Magpies: Avian air raiders
Look to the skies: the season of swooping birds is upon us again.
INCOMING, SIX O'CLOCK! The aggressor turns into a steep dive, locking quickly onto its perceived enemy. Its victim increases speed, desperately dodging and weaving, but the smaller fighter flies in like a bullet, manoeuvring expertly and delivering its first attack. Its machine-gun beak clacks “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” as it veers just centimetres from its victim, then soars into the sky and banks for its next attack. This time, there will be blood.
Along with some 85 per cent of Australians, I’ve been swooped by magpies. I’ve also been bullied by butcher birds, lashed at by lapwings and niggled by noisy miners. I love birds and all, but maybe Alfred Hitchcock was onto something.
According to Gavin Jackson, an ornithologist at Birds Australia, most birds will swoop a perceived predator of their chicks, generally to scare, but occasionally causing real injuries. Gavin’s noggin has been targeted by crested terns during a bird-banding project, one drawing blood through his hat. “Any bird has the potential if you come too close to its nest,” he says. “I’ve even been chased by a duck along the Yarra [River] when I was on a bike.”
Humans aren’t the only ones targeted as these protective parents do their bit. Domestic pets cop a hiding, goannas and birds of prey are hassled by small birds such as willie wagtails, and even docile koalas can be blinded if caught up the wrong tree at the wrong time.
Magpies swoop mostly in nesting season
Dr Darryl Jones, behavioural ecologist at Griffith University in Queensland and author of Magpie alert: learning to live with a wild neighbour, says that wherever there are magpies, 9–12 per cent will aggressively swoop humans. Nearly all attacks take place between August and November when chicks are in the nest
From 1986 to 1994, the National Injury Surveillance Information System recorded 59 hospital admissions caused by magpie attacks nationwide, with injuries such as fractures, cuts and eye damage, either directly from the bird, or indirectly from the attack. If they weren’t so serious, the injuries would make great fodder for a comedy.
“Walking home, swooped by magpie and tripped in pothole,” reads one report. “Riding a bike, magpie attacked and victim collided with a log.” “Swooped by a magpie, fell off bike down stormwater drain.” There have been two reported cases of “death by magpie” – one a 13-year-old boy who died of tetanus in 1946, and an unconfirmed case in outback Queensland, when a magpie’s beak penetrated a middle-aged man’s neck and cut his spinal cord.
Cyclist Rob Muston, who regularly cycles around Witta on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, says he’s copped a couple of strikes on the helmet. “I just tolerate magpies – I just think they’re part of the deal,” he says. “If they take my ear off I might change my mind.” In 1978, he witnessed a savage attack on his 18-month-old son. The toddler was playing outside the family caravan when Rob came out to find a magpie in attack mode. “[My son] was lying on his back and the magpie was sitting on his chest trying to peck his eyes. I still shudder when I think of that.” Rob shooed the bird away, but it quickly came back and did it again. “So I just picked up the rifle and shot it,” he says.
Savage magpie attacks are rare
Magpie (Photo: Bill Bachman) Gallery: Australian birds
Darryl says such savage, front-on attacks – by birds on humans – are extremely rare, occurring in less than 1 per cent of cases. Most of the time, the magpies just swoop from behind in order to intimidate. “No wonder they keep doing it – they get rewarded all the time,” he says.
“Every time they swoop at you, you leave. They’re successful.”
His extensive research into magpies shows that 99 per cent of swoops on humans are by male birds. When a female bird swoops, it’s always the partner of an aggressive male. “You’d expect testosterone to be playing a role, but the males that attack people have lower testosterone rates than others,” Darryl says.
Their swooping is incredibly selective. About 52 per cent of magpies that swoop target only pedestrians, letting cyclists off scot-free. They’ll also let most people walk by untroubled, swooping on just 35 per cent of them. About eight per cent of aggressive birds target only cyclists, showing no interest in pedestrians but going for 65 per cent of passing bike riders. And about 29 per cent of aggressive magpies target both cyclists and pedestrians.
Sometimes swooping magpies target specific individuals – repeatedly attacking one person in a family and leaving the rest alone. They have long-term memories so can continue attacking an individual years later. One of Darryl’s colleagues was still being singled out by magpies several years after his research was finished.
Some magpies target posties
Perhaps most bizarrely, some magpies only target postal workers doing their rounds. “The postie thing is an absolute mystery,” Darryl says. “I just don’t get that at all. The poor old posties.” His research showed that in the nesting season in Brisbane, some posties are swooped up to 200 times a day and that magpies will follow the mail deliverers – even outside their normal territory – in order to keep up the attack.
“This is nothing to do with magpies being territorial,” Darryl says. “Humans are just another predator to them, but we are a low-level risk [compared to a fox], which means they can attack us with impunity.”
Defences from avian attack vary from holding an umbrella or stick upright, travelling in a group, trying to befriend the bird with food, turning to face the bird, staying clear of the area for six weeks, and putting false eyes on the back of a helmet or ice-cream container. In fact, the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment has sold more than 5000 “Swoop!” packs since October 1995, each one containing eye stickers to go on the back of a helmet or hat, and a warning poster. But Darryl’s research shows that false eyes on the back of someone’s head may help pedestrians, but not cyclists.
In recent years, many cyclists have been threading long cable ties through their helmets. “They see it when they [the birds] come close enough – it scares them away,” says Anh Vu, of Bicycle Victoria rider services, who has 4–6 cm long cable ties protruding from his helmet and swears it works. “It stops them from hitting the helmet. I’ve also seen people with stars and balls attached to their helmets.”
Maybe, like their barbecue-swooping cousins the kookaburras, magpies will always have the last laugh.
Birds that commonly swoop
Magpies: About 9–12 per cent of magpies will swoop aggressively. Nearly all are male.
Butcher birds: Both Australian species can show behaviour similar to that of magpies, and sport a fearsome beak.
Masked lapwings or plovers: Will swoop to protect eggs or young July–November.
Red wattlebirds: Unlikely to make contact, but may snap their beaks and intimidate.
Willie wagtails: Although small, they can become aggressive, sometimes giving victims tweaks on the head.
Noisy miners: Often target domestic dogs and cats, or other birds, by mobbing.
Kookaburras: Known to swoop in order to pinch sausages from barbecues.
Gulls: Will dive-bomb fish-and-chip eaters, picnickers or patrons of seaside cafes.
Source: Australian Geographic (Oct - Dec 2009)
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