It’s a simple problem that deserves a black-and-white solution.

But for more than 120 years, this question about magpies has ruffled feathers in South Australia:

Why is the bird on the state’s official badge called a “piping shrike” – and what exactly does that mean?

It’s a puzzle that involves both ornithology and terminology.

South Australia’s state flag features a piping shrike.(Wikimedia Commons)

With its wings outstretched, the piping shrike has pride of place among South Australia’s official symbols — it is emblazoned on the state flag, is the emblem of SA Police, is depicted on the state’s coat of arms, and appears on government buildings, letterheads, driving licenses, email signatures and other official logos.

South Australia has two common yet distinct black-and-white birds — the “magpie” and the “magpie-lark” – each of which goes by a variety of names.

If you ask a South Australian today to identify a “piping shrike”, it’s likely they’d point to the second bird.

Two avian artworks, the first by O. Stahl showing an Australian magpie and the second by John Gould showing magpie-larks.(Trove: National Library of Australia / Australian National Botanic Gardens)

But according to zoologist Chris Daniels, they would be entirely wrong — history in no way supports the pervasive belief that the term “piping shrike” was coined to refer to the “magpie-lark”, aka the “Murray magpie”, “peewee” and “mudlark”.

“It always makes me smile, how emphatically people say, ‘the piping shrike — that’s the mudlark, we call it the mudlark’ … and just how powerfully this myth has stuck,” he said.

“A ‘piping shrike’ is the white-backed magpie. It is a name that [once] had enormous currency here in South Australia, but nowhere else in Australia.”

The piping shrike has made its way onto offical emblems and badges, including that of SA Police.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Working out how the confusion arose can feel like a wild goose chase — but for those with magpie minds, history offers some shiny clues.

The empire shrikes back

Before you tackle the term “piping shrike”, the first thing to get right is the meaning of “magpie”.

In Australia, that word was first used by British settlers to refer to a bird that reminded them of one back home.

A sketch of black-back magpies, also known as piping crow-shrikes, from 1906.(Trove: National Library of Australia)

“Many of them brought with them names of birds, or words about birds, that were in common usage in the UK,” Professor Daniels said.

“They named [the Australian bird] ‘magpie’ because they’re black and white, and there was a bird in Europe that is black and white, called the ‘magpie’.”

The name “piping shrike”, and the related “piping crow shrike” (which seems to have referred to a very similar but slightly blacker magpie), date from the same period.

Explorer Charles Sturt wrote of a “white-backed crow shrike” that can “learn to pipe tunes” and “very much resembles a magpie”, while newspapers throughout the late 1800s consistently identified the “magpie” (not the magpie-lark) and the “piping shrike” as one and the same animal.

“Of all the forest noises that salute the morning, none are so pleasant or melodious as the carol of the magpie,” Melbourne’s Argus informed its readers in 1884.

“It should be called the ‘piping crow shrike’ but few people outside the fraternity of strictly technical naturalists are unkind enough to overburden a very sociable bird with such a pedantic name.”

A watercolour of a magpie by artist Neville Cayley.(Trove: National Library of Australia)

Pedantic or not, the term remained in use as a synonym for “magpie” when, in 1901, a letter to the editor — signed with the unmistakably avian nom de plume “Croweater” — appeared in South Australia’s Register newspaper.

“The children here, when they see a ‘piping crow shrike’ repeat – ‘One for sorrow, two for mirth; three for a marriage, four for a birth,’ as the children in England do when they see a magpie,” Croweater wrote.

A magpie-lark, also known as a Murray magpie or peewee, cooling off in a water bowl.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Half a century later, an article in Adelaide’s weekly Chronicle asserted unequivocally that “all the birds which we call magpies in Australia should be called ‘piping shrikes’.”

“Piping shrike”, the author noted, refers to the “chirpy” creature whose “joyous, easy, flute-like notes are so delightful to hear” — and not the “dapper” magpie-lark who “makes a bowl-shaped nest of mud”.

‘No relationship whatsoever’

If all this sounds about as clear as mud (or mudlarks, at least), science can offer a helping hand, because the distinction between the birds is entrenched in ornithology.

A magpie sitting on a tree branch.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

Firstly, there’s the Australian magpie. Its white-backed subspecies go by the scientific names Gymnorhina tibicen telonocua and tyrannica.

Then, there’s the aforementioned magpie-lark, whose scientific name is Grallina cyanoleuca.

Both are widely found across parts of Australia, but diverge in appearance and habits.

The magpie-lark is also known as a mudlark, peewee and Murray magpie.(Wikimedia/Creative Commons: Toby Hudson)

“They’re completely different, there’s no relationship whatsoever,” explained animal behaviour expert Gisela Kaplan, author of the book Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird.

“The magpie-lark is a much smaller bird, it’s black-and-white but it’s got very different markings, and they don’t have anything in common, other than being songbirds.”

Gisella Kaplan with a magpie.(Supplied)

Determining why the term “piping shrike” migrated, in popular usage, from the magpie to the magpie-lark is a difficult task, but there are signs of bewilderment as early as the 1930s.

Amid debate in 1936 about which symbol should adorn the state’s new coat of arms, a hapless Advertiser journalist blundered by stating that the “piping shrike” was “more affectionately known as the Murray magpie”.

The error earned a swift rebuke from a hawk-eyed reader, who pointed out that “the piping shrike and the Murray magpie are distinct birds” – but the fallacy evidently caught on.

False flag?

The term “piping shrike” might easily have gone extinct by now were it not for one simple reason: it is still the official SA government designation for the bird depicted on the state’s flag, badge and coat of arms.

The South Australian flag — seen here flanked by the Aboriginal and Australian flags — in Adelaide’s CBD.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

The first two were formally adopted in January 1904, at a time when Australians were “starting to want to reconfigure themselves”.

“Australia [had] recently become a federated nation in 1901,” explained the History Trust of SA’s Kiera Lindsey.

“Out of that conversation starts to emerge these new emblems and symbols that tell stories about who we really are.”

Kiera Lindsey says South Australia’s flag dates back to the early years of federation.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Newspapers from the time described the new symbol as a “piping shrike, which is commonly known as the Australian magpie … with wings extended in front of the rising sun of the Commonwealth”.

It didn’t take long, however, for detractors to swoop on what one described as the “unhappy-looking misrepresentation” of the bird.

“In this design … the magpie presents its white back, though its head is turned round to the left,” the critic wrote.

“The wings are not at all the shape of the wings of a real bird.”

An early design for the bird on South Australia’s state flag.(Wikimedia/Creative Commons: Adastral)

Indeed, the SA flag – which shows the shrike peering back over its shoulder – continues to strike many as odd.

“It looks as if you’re looking at the front of the bird, but you’re not,” Professor Kaplan said.

The proof of that fact, she said, was in the colouring – a magpie’s belly is black, but its back (as seen in the emblem) is white.

“Look at the feet, where they are actually located on that perch,” she said.

“You see that we are looking at the back of the bird, and it’s turning halfway back towards us and has its wings spread out.”

Perhaps it’s because later generations, quite understandably, couldn’t work out exactly what bird they were looking at that the term “piping shrike” was transferred, quite erroneously, to the magpie-lark.

An Australian magpie swooping.(Supplied: Andrew Garrett)

But there’s good news for piping shrike supporters.

The SA government says it has absolutely “no plans to change references” to the bird that has “featured on the state badge for 120 years”.

“Reference to the name piping shrike, in depicting the white-backed magpie, has been traced back to early observations by explorer Charles Sturt in the 1840s,” a spokesperson said.

But that’s hardly likely to stop the debate.

“It just won’t go away,” Professor Daniels said.

“I don’t think it ever will.”