Hundreds of Australians have been attacked by magpies in recent weeks, which is unusual for August. Swooping season has arrived early this year – it normally starts in mid-September.
According to Jon Clarke, founder of Magpie Alert (a website where people can record run-ins with aggressive magpies), the mating season (which is when they get so cranky) has arrived early because of the warmer weather and the dry winter just past.
“The male birds get a big boost of testosterone,” he told Broadsheet, “and all they want to do is protect that nest, they go to any lengths to do it.”
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At the time of reporting, Magpie Alert recorded 849 attacks since mid-July across Australia that have injured 109 people. Injuries usually occur on the head or neck, resulting in cuts and grazes. According to the website, the attacks are most common in Queensland (37 per cent of overall attacks), followed by New South Wales (30 per cent) and then Victoria (20 per cent). The site has a crowdsourced interactive map showing the most-affected areas.
According to Magpie Alert, those walking in northern parts of the Brisbane CBD, Lutwyche and Herston are the most at risk. In Sydney be cautious in Kellyville, Quakers Hill and Bella Vista. In Melbourne, be wary around Bundoora and South Yarra. In Adelaide the hot spot is Teringie, and in Perth it’s Bibra Lake.
“People are more likely to be attacked in places with high foot traffic,” says Clarke. “Parks are definite hot spots, pretty much places where people are out and about.”
Although we’ve seen early attacks, it’s only a small percentage of magpies that swoop. “It is only five to eight per cent [of the overall magpie population in Australia] that swoop, and a very small percentage cause injury,” he said.
Are magpies the only birds who hate humans while mating? “A lot of different birds in Australia swoop – butcher birds, minor birds to name a few,” he said. According to Clarke, cyclists are the most likely to be attacked, followed by pedestrians and then runners.
Melbourne-based Louise Baxter recalls a scary confrontation with a magpie in Bayswater, Perth, when taking her two nieces for a walk.
“A magpie came out of nowhere and swooped us, aiming for me because I was the tallest, so I hid the girls under a picnic table,” she told Broadsheet. “The bird was pretty aggressive and charged back down a few times. We waited there until it felt safe to try and leave,” she says.
The male magpie usually carries out the attacks to protect his offspring, which usually inhabit the nest for six to eight weeks between August and November.
To protect yourself from a swooping magpie, the Magpie Alert safety page suggests being vigilant, wearing a hat and sunglasses, travelling in groups and carrying a stick or umbrella. There is also a tutorial on how to cable-tie your helmet.
“If you can avoid them do so wherever possible, take yourself out of the danger zone,” says Clarke.
The silver lining is that, because it has begun early, the time of terror in the skies is expected to wrap up earlier than usual. “Nesting season usually continues for about four to six weeks, right up until November. But it has started earlier this year, so should be done [in October],” Clarke says.