I dimly recall a variety show from my early years named the “Black and White Minstrels”. It was an ill-conceived light entertainment show on the BBC in which white performers wore “black-face” make up (they actually used red make-up to show better on the black and white televisions of the day. Ironically when colour TVs were introduced, the show was one of the first to make the change). Accusations of racism and the enlightenment of the seventies eventually caused the show to be withdrawn.
Leaving Swanee River far behind and heading instead for Australia, the new “Pied” Minstrels consist of a group of large black and white birds which are superficially similar to each other, but who vary considerably in their qualities as singers.
Pied Currawongs are probably the most vocal of the group and are the evocative sound of suburbs and gardens up and down the east side of the country. Try saying its name with a high squawk, or better still try a link to Xeno-canto for the call of the currawong. It has a distinctive flight pattern and a recognisable “rowing style” flight action. This makes it easy to recognise from a moving car, much to my wife’s relief.
The Australian Magpie has a fluty chatter for a song that would make the European Magpie embarrassed to join in on Karaoke nights. It occurs in at least 4 accepted forms with a fair amount of intergradations across the continent. They often occur in small flocks with a dominant male, a few females and their offspring.
The Pied Butcherbird is the undisputed songster of the group. Composers have been inspired by the song which is rich and complex with much improvisation and imitation. If you only use one of the links from this post, do yourself a favour and choose this one.
The Magpie-lark is the furthest removed relative of the group and has recently made the move from Mud-nest Builders to the Monarch Flycatcher family. This is a bird commonly seen on the short lush grass of city parks, sports ovals and golf courses. The Mudlark was not blessed with a voice like the others in the group and if you miss just one of the links in the post, you can afford to pass on this one.