Chris Watson

Birding Central Australia #70

Chris Watson

Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca

Superstars of the dinosaurs

Not all birds can be superstars and exotic rarities. There are certainly few birds less exotic than our bird this week, the humble Magpie-lark. Depending where you’re from, you might also know this bird as a pee-wee, a Piping Shrike, a Murray Magpie or a Mud Lark. Whatever your name for it, it is the same bird right around the country, and is even found in PNG and Timor.

For some, this is an annoying bird with its strident calls and bold manners. The frequently-heard calls are part of the success of this species though; they are very effective communicators. But even with its two tone plumage, its car-alarm of a voice, and its common backyard status, there is something to marvel at here, for it seems likely that this is a miniature dinosaur.

Fossil finds in the last couple of decades have seen ornithologists and palaeontologists piecing together an increasingly complete version of the origin of birds and it is a remarkable picture. The evidence strongly suggests that birds evolved from small theropod dinosaurs (imagine a Tyrannosaurus the size of a chicken). The implications of this are immense – it means that all the dinosaurs didn’t really die off in a worldwide cataclysm 65 million years ago as we have conventionally thought. Some of them survived this event and have evolved into all of the many different types of birds that we see around us every day.

So next time the Magpie-larks have left droppings all over your car, take a moment to think about the remarkable origins of the noisy, territorial little buggers – and perhaps be grateful that they aren’t Tyrannosaurs anymore.

Happy birding!