The pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) is a medium-sized songbird native to Australia. It grows about 35 cm (14 in) long and has black and white plumage. The colour of juvenile birds, which are accompanied by their parents, is brown and white. As they mature their brown feathers are replaced by black feathers. It is common in woodlands and in urban environments. Its diet consists mostly of small vertebrates and insects. They are tame and inquisitive birds and have been known to accept food from humans.
The pied butcherbird was first described by the ornithologist John Gould in 1837 as Vanga nigrogularis, the type specimen collected near Sydney. It is one of six (or seven) members of the genus Cracticus known as butcherbirds. Within the genus, it is most closely related to the Tagula and hooded butcherbird. The three form a monophyletic group within the genus, having diverged from ancestors of the grey butcherbird around five million years ago.
Two subspecies are recognised; The nominate race nigrogularis is found across eastern Australia, and the smaller subspecies picatus is found in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and northern South Australia. The border between the two lies in the Gulf Country and is known as the Carpentarian Barrier. Although there is a demarcation in physical characters, this is not borne out genetically, and birds from northwestern Australia have affinities with the eastern subspecies. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA sequences indicates the pied butcherbird has expanded rapidly from many refugia during the Pleistocene.
The butcherbirds, Australian magpie and currawongs were placed in the family Cracticidae in 1914 by John Albert Leach after he had studied their musculature. American ornithologists Charles Sibley and Jon Ahlquist recognised the close relationship between woodswallows and the butcherbirds in 1985, and combined them into a Cracticini clade, which became the family Artamidae.
Like other butcherbirds, the pied butcherbird is a stockily built bird with a relatively large head and short wings and legs. It ranges from 33 to 38 cm (13–15 in) long, averaging around 35 cm (13.8 in). Its plumage is wholly black and white. It has a black head, nape and throat, giving it the appearance of a black hood, which is bounded by a broad white collar. The mantle, and much of the tail and wings are black, while the rump, tail tip and outer wing feathers are white. The underparts are white. The eyes are a dark brown, the legs grey and the bill a pale bluish grey tipped with black, with a prominent hook at the end.
The black hood helps distinguish the pied butcherbird from the Australian magpie and much smaller magpie-lark, the latter of which also has a much smaller beak.
The pied butcherbird has been considered the most accomplished songbird in Australia, described as a "magic flute" by one writer, richer and clearer than the Australian magpie. Song melodies vary across the continent and no single song is sung by the whole population. There is no clear demarcation between simple calls and elaborate songs, and duets are common. The species improvises extensively in creating new and complex melodies. One of its calls has been likened to the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Distribution and habitat
The pied butcherbird is found across much of Australia, except the far south and Tasmania. It is a bird of open woodlands and scrublands, but avoids the most arid environments.
The pied butcherbird is carnivorous, and eats small vertebrates and large insects.
Located in the fork of a tree, the nest is constructed of dry sticks with a finer material such as dried grass, bark and leaves forming a cup-shaped interior. The clutch consists of two to five (most commonly three or four) eggs blotched with brown over a base colour of various shades of pale greyish- or brownish-green. Oval in shape, they are around 33 mm long by 24 mm wide. Incubation takes 21 days and the young spend another 30 days in the nest before fledging. Pied butcherbirds aggressively defend their nests from predators, and will swoop passing humans, however are generally not as aggressive as Australian magpies.
Several Australian and international composers have been inspired by and written music incorporating the songs of the pied butcherbird, including Henry Tate, David Lumsdaine (who described it as "a virtuoso of composition and improvisation"), Don Harper, Olivier Messiaen, Elaine Barkin, John Rodgers, Ron Nagorcka, and John Williamson. In the dance 'Birdsong' by Siobhan Davies, the main central solo was accompanied by the call of an Australian pied butcherbird and this same sound provided great inspiration to much of the dance, including the improvisational aspects.
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- Kearns, Anna M.; Joseph, Leo; Cook, Lyn G. (2010). "The impact of Pleistocene changes of climate and landscape on Australian birds: A test using the Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis)". Emu 110 (4): 285–95. doi:10.1071/MU10020.
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- Slater, Peter (1974). A Field Guide to Australian Birds: Passerines. Adelaide, South Australia: Rigby. p. 278. ISBN 0-85179-813-6.
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- Taylor, Hollis (2008). "Decoding the song of the pied butcherbird: an initial survey". TRANS-Transcultural Music Review 12.
- Taylor, Hollis (2010). "Blowin’ in Birdland: Improvisation and the Australian Pied Butcherbird". Leonardo Music Journal 20: 79–83. doi:10.1162/lmj_a_00016.
- Beruldsen, Gordon (2003). Australian Birds: Their Nests and Eggs. Kenmore Hills, Queensland: self. p. 373. ISBN 0-646-42798-9.
- Taylor, Hollis (2011). [=43&path=21 "Composers’ appropriation of pied butcherbird song: Henry Tate’s "undersong of Australia" comes of age"]. Journal of Music Research Online 2: 1–28. ISSN 1836-8336. Retrieved 18 December 2011.
- Pied butcherbird videos, photos & sounds on the Internet Bird Collection
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