The magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) is a conspicuous Australian bird of small to medium size, also known as the mudlark inVictoria and Western Australia, the Murray magpie in South Australia, and as the peewee in New South Wales and Queensland. It had been relegated to a subfamily of fantails in the family Dicruridae (drongos), but has been placed in a new family of Monarchidae (monarch flycatchers) since 2008.
It is a common and very widespread bird both in urban and rural areas, occupying all parts of Australia except for Tasmania and some of the inland desert in the far north-west of Western Australia, and appears to have adapted well to the presence of humans. It is also found in southern New Guinea.
The magpie-lark is 25 to 30 cm (9.8 to 11.8 in) long when fully grown, or about the same size as a European common blackbird, and boldly pied in black and white; the weight range is 63.9 to 118 g (2.25 to 4.16 oz) for males, and 70 to 94.5 g (2.47 to 3.33 oz) for females. They are a familiar sight around Australia; sitting on telephone wires either singly or in pairs, or patrolling patches of bare ground, especially foreshores or swamps. The sexes are similar from a distance but easy to tell apart: the female has a white throat, the male a black throat and a white “eyebrow”. Juveniles and immatures of either sex have the white throat of the female and the black eyestripe of the male, and a white belly.
A primarily carnivorous species that eats all sorts of small creatures, the magpie-lark can adapt to an enormous range of different habitats, requiring only some soft, bare ground for foraging, a supply of mud for making a nest, and a tree to make it in. They have benefited greatly from agriculture: both the clearing of dense forest in fertile zones and the provision of artesian water in arid areas—although a disaster for other species—have been a boon for bare-ground and short-grass feeders like magpies and magpie-larks.
Group gatherings of magpie-larks have been observed, with loose “flocks” comprising dozens of individuals being observed perched on vantage points. Such behaviour is common, particularly in productive agricultural areas. This behaviour may be pairing or breeding related or simply indicate a bountiful feeding area.
The magpie-lark is aggressively territorial, and will fearlessly defend its territory against larger species such as magpies, ravens, kookaburras, and even the wedge-tailed eagle. They are also known to attack people to defend their nesting area.[a] Although attacks on people are not as vicious as masked lapwings and magpies, they can still result in surprise or minor injury to the recipient.
Birds generally pair for life (though divorce is not unknown) and defend a territory together. The nest is round, about 150 mm in diameter with vertical sides and is usually placed on a flat branch somewhere near water or on a horizontal beam of a telephone pole. It is made of grass and plant material thickly plastered together with mud, and generously lined with grass, feathers and fur. Breeding is opportunistic, usually from August to February in the fertile south, anytime after rain in drier areas, and multiple broods are common when conditions allow. Both parents incubate a clutch of between three and five eggs. Incubation of eggs takes up to eighteen days, and the young birds fledge about three weeks after hatching. It is quite common for only some of the chicks to survive because sometimes the nest is not big enough for all of the baby birds, therefore one baby will sometimes push another out of the nest and it is most likely that the chick will not survive the fall.