One of Australia’s favourite birds is pretty relaxed for most of the year. You can usually find magpies jumping about, looking for grubs, or warbling to one another from the treetops. But come springtime, magpies can turn on the public.
Spring is breeding season. And that means between around late August and mid October these birds sometimes drop from their perches to defend their young.
But contrary to popular belief, not all magpies are dive-bombing menaces. In fact, according to Darryl Jones, a professor at Griffith University in Queensland and deputy director of the Environmental Futures Research Institute, only 10 per cent of magpies swoop at all.
“The spring swooping activities are entirely about male magpies attempting to keep what they regard as threats to their chicks away from the nest,” Jones tells Broadsheet. “This is the only time they swoop; once the chicks leave the nest, it stops.”
According to Magpie Alert – a website that allows magpie victims to record their experiences – more than 1000 run-ins with hostile magpie dads have been recorded across Australia so far during the 2021 season.
Professor Jones identifies Sydney’s Hyde Park as a swooping flashpoint thanks to the number of humans that visit it. “Only a very small proportion swoop everyone, and usually these are birds in very crowded locations,” he says. “They are trying to send a message to intruders to keep away from the nest at this time, but people seem to be pretty thick and don't understand.”
So to help you avoid a beak to the head, with assistance from professor Jones, we’ve compiled a list of ways to stay swoop-safe this season.
Keep your eyes peeled and stay aware. If there happens to be an overprotective magpie parent on your path, it’s safest to opt for another route where possible.
Cover your eyes
Wear some sunnies or cover your eyes with your hands if you fear an attack is coming – a beak to the eye can be seriously painful.
Don’t fight back
If you do get swooped, now is probably a good time to remind yourself that harming a magpie is illegal. And stay calm. Any arm flapping or yelling may result in an extra swoop or two.
If you’re cycling and a magpie attacks you, get off your bike and continue on foot. It seems they are more willing to let you pass when you’re on two feet rather than two wheels.
If all else fails, accessorise
Looping cable ties or pipe cleaners into your bicycle helmet is a spring-fashion tradition for a reason. You may look a little silly, but magpies will be deterred. Using an umbrella as a shield is another way to fend them off, particularly when you’re on foot.
If you know of a high-occurrence swooping area in your suburb you can report it to local council, or the National Parks and Wildlife Service on 1300 072 757.
This story was updated on September 3, 2021.