Magpie Composition

painting of Australian Magpie by Katherine Castle

A true signature sound of Australia is the gurgling, bubbling melody of the Australian Magpie, a large black-and-white butcherbird of open country as well as forest edges and clearings. During our recent trip to New England National Park, I was very fortunate to record the contagious singing of a group, in farm country just outside the park:

Songs of Australian Magpies recorded around 7am, 27 October 2012, just outside New England National Park, New South Wales, Australia. © Lang Elliott (note: set against background recorded in dry forest near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, Australia.)

The magpie’s musical song is a complex series of rich and varied gurgling whistles that lasts five or six seconds. It begins with soft low-pitched notes but quickly builds in volume and sometimes cascades downward at the end. The effect is quite pleasing, a real Australian “delicacy” for the ears.

Magpies live in family groups that defend territories. Males often begin singing in the wee hours of dawn, before other birds, although they usually continue to sound off well into the morning. The best performances happen in areas where they are dense, with the singing of one male eliciting the song of a neighbor, which may then elicit the song of another nearby male. This contagious singing pattern is quite evident in my recording, which involves at least four or five different males. Sometimes it sounds as if more than one male sounds off simultaneously from a single location. It’s also possible that females add notes when their mates sing, although I do not hear that happening in my recordings (duetting commonly occurs in related species such as the Grey Butcherbird).

A Soundscape Composition: The recording I’m presenting is actually a “composition,” in that I was compelled to place the songs against a different background to improve the listening experience. This is why I have called this post “Magpie Composition.”

Throughout my original field recording, there were several birds of an unknown species giving loud and obnoxious high-pitched (alarm?) calls almost continuously in the background. Perhaps these birds had a nest nearby and were disturbed by my presence. Whatever their cause, these calls pretty much wrecked the recording, at least from the perspective of human appreciation of the magpie songs. Fortunately, I was able to use advanced editing techniques to literally lift the magpie songs from their distracting background and then re-place them against a more pleasing backdrop from a similar dry sclerophyll forest.

I hope you like the result! While not an entirely authentic documention of the actual sound event, the recording does qualify as a “near-natural representation” of the magpie’s extraordinary musical talent … and it sounds WAY better than the raw field recording. In other words, the magpie songs are absolutely authentic and true to life (they have not been twisted, stretched or crunched), but their exact timing and the background ambience has been changed.

Fair enough?

p.s. Australian nature recordist Vicki Powys also tells me the following species occur in the background: Peaceful Dove (heard at the beginning), White-throated Treecreeper, Willie Wagtail, hint of Pied Butcherbird, Noisy Friarbird, Mistletoebird, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, a flycatcher species, Rufous Whistler, and Yellow-faced Honeyeater. Wow, Vicki’s got a great ear, doesn’t she!

ART CREDIT: The attractive painting of magpies is by Australian artist Katherine Castle. It is available in notecard form and as both paper and canvas prints. Check it out on her web site:


  1. Don’t worry Lang! Even here in Michigan, where I’ve been listening to bird songs and calls for years, I still hear some birds that confuse me.

  2. Wow … those crow-like calls at 0:28, 0:31, and 0:37 are from Friarbirds? I never would have guessed it as they are so reminiscent of the calls of our American Crow here in the US.

    I rather enjoyed being a “know-nothing” while in Australia. A real novice, a total beginner, when it comes to identifying the sounds. Fact is, I would wander about recording “sounds” rather than “birds.” I didn’t really care exactly what bird I was recording, but rather I focused my attention on the quality of the sounds I was recording. This allowed me to appreciate the soundscape as well as its parts without getting lost in species identification. It allowed me to listen as if the sounds themselves were the primary forms, rather than physical bodies given names. It is difficult to listen with such freedom back home.

  3. Zach, between 0:28 & 0:38 a Noisy Friarbird is heard in the background, definitely not a crow or raven which have a much harsher call. Friarbirds can be quite melodious in a comical sort of way.

  4. Vicki: The crow call starts at 0:28, and ends at 0:38. It is a high-pitched cawing sound, and it sounds kind of distant.

  5. Vicki: The crow call starts at 0:28, and ends at at 0:38. It is a high-pitched cawing sound, and it sounds kind of distant.

  6. I’ve just listened again twice and I do not hear a crow, nor a raven. Zach, where exactly in the track do you hear this call? And Lang, re duetting, I have seen singing magpies perched side by side and it is almost impossible to pick who is doing what, other than by their actions, as they alternately dip then raise their heads to give full voice. It is like they are singing parts of a single song. Very intriguing!

  7. Lang, yes the background birds fit just fine for Magpies generally. To me the background did not say ‘New England’ although nothing in particular was wrong with the species and there could well be parts of New England area where that background may occur. Magpies are very widespread and fit very happily with their Pilliga neighbours. I guess if someone was studying Magpie dialects, it always pays to say (as you have done) that some alternations were made. One question for you, I always thought the females sang in duets with the males, so is it really all males singing or are females included too? I have not studied the species so can’t be sure.

    • Vicki:

      I too had the notion that magpie pairs sing duets. But I don’t hear that clearly in my recordings. Usually, when recording in binaural, I can clearly hear the different locations of the two participants. But in my magpie recordings, the sound source is always at one location. Perhaps the pair is always next to one another when a male sings? In any event, I can’t clearly hear duetting in my magpie recordings.

      In stark contrast, Grey Butcherbird pairs definitely duet and I plan to feature them in a new blog post a little later today. If you listen using headphones, you’ll clearly hear the locations of each member of the pair, which are sometimes in quite different directions and/or at different distances.

  8. Really neat Lang. You are at another planet of natural sounds. I finally got my computer to and from the repair shop so now I can hear audio. Now I can vicariously share your adventures. Best wishes.

  9. Mapgies are wonderful aren’t they! I don’t hear a Pied Currawong though. The very first sound is a Peaceful Dove. Other background species include White-throated Treecreeper, Willie Wagtail, hint of Pied Butcherbird, Noisy Friarbird, Mistletoebird, Spiny-cheeked Hneyeater, a flycatcher species, Rufous Whistler, Yellow-faced Honeyeater. I suspect the ‘loud high-pitched alarms’ that you removed could have been Noisy Miners, they are very good at ruining recordings (but also have some interesting calls of their own).

    • Vicki:

      Glad to have someone chime-in who really knows Australian bird sounds. And you’re absolutely right … those background songs at the beginning are not made by a Pied Currawong, but rather by a Peaceful Dove. Hrmph!, I should have known better, especially considering that I already posted a Peaceful Dove recording. As for the background calls that wrecked the original recording, I’ll check in a few moments to see if the culprit is the Noisy Miner.

      By the way, does the background I chose fit okay with the magpie songs? It was made in dry sclerophyll forest on the edge of Pilliga Nature Reserve near Coonabarabran. I didn’t hear magpies right at that spot, but they were certainly common nearby. I searched dozens of ambiences to find something that would work and the Pilliga recording seemed the best-sounding choice.

  10. Lang, The magpies have such an unusual sound. I enjoyed listening to the composition. I quess you are getting ready for the journey home. I am having Dyna, Carl and you over for dinner when you get back. Savour every second you are still there. All of your recordings have been amazing. Your sister, Jackie

  11. Beautiful sounds ! Thanks for explanations of your recording and editing techniques to achieve your “composition.” This is fascinating and helpful.

  12. Zack hits it for me, R2D2, indeed! The soft, easy day feel to the conversations is delightful, a perfect fit with Ms. Castle’s lovely work. They meld, the voices seem to drift from low-hung mountain mist over the expanse of unspoiled meadow. I hope that the magpies you recorded enjoy similarly splendid habitat. Much more more of art than artifice in your composition, Lang.

  13. Hi Lang,
    Generally, a rudimentary music composition will have a melody with an accompaniment. You have achieved this very well. You choice as to where and when to place the Magpie constitutes ‘the manipulation of the musical elements’ as does your choice of accompaniment. To my senses, it is tasteful, true to style and genre and as such a musical success.
    I do not know what programs you are using, but I wold encourage you to continue with confidence as you have a good ear and natural sense of form/structure.
    Thank you for your post.

  14. Hard to put into words how magical this sound is. I would be interested in the advance editing technique. How do you isolate the magpie? Frequency?

    • George: partly by frequency, but it also involves carefully isolating the songs from the background, while leaving a nice reverberant echo. Then carefully removing any interfering/overlapping bird sounds and applying noise reduction to remove any whoosh or hiss that would be evident when layering. It’s all rather tricky, involving four or five different manipulations.

  15. This is awesome! One of the most amazing bird songs I’ve ever heard in recordings! It kind of reminds me of R2-D2 from Star Wars. Is the Currawong the high-pitched jumble of notes in the beginning of the recording?

    • The Currawong is making low-pitched calls at the beginning, easily confused with the magpies. I suppose I could remove him, but I rather like his sound. As for the high-pitchy jumblers, I have no idea who they are.

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