Joy Hildebrand's delightful observations of the games magpies play.

Don't miss reading Joy's online book:
Hey Ho Raggedy-O: A study of the Billy Barlow phenomenon


Magpie Games
This article is dedicated to the memory of dear Li'l Underfoot,
whose short life was a laugh a minute.


These games were collected from around Victoria. Mostly, but not always, they were performed by young birds. The area they were collected from is given, but unfortunately the names of most of the performers was not known to the collector and efforts to obtain this knowledge have so far failed. Some of the games were collected from orphans raised by the collector, and in these cases names are noted. These orphans were cared for under the surveillance of a registered wildlife carer.



Various sources.

This is a well known game and almost doesn't need description. It is played by ravens of all ages as well as by Magpies.

How to play :
Choose a stout but flexible stick, or a piece of rope and dance around waving the loose end and squawking loudly to attract the attention of your playmate. Alternatively pretend you are only mildly interested in the above toy, but be ready to pounce on it when your playmate comes over to see what you have found. As soon as your playmate has hold of the loose end- start pulling. Be careful not to yank it right out of his/her beak for fear of shortening a pleasurable pass-time. Older magpies can be caught up in this game, but only if they are not wives, actually collecting nesting material. Loving raven couples play this game as they nest-build together, using it as a type of feathered foreplay. Harried mother birds have no time for it and are a lost cause as playmates, generally.


Collected in Minhamite, Victoria
Performed by Sternlea - 1998 and by Underfoot - 2001

This is a game for one. It requires a at least one friendly human. It might be more correctly termed a practical joke..

How to play :
Arrange yourself, on the path, flat on your stomach, wings spread out and legs trailing behind. You may like to use your shallow bathing bowl. Turn your head to one side in a tastefully pathetic pose and close your eyes.

If you are doing the Drowned Bird Variation, hang your head over the side of your bowl. Open the uppermost eye from time to time, very slightly, so as to see if anyone has noticed you. When the caring human finds you, hold your breath until you hear the cries of distress. Jump up. Yell, "Surprise!" in Magpie-speak.


Various sources.

This is another practical joke. It is the comic version of Poor Dead Bird, played by adult birds as well as youngsters.

How to play :
Lie on your back with your legs stiffly stuck up in the air. Allow your eyes to glaze over and do not blink. Be sure to keep your body rigid to simulate rigor mortis. Choose a safe spot to perform this game so as not to be mistaken for carrion. Do not use the road verge. It matters not to a wedge-tailed eagle whether you are playing Simulated Road Kill, or have really passed over. Creatures that creepeth and crawleth into dead bodies are mostly blind, so need not concern you in the short term. The payoff in this game is the same as in the previous one, the main difference being that the human victim will be less sympathetic and more inclined to laugh when he/she sees you.


Collected in Warrandyte, Minhamite and Hamilton. All in Victoria

How to play :
Wait behind a tree, a bush, or a fence post. When a human or another young magpie wanders by - pop your head out from behind your hiding place. Quickly dash around to the other side of the tree/bush/post and peek out from there. Repeat until playmate tires of the game. There is the potential to turn this game into a simple game of chase - round and round the tree.

with Camellia

Collected by
Penny Bromage in Penshurst, Victoria . 2001

How to play :
Choose a perfect, unblemished camellia. Hold it in your beak and run behind the corner of house when you see a human approaching. When she is close enough to notice, peek out , and offer the present to her. At the last moment, run back behind house, without giving up the camellia. Repeat for long as you can both keep up the interest.
Tame birds often actually give human and bird friends presents of flowers and other treasures. This idea is more along the lines of courting ritual.


Collected in Penshurst, Victoria.
Spring 2000.

Seen in the Penshurst caravan park. The players were a pair of twins

This game is also known as TARZAN or

How to play :
Choose a day with a slight breeze. Stand under a willow tree with wispy, waving branches that are hanging about a metre above your head. Bounce up and down a few times until an end piece is within reach of your beak and grasp the leaves firmly in your mouth. Swing back and forth, shrieking loudly.

TARZAN AND JANE - Two-Beaked variation.
This is the same game played with second bird holding onto the tail of the first with his/her beak.


Collected in Rushworth, Victoria 1999.

In the central Victorian town of Rushworth the magpies are quite adept at doing the sad wails of the white-winged choughs. Here is a trick I saw a young magpie play on a very serious chough family.

How to play :
Look for a chough family with a young prince/princessling. As is their custom, the whole extended family will be obsessed with this one precious baby. It will be safely placed right in the middle of the group who will be bowing to it and presenting it with food and entertaining it and protecting it. Choose the most nervous and highly-strung aunty, somewhere towards the outside of the circle. Saunter up behind her and loudly do a perfect chough alarm call. She will lift her skirts and run around in a wild panic until the whole group joins in, blundering into each other and wailing. Make a very rapid getaway before anyone knows what's going on and watch the fun from a nearby lamp post.


Performed by Underfoot in Minhamite, Victoria. 2001

Li'l Underfoot spent his whole short life running around madly all over the house. He took the occasional short rest on our feet.

How to play :
Watch for a stationary human foot, preferably inside a moccasin because of the handy stitched ridges. Leap on quickly before the foot moves and grip the stitching on either side with feet. As the human foot walks around, shriek loudly and wave wings. When the human stands still again, take a quick nap in readiness for the next ride.


Performed by Sternlea in Minhamite, Victoria. 1999

Sternlea [named for the way she looked at us] initiated many imaginative games with her two wild playmates. Raised by us, she eventually successfully joined our wild resident family. She no longer speaks to us.

How to play :
Choose a big rock, with room for only one on the top, in the middle of the paddock. Stand on it, on tiptoe. Wave wings and sing as loudly as possible. Instruct your friends, a minimum of two, to run around and around the rock, humbly squawking your praises.


Seen many times at Minhamite, Victoria. from 1996.

Witnessed usually in the Autumn when the number of resident birds is increased by young bachelors.

How to play :
Put the word out that there will be a show on at sunset, weather permitting. Have as many birds as possible line up on a semicircle of rocks in the paddock. One bird stands in front of the audience and carols for up to two minutes. Audience responds with short bursts of song of their own. From time to time an audience member will jump up and down, once only, followed by others in turn.

Variation:- CEILIDH
Gather together a large group of birds and form a circle in the paddock. Each bird takes a turn at singing and or jumping up and down. Every so often there is a spontaneous group sing-a-long when everyone carols as loudly as possible, all together.


Various sources. Sternlea : Minhamite, Victoria. 1999.

Usually played by tame birds.

Warning: This game should only be played by birds who are very, very sure of the unconditional love of their human parents/friends. Alternatively it can be used to sever the stifling bonds of overprotective parents when you know you are quite old enough to stay up after curfew, to spend the night caroling at the moon with your bird friends. It can only safely be played once, unless you can learn to say, "The cockies did it! The cockies did it!"

How to play :
Pack your bags, just in case, even if you don't plan to leave. Land on the shoulder or head of your human parent while he is planting his precious tomato seedlings. Watch closely, feigning great interest, while murmuring softly in his ear. Sing the little song he has been trying to teach you without success. Never mind that you wouldn't sing it before because you thought it was dumb. Gently probe his ears and nose, and preen his eyelashes one last time. When he has finished, stretched and whinged about his poor back, and gone inside for a cup of tea, carefully, lovingly, pull out each and every seedling and place it neatly on the ground. Fly up onto the highest branch, calculating the height of his new tall ladder as you go. Sit and wait. If you are lucky you'll hear some fascinating new phrases about mothers and love and boy puppies. Put your head under your wing when the language gets too extreme. Some hours later listen for the words, " She's still a baby! She thought she was helping! She doesn't know how to feed herself yet! " The next move is yours. Play it as you see fit or leave home.


Minhamite, Victoria. Every Summer

How to play :
Just on sunset, after a hot Summer day, fly up as high as possible and catch a thermal. Carol and yodel as loudly as possible. This game is best done with friends when you can practice group display. You can learn a lot about thermal riding from watching eagles and such, but there is no need to pretend that it's such a serious event, when you don't need the skill for survival purposes.