At last, a ‘butcherbird’

I’ve often puzzled about the absence of butcherbirds in the Newstead district. Travel a short distance north, just beyond Maldon, and you’ll start to see Grey Butcherbirds, but I’ve never sighted one locally, in nearly 30 years of observing.

It seems however that they’ve been here all along!

I’ve just finished reading a marvellous new book, Where song began – Australia’s birds and how they changed the world, by Tim Low.


This extract from a review of the book, by Sean Dooley published in the Sydney Morning Herald (23/6/2014), summarises the central thesis of Where song began.

‘Low traces how the unfolding understanding of continental drift started to erode that northern-centric certainty, one that was despatched to the boundary with the recent development of DNA analysis techniques that revealed that not only did many Australian bird families not have their origins from the north but some of the world’s major bird groups – including parrots, pigeons and passerines (songbirds) – actually evolved in Australia and radiated outwards in successive waves of emigration. Some such as ravens and finches flowed back to our shores millions of years later, but it was more of a homecoming than a terra nullius occupation.’

Towards of the end of this fascinating and beautifully written book the author explains that the Black Butcherbird, a bird of tropical rainforest and mangroves in northern Australia, is closer to the Australian Magpie genetically than it is to other butcherbirds, all of which are tree, rather than ground favouring species, like the magpie. He suggests that with the recent addition of the magpie to the butcherbird genus, it would be more accurately called the ‘giant ground butcherbird’! He goes on to suggest that ‘The move from forest to open ground made it bigger, fiercer and probably smarter’.


Australian Magpie, Wyndham Street Newstead, 4th January 2015.


A Newstead ‘butcherbird’ … under my nose all along!

PS … Please let me know if you see a butcherbird close to Newstead!

7 responses to “At last, a ‘butcherbird’

  1. I hear it is a good book and I was hoping to get a copy for Christmas but alas, I did not. I will have to buy it 😦

  2. Hi Geoff, there have been butcherbirds at the Castlemaine Golf Course going back a few years

  3. Funny! I was just showing a juvenile butcher bird to work colleague out the back here in Alice and whistling to it so it replies to me and come back in and here’s this! There are relatively very few “giant ground butcher-birds” here.

  4. Exciting stuff, this taxonomy! The many changes we have seen, based on genetic evidence, to groupings based on morphological similarities, surely points to widespread “convergent evolution”. Talking about taxonomy, I always like to go back to the roots of the binomial name; you often get good insight into what was going on in the mind of the original author. One of my favourited is the Yellow Robin, “Dawn-harper from the south”.

    Cheers, John

  5. Not a sighting in Newstead Geoff but down here in Sandringham a couple of months ago I took a quick photo of a Grey Butcherbird stalking a Brown Thornbill along the stem of a Butterfly Bush in the side yard. The click of my camera created a small movement from the Butcherbird and the Thornbill fled. I was fascinated to be watching the incredible concentration and stealth of the stalking act and almost forgot to click. And as for the Magpie, (Butcherbirds) I was told today of someone seeing a Magpie kill an Indian Myna on the footpath in the shopping precinct yesterday, (no photos)

  6. Several weeks ago there was a melodious, new-to-me bird calling from a large gum just outside my back gate (Ironbark, Bendigo) I saw it briefly but clearly, was annoyed that I didn’t have my camera with me. The best identification I could do with Simpson and Day and Google’s birdcalls was : Grey Butcherbird! If it ever comes back I’ll tell it to head down to Newstead and visit you, also to wait while you photograph it.

  7. Downstream on the Loddon the other morning, I thought I heard a distant Pied Butcherbird – very distant. It was windy, with a bit of traffic, and LOTS of Corellas, so I strained to listen. In the end realise it was a far off magpie, with its song reduced to whisps of melody – a similar melody to a Pied Butcherbird! I’d never noticed that underlying structure in their calls, but the acoustics of distance brought it out.
    Tim Lowe’s book is indeed a fascinating read!

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