Q&A: Tis the season for swooping magpies


Words || James Booth

The Australian springtime signifies a wonderful change and movement towards the warmer, beach-perfect weather that we all crave – gorgeous blue skies filled with pollen from blooming wildflowers, and the all too familiar warbled cry of an angry magpie about to swoop unfortunate pedestrians. I have spent a great deal of my life boasting about never being swooped by a magpie, it was a sense of pride in my ecologically connected and “one with the natural environment” perception of myself. This perception changed this year – when a magpie, affectionately referred to as “that fucking magpie on the corner of the park” by my family, swooped me on the way home from the shops. In my desperate attempts to flee from this aggressive swoopy boy, I dropped the bag of gluten flour I had bought, and did not return to retrieve it for days out of fear.

In the weeks since the incident, I’ve grown so much more fond and aware of magpies and curious to learn so much more about their motivations to protect their young and their property. I will note that I had been reading many articles about swooping magpies after another magpie had swooped my sister, and therefore what had begun as a quest to protect myself had likely created a new phobia in my head prior to my incident. Nonetheless, the newfound appreciation of these birds has led me to interview Zoo Keeper Rick Webb, in order to gain some insight into the reasons why some magpies become so aggressive and attack people in spring.

Let us start with an easy one, why do magpies swoop?

Rick Webb notes that magpies swoop to defend their nests within breeding season. The magpie breeding season occurs from the end of August to mid-October. This year however saw an earlier than average swooping season – likely resulting from warmer temperatures in a drought ridden winter climate.

It is estimated that only about 10% of male magpies swoop during the early spring, and that this is the result of increased testosterone and the need to defend their nests from perceived predators. Webb goes on to mention that “200 years ago it would have been goannas and possums other predators like that, and now it’s humans”.

Have they always swooped people?

Webb believes that Magpies have probably always swooped, and that it is unlikely they swooped Indigenous people. He goes on to note that “Magpies also became a lot more acclimatised to civilisation, and humans because we feed them and look after them and we throw them bread and bits of meat. They’re more comfortable around us, so there’s more chance of them wanting to swoop us and protect their nests in breeding season.” Essentially they are so used to being around us, that a few of them have developed no problem in swooping us to protect what is their territory.

Apparently magpies remember faces – is that true?

In his answer to this question Webb confirms my earlier assumption that I had created a phobia of Magpies for myself this year and that may have contributed to my altercation with the Magpie who shall not be named.

He states “No, I think it’s just that magpies are pretty much the same as every other animal – they’ll be able to sense fear. So if you fear magpies, or dogs or anything else, they’d sense that and they would become a little bit more aggressive”. He goes on to note that people who “aren’t really that scared of magpies can walk around the nest and around the Magpie’s area comfortably, there’s less chance of those people being swooped”.

So it seems as if the more scared you are, the more likely you are to be attacked. Lisa Christie adds that there is potentially a link between food rewards by individual people and places, so rather than the Magpies remembering specific people they are smart enough to remember the specific reward. This intelligence extends so much further, with Webb explaining that there have been observed instances of Magpies mourning and showing affection to dead magpies run over by cars. He believes that it is much more of an urban myth that they recognise and relate to individual humans, rather they are simply sensitive creatures with feelings and responses to stimuluses.

So I read an article about Crows beginning to swoop, is there any truth to that?

After reading this article I was fundamentally upset, I have long regarded Crows as my soul sisters in the skies – with their “wah, wah waaah” cries reminiscent of my own loud and dramatic self. So I just had to find out whether I could trust Crows still, and whether these incidents of Crow’s swooping would mean I would now have to distrust all of my avian friends in this world. Webb placates my fears by informing me that Crows generally don’t swoop, however he does note that there is likelihood that Crows have observed Magpies swooping and are learning tricks off the Magpies. He goes on to discuss how both intelligent and well adapted to human society these birds are, and this leads me to wonder whether the birds swoop out of nothing more than observations of the success of such a tactic in scaring away potential threats…so of course the individuals which have learned the success of such a tactic would implement it regularly.

What advice would you offer to people trying to avoid magpie attacks?

Upon asking Webb this question he gives a short and simple answer that we all probably knew by now “Stay away from their nesting sites”. He is right in that the best way to avoid a magpie attack in breeding season is to avoid areas you observe magpies, They are incredibly intelligent birds with fantastic memory to stimulus, so they’ll likely recognise the zippy ties you pop on your motorbike hat or ice cream helmets you wear as potential threats they’ve observed in the past. So popping googling eyes or cable ties isn’t the solution to the problem, the most significant way you can protect yourself is to walk or ride along a different route.

Should you find yourself in a magpie’s area, Webb does suggest making eye contact with the Magpie as it removes the element of surprise for the Magpie in its attack from behind. He also notes that like all birds the bones of a magpie are hollow to aid in flight, and as such there is a good chance that the Magpies will break their bones if they connect with something solid they will break their bones. Therefore they rarely connect to their targets and use the swooping and clicking of their beaks to frighten off what they deem a potential threat.

So there you have it, there isn’t an epidemic of evil birds holding secret meetings and holding grudges on specific humans. Rather they are simply proud dads reacting to perceived threats and seeking to protect their young from harm. Magpies have even been observed adapting to playing with family dogs, playing with cats, and even living and sleeping in the homes of people they trust.

So maybe you have to avoid your favourite park for a few weeks or take a longer route while walking home from the shops, however these are small prices to pay to show such intelligent birds that you respect and understand their connection to territory.