and there is little that they seem to miss.

Part of the attraction is that these birds remain free ranging and self-sufficient and yet choose to befriend humans. Their demeanour is often so expressive that people are fascinated and feel they have personal access to the magpies and to their lives, as if being handed a small looking-glass into the natural world which, in turn, often leads to spending more time watching their behaviour.

It is not uncommon that those who claim to have no particular knowledge of birds often become very good naturalists and ethologists in the process of these evolving friendships with magpies. There may be some unusual magpie behaviour that this book cannot readily explain, especially when the observed behaviour is rare and concerns very specific moments. However, this does not invalidate anecdotal observations. On the contrary, over the last century, the many very active ornithological clubs and naturalists in Australia have been studious in recording their observations in print. Thus, details of magpie behaviour have accumulated and substantially contributed to maintaining and spawning research interest in magpies.

The fields of both ethology/animal behaviour and ecology have been particularly fruitful in recent years and as a result following innovative research attitudes to animals, and especially to birds, these fields have also changed substantially. We now know that birds share not only a range of emotions common to humans, but they have families, suffer when a member is lost, and, most surprisingly, have been found to think, solve problems, have phenomenal memories, make decisions and will barrack for their partner and fiercely defend their young. The astonishing advances that we have made in understanding what birds are about have been infinitely strengthened by cross-disciplinary research in neuroscience, ethology, comparative psychology, ecology and biology. It is doubtful whether any of these advances would have been possible without such cross-disciplinary input.

When the first edition of this book came out, it was based on 10 years of my research on magpies. This second edition has been written 15 years later. Because magpies offer so many surprises in their behaviour and there has been so much commitment to find out more about this species, those 15 intervening years have been marked by ongoing research including up to a quarter of a century of my own work specifically on magpies. In these years we have learned that birds are a good deal cleverer than we ever thought, have abilities far exceeding anyone’s expectations and, moreover, have the added advantage that their ability to learn vocalisations and their willingness to raise offspring in pairs or groups make them eminently suited for comparative work on the evolution of language and cognition.

This book is meant to be accessible to everybody and transparent in what it wants to convey. It can be read vertically and horizontally. Horizontal reading is from one end to the other as it is written and spiked with many illustrations to exemplify points. Vertical reading offers the opportunity to follow up on the scientific background that is incorporated and literally covers most of the research ever published about magpies, even if summarised briefly, and can be pursued in whatever direction a reader’s interest is piqued. It is not a matter of immodesty that my own research is included in this book but a reflection of how much more we know now than we did a decade ago. The book also includes many of my own anecdotal observations for which we do not as yet have full explanations – their value is that they were observed in the field and may lead to further enquiries.

In the first edition, I expressed the hope that research on all aspects of magpie biology and behaviour will continue to thrive. Now, 15 years later, it can be confirmed that, indeed, research on magpies has been thriving. My own research on cognitive behaviour, song production and communication since the publication of the first edition in 2004, has discovered remarkable traits and abilities in Australian birds generally (cf. also Kaplan⁴) and in magpies specifically, findings that will be presented at least in summarised form in this book. Biogeography, palaeontology and taxonomy of Australian birds have taken a very dramatic turn since 2004.

Indeed, there is now international recognition that all modern songbirds first arose in Australia because some lineages survived the mass extinctions and survived only in East Gondwana. So dramatic are some of the discoveries that it has changed our thinking and expanded our knowledge about this continent, about its bird life and other vertebrates, even about species interactions and internal dispersal and speciation. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the new understanding of our island world as an ‘Out of Australia’ narrative for birds, their natural history and species evolution since the mass extinction 65 million years ago.

This new edition aims to explore all these new facets of our current knowledge of the Australian continent and its avian species – with the magpie taking centre stage again – and peer into its daily life, its brain and abilities and its problems and successes. Thanks to the substantial amount of research and field work that has been undertaken on magpies alone over the last decade or so, we can now celebrate the profile of this bird as perhaps we can no other.

Therefore, this book is not just a new edition but is substantially based on new material that was not available before 2004, when the writing of the first edition finished. Indeed, the years since the publication of the first edition have seen such major advances and insights into our thinking about birds, in terms of origin, cognition, physiology and climate, that this is, apart from my personal partiality to magpies, compelling reason enough to have written it.

This book aims to make this special Australian more accessible to the many people who have an abiding interest in magpies. Research articles provide a very useful information service to scientists but tend to be less accessible to the general public and the bulk of knowledge rarely trickles through to a wider audience other than in the occasional flash headline. And yet, when it comes to native wildlife I feel that there continues to be an urgent need to bridge this gap because everybody should be able to have access to the latest insights and knowledge on our wildlife without having to make very special efforts to find and decipher complex scientific papers.

Increasingly, dictionaries, handbooks and research publications will expand our knowledge of Australian native fauna but rarely is one given the luxury to write a book-length work about one native bird species. We still have a good deal to do to make Australian fauna better known. I can think of a no more promising and enjoyable way of doing so than with the Australian magpie.

Gisela Kaplan

February 2018


1Blakers et al. 1984

2Jones 2002

3QNPWS 1993

4Kaplan 2015

A magpie group’s walk to the back porch for titbits is a familiar experience to many Australians who find magpies irresistible.



In 2013, a small online article in the Sydney Morning Herald related an enchanting story about the Australian magpie in Aboriginal Dreaming and the creation of daylight. As retold by Hancock¹ and Rule², it was the clever magpie that raised the sky and helped emus to straighten their necks, kangaroos to hop and wombats to leave their burrows because magpies had decided to hold up the sky.

According to the Dreaming, the sky was once so close to the ground that trees could not grow, people had to crawl and all the birds were forced to walk everywhere. The days were dark and cold and one day the magpies decided to hold a meeting on how to end this undesirable situation. They settled on a solution. Working together they managed to prop up the sky with sticks, but it threatened to break the sticks and collapse to Earth again – so they went to higher hills, took a long stick in their beaks and kept pushing the sky higher and higher, until they reached the highest mountain in the whole land. Then, with a special heave, they gave the sky one last push! The sky shot up into the air, and as it rose it split open and a huge flood of warmth and light poured through on to the land below. The animals wondered at the light and warmth, but more at the incredible brightly painted beauty of the Sun-Woman. The whole sky was awash with beautiful reds and yellows. It was the first sunrise.

So that is why, according to this Dreaming, every morning when the Sun-Woman wakes and lights her early morning fire, to this day all the magpies greet her with their beautiful song, perhaps also to remind everyone else of their important role in holding up the sky. The magpie’s song is reflected in its Noongar name koolbardie. The mining town of Coolgardie, Western Australia, means ‘magpie’ in the Goldfields’ Aboriginal dialect.

Fig. 1.1. Ages of the Earth. The Jurassic period (the age of dinosaurs) is the best-known period. The Jurassic period extends from 206 million years ago to 144 mya. The Cretaceous begins 144 and extends to 65 mya when the mass extinction occurred. Latest evidence suggests that at least some of the bird lineages that survived the mass extinction first evolved in the early Cretaceous (meaning that they are older than those arising in the late Cretaceous). The K-T boundary of 65 mya indicates the mass extinction. In the text, reference is usually made to the periods rather than to dates. Most songbirds we know today already existed by the end of the Tertiary period but many birds have gone extinct over the last 100 000 years (during the Holocene Epoch) and, at an accelerated rate, in the newly identified Epoch of the Anthropocene.³

The story is one of many different ones concerned with creation. Notably, magpies play a central and positive role in it, suggesting that magpies have the determination and cognitive ability to resolve problems as we now know, scientifically, they do. This tale (and there are many more about magpies) also confirms the very long-standing relationship humans have had with magpies on this continent.

One might use this tale also as a fitting symbol for the end of the devastating events in geological history: the mass extinction events of ~65 million years ago (mya) (see Fig. 1.1 for detail of the ages of the earth). This particular mass extinction event (there were several before) is thought to have been flood basalt eruptions combined with dramatic falls of sea levels and was followed by a comet (or asteroid) that struck the sea bed near the Yucatan Peninsula in the now Gulf of Mexico ~65/6 mya.

By generating a vapour-rich impact plume, vast amounts of dust particles plunged the world into darkness and cold, inhibiting photosynthesis for many years. It is thought that the consequences of lingering dust completely occluded sunlight for up to six months, thus seriously disrupting continental and marine food chains. This then resulted in the death of most plant life and phytoplankton, which would also kill many of the organisms that depended on them. When the sunlight returned, the Earth had lost 75% of all flora and fauna. The most popularised species among the dramatic losses are the dinosaurs because they left plenty of fossil evidence around the world. Over time, many dinosaur species were also recovered from Victoria (Dinosaur Cove), Queensland (inland Winton, Riversleigh in the north), South Australia (Coober Pedy) and Western Australia (Broome) – testament to their demise also on Australian soil.

Among the 25% of flora and fauna that survived there were also some birds but for a long time it was thought that these had derived from the Northern Hemisphere, somewhere on the Eurasian landmass, seemingly supported by early fossil finds of feathered dinosaurs in Europe and in China.

The lineages of birds that survived did so in East Gondwana, i.e. in Australia.⁴ Not only is Australia the cradle of all true songbirds⁵ but, as is slowly being established and confirmed, the cradle of many other avian clades and families as well.⁶ Diversification of class aves thus seems to have begun during the Cretaceous period.⁷ The oldest evidence of avian presence in Australia consists of 105 million-year-old fossilised footprints and feather deposits found at Dinosaur Cove on the coast of southern Victoria. The researchers thought that the tracks belonged to a species about the size of a great egret or a small heron.⁸ It has been suggested that the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period led to a period of recovery, followed by ‘explosive’ speciation.

About 200 mya, Gondwana was a compact supercontinent but eventually broke up over a 150-million-year period (Fig. 1.2). After that, Australia was on its own drifting northwards with a slight counterclockwise direction edging the continent into its current position.

The final confirmation of Australia as the origin of songbirds⁴,⁵,⁹,¹⁰,¹¹ has led to many excellent studies and findings but also, more than ever, put Australian birds in a fresh light – native species and subspecies are still being identified and reassigned to this day. It also had to be asked how and when species left Australia to populate other continents. Such questions required a wider context than a within-Australia inquiry.

While this work, at times, may seem distant and abstract to the uninitiated, it has many vast implications, not just to unravel how the evolution of birds actually worked and in which order species evolved but also for the management of species alive today. It may mean, for example, that a species, suddenly declared to fall into several subspecies, i.e. numerically subdivided, may reveal one of its subspecies to be critically underrepresented and thus endangered. This new information can then lead to new conservation management plans. Equally, it is important to know what affects diversification and decline.

Fig. 1.2. Gondwana ~200 mya consisting of many landmasses that now form separate continents or islands but also of those such as much of S and SE Asia (e.g. India, Thailand, Malaya) that floated northwards and now belong to other continents or subcontinents. New Zealand is marked with a question mark because, although known to have been part of Gondwana, for geological reasons has recently been considered as a mini continent. Africa, India and parts of the now Middle East separated first while the link between South America, Antarctica and Australia endured much longer.

This state of flux has affected the magpie as well and in some quite unexpected ways. Since the Australo-Papuan origin of songbirds was internationally confirmed, relationships involving the magpie have been changed several times and in somewhat incompatible ways. To explain this, we can take one brief look at how songbirds may be subdivided (Fig. 1.3). Importantly, there are two superfamilies (to which not all taxonomists subscribe) separating the Passeridae (small songbirds) from corvid-like species, the Corvoidea as shall be explained.

Fig. 1.3 shows only one possible model. When Cracraft and colleagues proposed an avian tree of life, they constructed the phylogenetic relationships among modern birds in such a way that the magpie ended up in a different and unexpected family.⁶ They classed magpies under a superfamily of bush-shrikes (Malaconotoidea) – No. 29 in Fig. 1.3 below, where it is just listed as a family within the superfamily of Corvoidea. This superfamily contains the bushshrikes (Malaconotidae), helmetshrikes (Prionopidae), ioras (Aegithinidae), vangas (Vangidae) and the Australian butcherbirds, magpies, currawongs and woodswallows (Artamidae). Manegold¹² even saw phylogenetic affinities between the vangas (No. 22 in Fig. 1.3) and magpies and allies, as well as drongos (Dicruridae) and monarchs (Monarchidae). Vangas (Vangidae) occur in Madagascar and also in mainland Africa.

Fig. 1.3. The superfamily of Corvoidea and the families that belong to corvid-like species. A, The various branches of songbirds (simplified). There are over 10 000 species of songbirds in the world. Corvoidea alone make up over 800 species. B, The list of Corvoidea shows the number of families usually counted in this group. The first 15 are families found in Australia. The lower 11 are part of a radiation that originated in Australia.¹³

Overseas connections

What is remarkable about these attributions is that the Australian magpies and allies are grouped together with a vast diversity of shrike-like songbirds widespread in Africa. Norman and colleagues found magpies and allies are even more closely related to the African bush-shrikes and allies (Malaconotidae) than to the Australo-Papuan-centred fantails (Rhipiduridae), birds of paradise (Paradisaeidae) and monarchs (Monarchidae).¹⁴

In 2012, Jerome Fuchs’ analysis, using both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, shed some further light on this puzzling arrangement by suggesting that this superfamily originated in Australasia, and that some ancestors made the probably substantial sea crossing from Australia to Africa some 33–45 mya (the late Eocene) where they then further diversified.¹⁵

Manegold¹² thought that the radiation into Africa may have been undertaken by the last common ancestor (stem species) of Artamidae, Cracticidae and Vangidae and he imagined such a bird to have looked something like this:

‘could have been a medium-sized, stoutly built passerine with quite long and pointed wings, a stout, slightly decurved bill with a wide gape and a characteristic colour pattern, i.e. slaty bluish-grey with a blackish tip. In addition, sexual monomorphism as well as a predominantly black, white and grey plumage colouration.’

While, from a modern perspective, this trans-ocean migration may sound almost improbable, it is important to remember that neither Australia nor the rest of the world were biogeographically the same as today.

In order to assess how some radiations of birds between countries and continents might have happened, it is important to try and arrive at some plausible narrative. For instance, the question is why do avian species living in Madagascar show a definite relatedness to magpies and how could a radiation from Australia across the Indian Ocean have been possible at all? Seabeds were not flat but consisted of volcanoes, ridges and plateaus that dynamically could be subducted, could subside or erupt and, depending on sea levels, were either submerged or, sometimes, violently, forced above sea level. We know this well of Hawaii and New Zealand. We also know that low sea levels created temporary land bridges of the Javan Trough (see Fig. 1.5B) or between New Guinea and Australia, but the geological history of the Indian Ocean is better known to oil companies and mariners than to biologists or bird lovers.

From today’s perspective, it is hard to imagine that the Indian Ocean had to be created by cracks in the Australian, African and Antarctic plates. As Fig. 1.4 shows, it took well over 50 million years before the waterways off western Australia could be called an ocean.

Still, the problem of transfer of species from one continent to another across a substantial ocean remained problematic although imaginable. This is a problem that Schwarz and colleagues faced – how to explain how African bees got to Australia in a prehistoric/pre-human single colonisation event.¹⁷ They puzzled how bees could have made their way from southern Africa to western Australia millions of years ago and came up with the suggestion that there must have been islands they were able to use. Indeed, they considered the largely submerged elements of the Kerguelen Plateau and Broken Ridge provinces, as a possible explanation (see Fig. 1.5A).

Fig. 1.4. In the beginning of the Cretaceous period (144 mya) there was no Indian Ocean yet. The rift had only just occurred and the ocean took millions of years to ‘grow’ to its current dimensions and to spread a seabed around Australia. Seabeds around western Australia: current outline of Australia and Antarctica drawn in. Numbers indicate the expansion of seabeds to the west of Australia and around Antarctica. Numbers (1–5 from earliest to latest) refer to periods of water/seabed formations 1: 154.3 mya; 2: 136 mya; 3- 4- 5: only 99 mya sea floors from east of Africa, from the Antarctic and Western Australian finally meet. (Adapted from Müller et al.)¹⁶

The Kerguelen Islands, ~3000 km to the south-west of Australia, including also the Heard and McDonald Islands, form just small specks in a vast ocean today. However, these are only the visible part of a submerged mini continent that was once three times the size of Japan. Researchers found soil layers in the submerged land indicating that indeed the plateau was once above sea level, at least for three periods between 100 mya and 20 mya.¹⁸ Researchers like Duncan¹⁹ even concluded that a chain of islands, including the mini continent and the Broken Ridge complex, might have formed an almost unbroken bridge between Africa and Australia and more continuously over the best part of 100 million years in exactly the time-frame of interest to us in terms of bird colonisation events of Africa from Australia. Explanations of geological events open opportunities to also explain avian dispersal events. In any case, these periods fall well within possible periods of radiation both for birds and bees.

As Fig. 1.5B shows very clearly, the ocean floor of the Indian Ocean has quite a number of submerged ridges, mountains and plateaus. For instance, take the Broken Ridge to the north of the Kerguelen mini continent that was torn from the Kerguelen Plateau because the latter attached to the Antarctic plate while the former attached to the greater Indian plate moving northwards. Over long periods of time they drifted well apart.

This remarkable circumstantial evidence in reconstructing possible flight paths suggests at least that if a bee can get from Africa to Australia (Fig. 1.5A), the journey could plausibly also be made by a bird and could also be undertaken in reverse order (from Australia to Africa), as long as such trans-ocean travel coincided with the times when these islands were in fact above sea level.

Since Fuchs et al.¹⁵ estimated that an ancestor of the magpie might have arrived in South Africa between 45–35 mya, geological conditions ought to have been favourable for such a venture. Moreover, Frey and colleagues²⁰ found that at least in the mid-Cretaceous but possibly later, the islands were covered by dense conifer forests, hence were not barren rock formations but places that were habitable and likely to provide food sources.

This means that groups of magpie ancestors could have taken this route, never to return and the island chains all but vanished, but the link between magpies and African bush-shrikes and even of the vangas of Madagascar and on the African mainland is embedded in their respective DNA.¹¹,¹⁴

The New Guinea connection

Looking for molecular relationships in avian species to the north-east of Australia, namely to Papua-New Guinea, one might imagine would require far less detective work than any cross-ocean radiation to the west. But since the publication of the first edition of this book in 2004, a good

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