Black-and-white bandits: magpie swooping season is here

By John Pickrell | September 1, 2016

Don’t waste your time worrying about crocs, snakes and spiders – of all Australia’s fauna, magpies cause the most injuries.

SWOOPING SEASON IS upon us again. In terms of frequency of attack, magpies are among the most prevalent perpetrators of human-wildlife conflict in Australia. You are much more likely to be injured in an incident with a magpie than with many of our other dangerous native animals, such as snakes, spiders, crocodiles and sharks. This is partly because the Australian magpie, Cracticus tibicen (an unrelated species to the various black-and-white songbirds that are called magpies in Europe, New Zealand and the USA), is a quintessential urban adapter, which has thrived alongside people in our cities and built-up areas. 

Of course, the consequences of magpie attacks are usually less severe than those involving other dangerous wildlife, but not always. Thousands of people across Australia are subject to attacks annually and nearly every year some people are blinded or lose an eye. In 2010 a 12-year-old boy was killed in Ipswich, Queensland, after he ran into the path of car while trying to escape an attack, and there are two other recorded cases of attacks that led to deaths in the past 70 years. In 2011 a four-year-old boy was blinded in one eye after being attacked in Toowoomba. In September last year, five children were left with serious eye injuries after being dive-bombed at a playground in Gosford, on the NSW Central Coast.

These attacks are not random, and magpies are very intelligent, says Professor Chris Daniels, an expert on urban ecology at the University of South Australia. Magpies will often pick specific targets, such as male children, posties, cyclists, or even particular breeds of dog. The behaviour is learnt and is often to do with a past bad experience of an individual bird, which may have previously been bullied by children or harassed by a dog, Chris says. “Attacks have actually dropped away since slingshots were banned, because when small boys used to take shots at them, there were a lot more unhappy magpies.”

magpie

Attacks are not random – magpies are intelligent and will often pick specific targets. (Image: JarrahTree/Wikimedia)

Magpie attacks begin in September across Australia and continue for about six weeks while the birds are nesting, typically after hatching and before chicks first fledge the nest. It’s always the male birds that attack, and they swoop at perceived threats within about 80m of their nests. Intriguingly, less than 5 per cent of nesting males display the swooping behaviour, but those that do are vigorous in the defence of their young and may attack as many as 50 victims in a day.

Recent research has shown that magpies are smart enough to recognise people’s faces and may take a dislike to a person and victimise them repeatedly. Magpies stake out a particular territory and may live for 20–30 years, and it’s possible they recognise many of the people that pass through that area. “Holding a grudge for 20 years is kind of an amazing thing,” Chris says.

Various methods have been suggested to avoid attacks – such as carrying an umbrella or wearing an ice-cream container. But Chris believes the value of these old wives’ tales is limited. Instead, the best strategy is to avoid the problem area during the six weeks that attacks are likely to occur.

This is particularly pertinent to cyclists, who cop up to three-quarters of attacks in some areas. Cyclists have taken to websites such as www.magpiealert.com, which allow them to record details of incidents and the location of problem birds even down to the specific tree.

There is hope for the future, though. “If we improve our behaviours towards magpies and the behaviour of our dogs, these attacks won’t happen,” Chris adds. “It’s all about what we do, not what the birds do. These attacks change the perception of a native bird that’s otherwise universally loved. It’s the great songbird of Australia.”

John Pickrell is the editor of Austrailan Geographic. Follow him on Twitter: @john_pickrell.

This was originally published in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#134).