Pied butcherbird

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Pied butcherbird
Pied Butcherbird - Male (Cracticus nigrogularis) 03.JPG
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Artamidae
Genus: Cracticus
Species: C. nigrogularis
Binomial name
Cracticus nigrogularis
(Gould, 1837)
Pied butcherbird natural range

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 head and throat are black, making a distinctive hood, while the mantle, and much of the tail and wings form a black saddle. The neck, underparts and outer wing feathers are white. 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.

Juv - City Botanic Gardens - Brisbane,Australia


The pied butcherbird was first described by the ornithologist John Gould in 1837 as Vanga nigrogularis, the type specimen collected near Sydney.[2] The species name is from the Latin words niger "black", and gula "throat".[3] Black-throated butcherbird is an alternate common name, as are Break o'day boy and organbird.[4] Leach also called it the black-throated crow shrike.[5] ‘Jackeroo’ is a colloquial name from the Musgrave Ranges in Central Australia.[6]

Gould described Cracticus picatus in 1848 from northern Australia, describing it as "A miniature representative of, and nearly allied to, but distinct from, Cracticus nigrogularis."[7]

Gregory Mathews described subspecies inkermani from Queensland in 1912 on the basis of its smaller size than the nominate subspecies, and subspecies mellori from Victoria and South Australia on the basis of its larger size than the nominate subspecies.[8] Both are regarded as inseparable from the nominate subspecies.[9]

Mathews described subspecies kalgoorli from Kalgoorlie in 1912 on the basis of its longer bill than the nominate subspecies,[8] but is regarded today as part of subspecies picatus.

Two subspecies are recognised; The nominate race nigrogularis is found across eastern Australia,[2] and the smaller subspecies picatus is found in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and northern South Australia.[10] The latter subspecies has a broader (3.7 cm wide) white collar and a more whitish rump, with specimens becoming smaller in the more northern parts of the range.[11] The border between the two subspecies 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.[10]

The pied butcherbird 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.[12] The butcherbirds, Australian magpie and currawongs were placed in the family Cracticidae in 1914 by John Albert Leach after he had studied their musculature.[13] 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,[14] which became the family Artamidae.[15]


Like other butcherbirds, the pied butcherbird is a stockily built bird with a relatively large head and short wings and legs.[2] It ranges from 28 to 32 cm (11 to 12.5 in) long, averaging around 31 cm (12 in), with a 51 cm (20 in) wingspan and weight of 120 g (4 oz).[4] Its plumage is almost wholly black and white, with very little difference between the sexes.[16] It has a black head, nape and throat, giving it the appearance of a black hood, which is bounded by a white collar,[17] which is around 3.2 cm (1 in) wide. The black hood is slightly glossy in bright light, and can fade a little with age,[18] and is slightly duller and more brownish in the adult female. The neck collar is slightly narrower at around 25 cm (10 in) and is a grey-white rather than white.[16] Several stiff black bristles up to 1.5 cm (1 in) long arise from the lower lores. The upper mantle and a few of the front scapulars are white, contrasting sharply with the black lower mantle and the rest of the scapulars. The rump is pale grey, and the upper tail coverts are white. The tail retrices are black.[16] The 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,[19] with a prominent hook at the end.[2]

Juvenile birds have dark brown instead of black plumage and lack the pale collar.[16]


The pied butcherbird has been considered the most accomplished songbird in Australia,[17] described as a "magic flute" by one writer, richer and clearer than the Australian magpie.[20] 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, and even larger choirs, are common.[21] The species improvises extensively in creating new and complex melodies.[22] One of its calls has been likened to the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.[19]

Similar species[edit]

The black hood helps distinguish the pied butcherbird from other butcherbirds, the Australian magpie and much smaller magpie-lark, the latter of which also has a much smaller beak.[17] It has a higher-pitched call than the grey butcherbird and inhabits more open habitat.[23] The juvenile pied butcherbird resembles the grey butcherbird, it has a buff upper throat and dark brown instead of black plumage.[19]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The pied butcherbird is found across much of Australia, except the far south and Tasmania.[17] It is only rarely recorded in the Sydney Basin and absent from the Illawarra, Southern Tablelands and south coast of New South Wales. In Victoria it is found along the Murray Valley and west of Chiltern.[24] In South Australia it is not found in the northeast of the state nor on the Adelaide plain. It is found across Western Australia, though is absent from the Great Sandy Desert.[25]

It is a bird of open sclerophyll forests, eucalypt and acacia woodlands and scrublands, with sparse or no understory, or low cover with shrubs such as Triodia, Lomandra or Hibbertia. It is less common in mallee scrub. In arid areas and northern Australia, it is more restricted to woodland alongside rivers and billabongs.[23] It has become more common in southwest Western Australia with land clearing, though has become rare around Darwin on account of urban development.[25]


The pied butcherbird is carnivorous, and eats small vertebrates and large insects.[17] They have been looked upon favourably by farmers as they hunt such pests as grasshoppers and rodents.[25]


Pied butcherbirds, by John Gould

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.[26] Incubation takes 21 days and the young spend another 30 days in the nest before fledging.[17] Pied butcherbirds aggressively defend their nests from predators, and will swoop passing humans, however are generally not as aggressive as Australian magpies.

Cultural depictions[edit]

Rush Creek, SE Queensland, Australia

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.[27] 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.[citation needed] The double CD Absolute Bird by Hollis Taylor is based on fifty-plus pied butcherbird nocturnal solo songs.[28] Taylor's 'Is Birdsong Music? Outback Encounters with an Australian Songbird' offers portraits of the extreme locations where these avian musicians are found.[29]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Cracticus nigrogularis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d Amadon, Dean (1951). "Taxonomic notes on the Australian butcher-birds (family Cracticidae)". American Museum Novitates. 1504: 1–33. hdl:2246/3960. 
  3. ^ Simpson, D.P. (1979). Cassell's Latin Dictionary (5th ed.). London: Cassell Ltd. pp. 269, 392. ISBN 0-304-52257-0. 
  4. ^ a b Higgins 2006, p. 516.
  5. ^ Leach, J.A. (2005). An Australian Bird Book: A Complete Guide to the Identification of Australian Birds. p. 149. ISBN 9781417984497. 
  6. ^ McGilp, J. Neil (1934). "Birds of the Musgrave Ranges". Emu. 34 (3): 163–75. doi:10.1071/MU934163. 
  7. ^ Gould, John (1848). "On seven new species of Australian birds". Novitates Zoologicae. 16: 38–40. 
  8. ^ a b Mathews, Gregory M. (1912). "A Reference-List to the Birds of Australia". Novitates Zoologicae. 18 (3): 171–455 [374]. doi:10.5962/bhl.part.1694. 
  9. ^ Australian Biological Resources Study (12 February 2010). "Subspecies Cracticus nigrogularis nigrogularis (Gould, 1837)". Australian Faunal Directory. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Australian Government. Retrieved 15 September 2016. 
  10. ^ a b 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. 
  11. ^ Higgins 2006, p. 527.
  12. ^ Kearns, Anna; Joseph, Leo; Cook, Lyn G. (2013). "A Multilocus Coalescent Analysis of the Speciational History of the Australo-Papuan Butcherbirds and their Allies". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 66 (3): 941–52. PMID 23219707. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2012.11.020. 
  13. ^ Leach, John Albert (1914). "The myology of the Bell-Magpie (Strepera) and its position in classification". Emu. 14 (1): 2–38. doi:10.1071/MU914002. 
  14. ^ Sibley CG, Ahlquist JE (1985). (fulltext) "The phylogeny and classification of Australo-Papuan passerine birds" Check |url= value (help) (PDF). Emu. 85 (1): 1–14. doi:10.1071/MU9850001. Retrieved 15 April 2009. 
  15. ^ Christidis L, Boles WE (2008). Systematics and Taxonomy of Australian Birds. Canberra: CSIRO Publishing. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-643-06511-6. 
  16. ^ a b c d Higgins 2006, p. 525.
  17. ^ a b c d e f "Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis)". Birds in Backyards. Sydney, NSW: Australian Museum. 8 March 2008. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  18. ^ Higgins 2006, p. 524-25.
  19. ^ a b c Slater, Peter (1974). A Field Guide to Australian Birds: Passerines. Adelaide, South Australia: Rigby. p. 278. ISBN 0-85179-813-6. 
  20. ^ Hartshorne, Charles (1953). "Musical values in Australian bird songs". Emu. 53 (2): 109–28. doi:10.1071/MU953109. 
  21. ^ Taylor, Hollis (2008). "Decoding the song of the pied butcherbird: an initial survey". TRANS-Transcultural Music Review. 12. 
  22. ^ Taylor, Hollis (2010). "Blowin’ in Birdland: Improvisation and the Australian Pied Butcherbird". Leonardo Music Journal. 20: 79–83. doi:10.1162/lmj_a_00016. 
  23. ^ a b Higgins 2006, p. 517.
  24. ^ Higgins 2006, p. 518.
  25. ^ a b c Higgins 2006, p. 519.
  26. ^ Beruldsen, Gordon (2003). Australian Birds: Their Nests and Eggs. Kenmore Hills, Queensland: self. p. 373. ISBN 0-646-42798-9. 
  27. ^ Taylor, Hollis (2011). "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. 
  28. ^ Taylor, Hollis (2017). "Absolute Bird". ReR MEGACORP - RER HT1. 
  29. ^ Taylor, Hollis (2017). "Is Birdsong Music? Outback Encounters with an Australian Songbird". (need journal name). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 
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