Australian bird of the year shares ancestral links with New Guinea

12 Dec 2017
Image credit: Alicia Toon

To the dismay of #teambinchicken, the Australian Magpie this month dive-bombed the Australian bird-of-the-year competition and took the top honour for 2017. 

A University of Queensland researcher says awards are not needed to know that Magpies have always been an Australian favourite: they are charismatic, smart and have a beautiful song.

Using DNA, collaborative research, led by School of Biological Sciences postdoctoral research fellow Dr Alicia Toon and involving Griffith University and The Australian National Wildlife Collection (ANWC) researchers, has examined the evolutionary history of this award-winning bird.

Dr Toon said the ‘Australian’ Magpie was actually distributed broadly across mainland Australia, Tasmania and in three, small populations in New Guinea.

She said the study, published in Emu – Austral Ornithology (doi: 10.1080/01584197.2017.1324249) found that “on the Australian mainland, Magpies are divided into two main populations (eastern and western) that have been separated at least by 22,000 years (the time of the last ice age).

“It also found that Magpies in New Guinea are more closely related to Western Australian populations than to those in Queensland.,” she said.

“At first this might seem surprising, given Queensland is separated from New Guinea only by the Torres Strait,  but much of northern Australia was connected to New Guinea during the last ice age via the Sahul shelf, which was flooded again once the ice caps melted.”

Dr Toon said another UQ-led study several years ago, found that Magpies are actually a species of Butcherbird.

Dr Anna Kearns, formerly of UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, now at the Smithsonian's Center for Conservation Genomics, found that the Australian Magpie is more closely related to the Black Butcherbird.

“This means that, evolutionarily, the Magpie is nested amongst the Butcherbirds: it is a terrestrial butcherbird,” she said.

Media: Dr Alicia Toon,, +61 (0)411 954 179