How to survive magpie swooping season
Springtime is baby time, which means it’s also protect-your-chick time for magpie mums and dads across Australia.
Australian magpies, Gymnorhina tibicen, are protective parents. Every year between July and November, magpie dads spend four to six weeks keeping watch over their nesting site for unwelcome intruders. If a threat is spotted, the male may swoop in a defensive warning display. Although other causes of swooping behaviour have been proposed, including territoriality and testosterone levels, research suggests that nest defence is the underlying reason.
Targets of this swooping behaviour can include cyclists, joggers, walkers, pets, birds of prey, and even other magpies. Some magpies display marked preferences for swooping certain people, with some specifically targeting posties and others dive-bombing cyclists.
A swoop can catch you unawares and, occasionally, magpie swoops can even cause injury. But is the ‘aggressive’ and ‘dangerous’ reputation of this songbird deserved?
“Swooping is a strategy to safeguard the nest site, but the species itself is neither inherently dangerous nor aggressive,” says Emeritus Professor Gisela Kaplan, professor in animal behaviour at the University of New England who has spent the last 25 years studying magpies.
In practice, however, swooping magpies can be dangerous, according to Professor Darryl Jones, a behavioural ecologist at Griffith University. “There are important reasons for accepting that magpies actually are aggressive—for very sensible reasons such as keeping threats away from their precious nestlings—and they most certainly can be extremely dangerous. Thousands of people are injured every year,” he explains.
Just like our parents want to keep us safe from harm, magpies will do anything to keep their precious eggs safe during the vulnerable incubation period.
“Breeding magpies are the high achievers of magpie society,” says Kaplan. “They have survived years of hardship, fought hard to get a territory and have been able to find a partner.”
Only one in 20 magpie males will engage in swooping antics while mumma magpie incubates alone. Eighty per cent of humans living in magpie territory will never get swooped. The 20 per cent of us who do experience some swooping usually encounter ’pies in public places such as parks and busy roads. So how can you avoid swooping this season? And what should you do if you are assailed by an over-protective bird?
How to deal with a feathered torpedo
The best antidote to swooping is friendship. Magpies have excellent memories and can recognise individual faces. So if you frequent an area enough, they may recognise you as the friendly neighbourhood human and won’t swoop.
But beware: “Magpies form memories of enemies as well as of friends,” says Kaplan. Those who antagonise a magpie—for example by swinging at them with an umbrella—will be perceived as threats and will be treated as such. So be kind, and magpies will be kind in return.
From time to time, you might pass by a bird you’re not acquainted with. As a stranger in his territory, Mr Magpie may feel the need to swoop (but he’s unlikely to make contact on first plunge).
In this case, it’s important to stay cool, because wildly flinging your arms over your head is interpreted as aggressive behaviour, and the magpie will subsequently double his efforts to drive you away.
Instead, Kaplan suggests moving quietly away from the bird’s nest and engaging in calm conversation, while showing your face gives the magpie a chance to remember you.
However, as nesting season progresses, magpies may swoop more frequently and are more likely to make contact with an intruder. There are also “super-swoopers” that are just better to avoid completely. Enhancing familiarity with your local ’pie doesn’t work in places like public parks where lots of people pass through all the time. “Birds in these situations simply cannot recognise that many faces and don’t try,” says Jones. It’s a good idea to reroute to give these ultra-defensive males their space.
How do you know where these overly zealous helicopter parents reside? The website MagpieAlert! allows users to submit swooping reports which are logged by location on an interactive map.
MagpieAlert! founder Jon Clark also recommends keeping calm in the face of magpie mobbing: “Try and keep eye contact with the birds, that works more often than not—especially if you’re walking or running,” he says, “If one swoops and you turn and look at it, keep your eye on it and edge out of its territory. And obviously if you’re cycling, get off your bike.”
So, what’s the deal with magpies and bikes? Attaching googly eyes or cable ties to your helmet isn’t effective. In fact, it seems like helmets are an issue, as swoops increased after the introduction of mandatory helmet laws in NSW in 1994. Helmets obscure a person’s face, meaning the magpie can’t determine whether the rider is friend or foe. The speed of cyclists also appears to be a factor, as more often than not, dismounting and walking slowly will stop the swoop-nado.
If you’re really having trouble getting your locals to become feathered friends, the occasional titbit of heart-smart mince can help—but be wary of feeding too often, as foraged food is better for wild birds.
“With friendship in humans, you don’t need to feed your friends all the time, you have them over for dinner occasionally. The same is true of birds … The occasional feeding is a mark of friendship,” says Kaplan.
BFFFs: best feathered friends forever
Aside from preventing swooping, befriending your local magpie has many benefits. For starters, they provide free pest control by munching on bugs.
They also help protect other smaller songbirds that live alongside them.
“Magpies are the policemen of the bush,” says Kaplan. “It’s extremely valuable for other smaller songbirds who congregate around magpies because they know they are going to be defended.”
For example, when a bird of prey invades, magpie troops (sometimes reinforced by noisy miners) will mob it to force a raptor retreat. Other birds recognise the magpie’s alarm call and will seek safety while the magpies vigorously defend an area.
These birds are smart—Kaplan places them in the top 20 most intelligent animals in the world. They also have a lot of character. “A magpie’s behaviour is far more like a dog’s,” she says.
They enjoy sunbathing, play-fighting, frolicking in sprinklers, and swinging on washing lines. They even appear to quardle-oodle-ardle just for the fun of it, like humming in humans.
Although they may be common in urban areas, magpie populations have been declining along the east coast since 1998. Urban populations are increasing as drought forces birds from the inland to the coast, but overall this iconic species is in decline.
We need to learn to live alongside these over-protective parents for their continued survival. After all, we still have lots to discover about these super-smart songbirds.
“Over 25 years, there has never been a boring moment with magpies,” says Kaplan. “They still surprise.”