It’s not an uncommon experience to be walking or cycling in Tweed and Byron Shires, when suddenly a black-and-white shadow swoops down on you, sending you ducking for cover.
While these experiences can be scary, Backyard Buddies wants to let you know it ain’t all black and white.
Backyard Buddies is a free program run by Australia’s Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife. Each month, you get a Backyard Buddies email (B-mail) with tips to make your backyard inviting and safe for native animals.
Magpies feature in the September B-mail. Sign up for B-mail and download a free factsheet about magpies at www.backyardbuddies.net.au.
It can be very scary getting swooped by a magpie, especially for children. But there are a lot of things you can do to avoid getting swooped, by understanding why magpies behave the way they do.
It’s important to remember that not all magpies swoop. Female magpies don’t swoop at all as they are busy tending to their chicks and only some males do. In fact it is estimated that only 9 per cent of magpies swoop. The male magpies that do the swooping, believe they are protecting their offspring.
They will only swoop for about six weeks of the year. September is usually the peak swooping month and then they will start to calm down and you can go about your business in peace again.
The most common targets for magpies are people riding bicycles, young children and males, although each magpie will usually have its own target. These birds are very intelligent and will often approach you from behind or from the direction of the sun to try and catch you unawares.
The worst thing you can do when a magpie is swooping you is to try and fight back. Throwing rocks or sticks at a magpie will only further aggravate it and encourage it to swoop more, as it shows the magpie that you really are a threat to its babies. Magpies are a protected native species, so harming them can lead to penalties and fines.
Each magpie tends to have a specific person in mind to target, such as cyclists or young boys. There is method to this madness as scientists believe magpies swoop people who look like someone who bothered them in the past. All the more reason to never aggravate or attack a magpie as it will remember what you look like and attack anyone who looks similar to you!
Some people believe that feeding magpies will help the birds lose their fear of humans and prevent swooping. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this and instead it can artificially grow their populations, make them sick from unsuitable foods, and reliant on us. There have even been recent reports of magpies stealing food from people’s hands and mouths. This is a learned behaviour caused by people feeding them. Without human interference, magpies are naturally shy.
The best thing to do is avoid locations where you know there is a magpie swooping. Alter your walking or biking route for the next six weeks after a swoop. Magpies tend to nest in the same spots each year, so remember where your local, aggressive magpie is so you can avoid him next year as well.
There are some tips you can try to deter a swooping magpie but remember that each bird is different and what works for one, might not work for another.
Tips for bike riders during swooping season
· Hop off your bike and walk past a magpie’s nest.
· Change your route for the next six weeks if possible.
· Attach a flag to the back of your bike which is higher than your head level.
· Stick a pair of printable eyes on the back of your helmet. (If the magpie has seen this before, it may not deter it, as they can learn the difference between real and fake eyes).
· Fasten plastic cable ties echidna-style to your helmet to try and prevent them from getting at your head.
Why you should like magpies:
· Australian Magpies have one of the most complex bird songs in the world.
· These birds are very helpful around our gardens and parks as they eat up many garden bugs like the lawn-destroying curl grub, helping protect your plants.
· Magpies are found across Australia but most states will have their own sub-species with its own unique plumage patterns.
· Magpies take good care of their young and have been known to receive help from other family members when raising their chicks.
For more information: To see if magpies are in your area, please consult the Atlas of Living Australia. You can search your location and see what species have been seen in it, or you can search by type of animal, click the occurrence records and display these on a map of Australia.
For local information, please contact the Wildlife Officer or Bushcare Coordinator at your local council, or speak to a ranger at your nearest national park office.
Susanna Bradshaw, CEO Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife