Steel magpie nest delivers warning on bird life

IT WOULD seem that nobody has told the magpies Newcastle’s steel city days are over. 

Last week, an unusual magpie nest dropped from one of the Bangalow palms in the beer garden at the Lass O’Gowrie Hotel. 

Publican Ian Lobb is a bird lover and has for years been hand-feeding the magpies who visit the pub. 

“I’ve been feeding the Catholic magpies,” Mr Lobb said. “There is two that live over at the Catholic church. They usually bring their babies over here and I feed them.

“They just turn up when they are hungry.”

Each year the magpies build a nest in one of the hotel’s Bangalow palms. 

This year, the nest’s materials included a coathanger, barbed wire, whipper snipper cord, a mobile phone charger cord, electrical wire, an earphone, cable ties, and many lengths of steel wire. 

“It was made of all sorts of things, but mainly steel and wire. That’s a steel city magpie,” Mr Lobb said. “I’ve seen plenty of magpie nests, but they are made of organic stuff.  I’ve never seen anything like this.”

However, according to the University of New England’s Professor Gisela Kaplan, an expert on animal behaviour, the nest found at the Lass O’Gowrie Hotel should serve as a warning to Newcastle. 

“It’s unusual, but not the first time these metal nests have been found,” Prof Kaplan said. “I have never seen a nest with barbed wire in it though.  

“There is a serious point to all this, and that is: of late, or progressively, the big, good old trees have disappeared from the cities.”

Magpies need to be able to build a nest that is safe for about three months. Palm fronds may fall off before the hatchlings are mature. 

“It’s killed so many magpies and birds because the nests fall from great height,” Prof Kaplan said. 

The hatchling in the Lass O’Gowrie nest did not survive. 

Metal magpie nests are likely to become more common.  

“The natural materials are not as available as often, and magpies – they are very smart – may use wire in an attempt to tie down their nests more strongly when they have to nest in palm trees, ” she said. 

The Armidale-based academic said many local governments needed to give greater consideration to bird life when removing, or planting, trees.  

“They have to think about the birds and where they put their nest,” she said. “We are going through weather experiences, it is distinctly hotter.

“Magpies, for instance, start panting and stop feeding up to about 30 degrees, then they start  hyperventilating the higher the temperature goes. 

“Imagine in the inland when it was 40-45 degrees, there is no way anything can survive there in the bird world. There are thousands, even millions, of birds that would have died in the last month.

“Cleverly, they come to the coast where the temperatures are in range of livability, but they need the shade of trees to survive and roost.

“Most of our city landscapes are becoming more and more like deserts because there is no usable space for nesting and roosting. We need to do better than we are doing. 

“I love palm trees, but we need to leave some of the natives. We need to think about what can be done to have a sustainable population of birds in our cities.” 

Prof Kaplan said magpies were the “policemen” of the skies. 

“An entire category of wildlife know and understand the calls of magpies and respond to it,” she said.

“Even small mammals would listen to magpies. Magpies are territorial and the only ones capable of driving out birds of prey.

“Even some of the small songbirds may nest very close to magpies because it’s additional security.” 

Prof Kaplan said native species that formed strong parallel branches were ideal for birds to nest in, and encouraged people in Newcastle to think about bird life when planting their home gardens. 

“Many introduced species have branches that go at an angle of 30 degrees upwards, and it’s not usable for roosting and nesting,” she said. 

The steel nest has now been taken to the Newcastle Museum where it will be used as a display for educational programs. 

Prof Kaplan will speak at the Hunter Bird Observers Club on February 13, at 7.30pm, at the Hunter Wetlands.