Book review: “The fearsome flute players”

The fearsome flute players

Book Review:

Roetman, P. E. J. and Daniels, C. B., 2011. The fearsome flute players: Australian magpies in our lives. Adelaide, Crawford House Publishing.

I have just finished reading this delightful book and thoroughly recommend it to all of my readers. I was asked by one of the authors to review this book on this site; I’m pleased I agreed.

Citizen Scientists

The fearsome flute players captures the very essence of what magpies mean to the people of South Australia. The project was based here in South Australia but the findings would be true throughout this vast land of ours. This book is the result of Citizen Scientists throughout SA. It was heavily promoted by Chris Daniels who was a regular guest on the morning radio show hosted by Matthew Abraham and David Bevan on 891 ABC Adelaide. They have written the foreword to the book. (They’ve also since shifted to the Breakfast programme.)

Survey forms

Chris Daniels, along with Matt and David, asked their listeners to fill in a special survey form on the ABC Radio web site. The survey allowed citizen scientists throughout the state to enter their observations of Australian Magpies in gardens, parks, schools, ovals, farms – wherever. They were also able to relate their stories about the magpies they saw, fed, helped when injured and any other bird/human interactions they cared to tell. The result is fascinating – and at times, humorous – reading.

Results: magpie stories

A total of 1,927 people filled in the survey. I was one of them. Of those, 1,222 people responded to the magpie story request, creating a rich source of information for the authors. These stories make up the bulk of the book and are certainly the great strength of the volume. A few of these stories are thought provoking, some are serious, many are hilarious and all well worth reading. Some of the best are illustrated by appropriately cheeky cartoon sketches, another highlight of the book.


The various chapters cover many aspects of the lives of magpies, always including human interactions and relationships with these wonderful birds. This book is not a scientific thesis paper; it has been written without jargon and will therefore be accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. It has a valuable place in any school library collection. While the chapters do cover topics like the magpie’s song and mimicry, food, foraging habits, territories, nesting and care for injured and orphaned birds, the main emphasis in each section is the stories told by the people.

Purchase the book

This wonderful book is available in some ABC centres and selected bookshops. Alternatively, you can order your copy online from the bookshop of the Barbara Hardy Centre for Sustainable Urban Environments (click here). On that page you can read a sample chapter and browse through the table of contents page.


If you order online and mention you read about this book on Trevor’s Birding, you will also receive a free CD of 200 photos featuring water, including many water bird photos. You can see sample of the photos here.

Australian Magpie

Magpies nesting, Burra Gorge, South Australia

Burra Gorge, mid north of South Australia

A few months ago we travelled through the mid north of South Australia to visit family in Peterborough and Clare. Along the way we stopped briefly at the Burra Gorge, some 30km south east of Burra. This is a popular picnic and camping area with an ephemeral creek flowing through the gorge. There are no facilities except for some very basic public toilets.

We didn’t stay long enough to get a long list of bird species seen, but I did manage the following shots of an Australian Magpie near and on a nest.

Related posts:

Magpie on nest, Burra Gorge, mid north of South Australia

Magpie near nest, Burra Gorge, mid north of South Australia

Watch out, Magpie

Australian Magpie (juvenile)

At this time of the year people throughout much of Australia are aware that the Australian Magpie is nesting. Some of our magpies are known to get very protective of the nest and the young. Getting swooped by a magpie seems to be a normal way of life in springtime Australia. For most people it can also be an unnerving experience at best and downright terrifying at worst. A magpie swooping at speed, often catching the unsuspecting victim from behind, can inflict a nasty cut. Those of us living in magpie territories learn to accept this as a part of spring and learn to even expect it.

What you don’t always expect is a magpie – possibly a juvenile just out of the nest – sitting in the middle of the road in a suburban street.

Especially at 11pm on a wet night.

On Friday night I almost ran over such a bird. Luckily it had learned enough road sense to flap out of the way in time. The reality is sadly much worse than this. While that particular bird got out of harm’s way, many thousands of young magpies do not. Road kill of young magpies – and many other species too – account for a very high mortality rate. In fact, from memory, I think more than half of young magpies who manage to leave the nest die as road kill within the first twelve months. Sad, but true.

Further reading:

Caring for injured and orphaned birds – click on this link to read how you can look after injured or orphaned birds you find.

Australian Magpie (juvenile)

A gathering of magpies

Australian Magpie, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Australian Magpie, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Last weekend we went to Victor Harbor on the south coast of Fleurieu Peninsula, about an hour’s drive south of Adelaide and just over an hour from home here in Murray Bridge. we took the caravan and stayed with a group of friends in one of the lovely caravan parks in the town.

On the Sunday afternoon my friend Rod, who lives in Victor Harbor, took us on a cruise in his 1928 A model Ford. It was a great – though little breezy – drive. He and his wife Jan took a picnic basket and we had a wonderful cuppa and nibbles part way up The Bluff. as we were having our cuppa a family of Australian Magpies joined us. They were probably expected some tasty handouts from us picnickers. Sadly, they went without a tidbit.

One of the interesting things was the presence of several juveniles, still in their downy plumage and still very much in begging mode as the parents tried to satisfy their needs. The breeding season is well and truly over, but the juveniles will continue to beg for food for many months after leaving the nest.

Australian Magpie (juvenile), Victor Harbor, South Australia

Australian Magpie (juvenile), Victor Harbor, South Australia

Australian Magpies, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Australian Magpies, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Australian Magpies, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Australian Magpies, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Encounter Bay, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Encounter Bay, Victor Harbor, South Australia

Magpies merrily carolling

Australian Magpie near Geranium, South Australia

Australian Magpie near Geranium, South Australia

Last Friday I was able to do some birding near Geranium in the mallee district east of home here in Murray Bridge, South Australia. I pulled off the main highway on to a side track (see photo below) and found a good spot for lunch. I’d been on this bush track many times before and knew that the birding can be quite good in this quiet spot.

While I was eating lunch I had good views of a male Superb Fairy-wren nearby. Just as I finished lunch I could hear a group of Australian Magpies carolling about 40 metres away. This singing increased in volume to the point where I just had to check it out. I estimate there were about 20 magpies in the one tree, all calling loudly. Their song filled the air all around. I then glanced over into the paddock adjacent to the tree. There were magpies everywhere.

A quick scan of the paddock with my binoculars revealed about another 60 magpies  feeding in the grass. I’ve never seen such a large congregation of Australian Magpies anywhere before. There are records in the literature of large loose flocks of over 100 birds, but this was my first encounter with such large numbers.  Truly spectacular.

Bush track through mallee scrub near Geranium, South Australia

Bush track through mallee scrub near Geranium, South Australia