According to National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Melanie Tyas, magpies swoop in an effort to protect nestlings. ‘They’re actually very good parents,’ Tyas said. ‘They’re just doing what we would do – protecting the food bowl and their family.’ In the act of territoriality, over-protective dads who have increased levels of testosterone during mating season will swoop those unfortunate enough to pass beneath a nesting tree. Attacks can happen within 100 metres of said tree, and once a magpie has identified you as a threat, they may continue to attack throughout their lifespan.
This year, 5,750 attacks have been reported, with 911 of those resulting in injury. The highest percentage of attacks were reported in Queensland, and 62 percent of those targeted were cyclists, while 26 percent were pedestrians.
Professor Gisela Kaplan from the University of New England has been researching magpies for 25 years and has never been swooped. Her trick? Bribery. ‘I’ll approach them with a little bit of mincemeat in my hand. It’s like I’m saying ‘I come in friendship, I offer you a gift’ and the magpie will think about this.’ ‘Usually, they won’t take the mincemeat, but they won’t swoop either and if you come back the next day and put the mincemeat on the ground and take a few steps back, they’ll usually take it. By the third day, the magpie will likely give you freedom of passage.’
However, National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Melanie Tyas does not recommend feeding them as it can make the magpie sick.
If you’ve noticed a magpie guarding a particular tree, the best piece of advice is to avoid that area throughout spring. Cross the road and find another route. If you’re unsure as to whether there is a magpie in your area, visit the national crowd-sourced map Magpie Alert which will point out hot spots.
Another tell-tale sign that there’s a magpie in the area is to listen for their distinctive calls. Their singing voices are a part of the natural Australian soundtrack and are easily recognisable to any Aussie.
Eye injuries from magpies have been reported, so it’s important when venturing out in spring to pop on a pair of sunglasses as well as a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head and eyes.
Do not attempt to test or provoke a magpie as they are extremely intelligent birds. ‘Magpies are highly complex in a cognitive sense – this is what we would call intelligence,’ says Professor Gisela Kaplan. A magpie that has been harassed will learn not to trust humans, furthering the problem.
If you happen to encounter an aggressive magpie, attempt to stay calm as panicked behaviour such as screaming and waving your arms will appear hostile to the bird, which is likely to increase the severity of the attack. In the rare occasion that you are attacked, your best move is to calmly retreat from the area while maintaining eye contact with the bird. Magpies tend to swoop from behind, so keeping your eyes on them will help to deter any further aggression.
Statistics prove that magpies have a particular hatred for cyclists. Tried and tired avoidance methods include branches in the helmet and drawing eyes on the back of the helmet. Instead, behavioural ecologist Daryll Jones from Griffith University recommends cable ties: ‘You’ve got to look completely ridiculous for it to work, it’s got to be like an echidna.’ Another tip for cyclists is to dismount your bike when approaching a magpie area.
Although many people have been attacked and even injured, only a small percentage of magpies have shown aggression towards humans, and attacks are limited to their breeding season between August and October. By avoiding magpies during these months, attacks can be prevented, and Australians can live in harmony with these native birds.