By Farz Edraki
Spring is the season for picnics, bike rides and idyllic afternoons in the sun, right? Wrong. For Australians, it’s a time to cover your bike helmet with unsightly straws and eye stickers, to carry protective sticks when outdoors, and to cower at the sight of a black-and-white blur or the sound of a warble.*
Every year, magpies swoop humans. Typically, swooping season lasts around six weeks – resulting in minor pecks to serious injuries (some people have reported losing eyes).
Why do magpies attack idle passers-by? According to research from Darryl Jones, Deputy Director of the Environmental Futures Centre at Griffith University, the common-held belief that female magpies are the predators is wrong. It’s male magpies that attack, protecting their young from possible attack.
“For some reason, only a small proportion of males decide we’re a bit of a threat and try to keep us away from the nest,“ Jones told ABC Radio. “The majority of magpies never, ever swoop humans … some birds are keeping us away like they would another predator, but it’s only when there are chicks in the nest.”
According to Jones’ research, individual magpies tend to attack only certain types of people. From a Brisbane study, Jones discovered that the majority of birds targeted either pedestrians only, or posties only, or cyclists only. He also said that magpies appear to have very good memories for people and will attack the same person time and again if they come by.
What’s the best way to fend off a swooping attack? “The best thing to do is to get away from the nest as fast as you can,” says Jones. He told the ABC that eye stickers on bicycle helmets don’t work but a bristle of helmet straws do. Birds will still swoop but not make contact.
* Disclaimer: the author suffered a memorable magpie attack at age 8, and has retained a fear of the birds ever since.
[Editor’s note: most readers will have noticed that magpies around the homestead don’t appear to attack their humans, and certainly not if they have been fed.]