How To Survive Magpie Swooping Season

September is the peak of Australia's own version of "home-grown terrorism" (as memorably described to me by a distraught and bleeding school principal, valiantly attempting to protect his pupils), when a small but conspicuous proportion of magpies throughout the country begin to attack otherwise innocent passersby. It is certainly the most significant human-wildlife conflict in the towns and cities of this country. Here are some tips on how to survive.

Photo: Amber & Billows

Every year, many thousands of people are swooped, some are slightly injured and a few seriously (especially cyclists) — and a very small number may lose an eye.

It's commonplace for some of us to recall the blur of wings and the click of that beak with a strange level of nostalgia, but it is sobering to appreciate that some of these attacks cause real damage and trauma. So what is going on with these otherwise favourite Aussie icons?

What's their problem?

Explanations for this all-too familiar behaviour are legion, with passionate advocates for more plausible theories such as:

  • territoriality — they are trying to keep us out of their patch
  • testosterone poisoning — they are so pumped with male juice they can't help themselves
  • colour trigger — they just hate orange/yellow/purple.

While there is a lot we don't yet know about this phenomena, all of the research conducted to date points clearly to the protective parent hypothesis.

Male magpies are adapted to drive away potential predators, and are especially when the chicks are vulnerable nestlings. For some reason, certain males (around 10 per cent of breeding pairs) have come to view humans as serious threats to their chicks and act according.

While these avian assessments seems to be false (most victims are unlikely to have eaten a baby magpie!), the resulting swoops and attacks seem to be an attempt to drive intruders away from the nest tree.

Furthermore, when we flee from the onslaught, the bird's main objective — moving a dangerous predator on — is successful and the behaviour rewarded.

Having proved to himself his proficiency at the task means he is all the more likely to try again next time. And when especially dim-witted humans — by continuing toward the nest — don't seem to get the hint, the intensity of the message can become more and more pronounced.

One of the numerous unexpected findings of research I've been a part of was the extent to which those magpies that are aggressive specialise on particular groups of people. For example, in a Brisbane study, the birds targeted either pedestrians only (about 50 per cent), posties only (10 per cent) or cyclists only (10 per cent) with remarkably few being less catholic in their preferences.

Of course, some were entirely non-discriminating and maniacally swooped any vaguely human intruder regardless of mode of transport.

Thankfully these extreme birds are relatively rare but account for the majority of the seriously dangerous. Typically, we found that such birds were almost always associated with locations with a lot of people: schoolyards, car parks, or busy park lands.

Perhaps most surprisingly, a clear majority of pedestrian-specialists actually targeted a very small number of specific individuals, typically just one or two people. If you think that these bloody birds are picking on you specifically, you are probably right!

Given that most adult magpies, once they settle down with a mate, almost never leave their territory, it is highly likely that they know and recognise all the people that they share this space with (an ability well established among close relatives).

How can we discourage attacks?

Being so common and virtually ubiquitous in Australia, this phenomenon has lead to the development of lots of counter-measures including:

  • the traditional eyes on the back of the hat (or ice cream container)
  • the waving of a stick
  • festooning ones bike helmet with a forest of spikes or rear-facing eyes, as demonstrated (unsuccessfully!) in the video below.

Such tactics can be roughly placed into one of three categories:

  1. attempts to change the magpies' behaviour
  2. protection of the head
  3. avoiding the "attack zone".

The success of these categories can be equally roughly evaluated as "futile", "well worth trying" and "sensibly obvious", respectively.

Starting with the clearest approach, knowing that most magpies limit their attacks to an area surrounding the nest tree (though some cyclist-specialists can carry on for quite away), simply avoiding known hot-spots is certainly the best bet.

The old eyes-facing-backwards scheme is actually based on a sound behavioural concept: most magpies do attack from behind and are unlikely to do so if they think that they are being watched.

Unfortunately, most of our attempts to test this traditional approach failed; the birds appeared not to notice the eyes, or attacked from the side instead.

Likewise, the sharp-looking helmet protrudences are a hopeful deterrent to the oncoming bird, suggesting an uncomfortable outcome should contact be made. Otherwise, any method that may negate contact with the head is worth trying: sticks, hats, helmets and umbrellas.

Finally, an unconventional — and controversial — approach should be mentioned, simply because, in the right circumstances, it really does work.

Where it is possible for an aggressive magpie to know people as individuals, providing small food snacks (cat food) in an obvious way such that the bird can associate the treats with the person often lead to complete cessation of hostilities.

Yes, I know that such behaviour will lead directly to disease, dependence and end of civilisation, but sometimes pragmatism wins. Have a safe spring.

This article has been revised and updated since its original publication date.

Darryl Jones is Deputy Director of the Environmental Futures Centre at Griffith University. He receives funding from Brisbane City Council, the Queensland State Government and the Australian Research Council.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.


Comments

    I find a shotgun works well

      I gave you an up vote but I just want you to know that is soo wrong.......yet if I had a shotgun........

      i gave you a down vote as I just want you to know that is soo wrong.......

        We used to use a super-soaker in our neighbourhood when we were kids. To be honest, they got us more than we got them.

      No need to shoot yourself - it will all be over by the end of Spring.

    The bane of my childhood! I have so many terrible memories of those stupid birds. That said, whether it's because I moved from my old country town to the city or that I'm no longer a child I haven't been swooped since... except for a single attack from a feisty noisy miner.

      I also used to get anxiety walking home from school. I had no choice but to walk through an area with a cranky magpie and he always seemed to target me. I'd try and wait for him to be distracted by someone else but wasn't always the case. I left town because of him (Not really, I left for other reasons, but I don't miss the tourment at all).

        I got attacked by a magpie today and injured my ear. Now i am scared to come home the same route as today and i cant avoid it.. I am thinking to open my umbrella as soon as i get off the tram.... Lets see what happens ...

          There are so many theories on how to prevent it from happening (e.g. paint eyes on the back of your bike helmet, hold up a branch etc.) but they always catch you by surprise. The umbrella sounds like a good idea!

    At least Life Hacker knows what a Magpie looks like! My local paper was using an image of a Butcher Bird and was calling it a Magpie.

    We feed our local magpies; not on bread of course. Maggies like some mince with a bit of added calcium. As a result of our feeding them our maggies are very friendly and they never attack us. They will come and take food from our hands.

      I tried the same approach. A bit of rat poison mixed in and the attacks ceased completely.
      Just kidding.
      The only thing I have ever done to a magpie was back-handing one as it came in for an attack. In the evening, the shadows were long and I could see its shadow approaching my head.

    So if not wearing a helmet stops the attack for bikers, what if you had a wig on over a helmet, or different color helmet in case the colors were attracting them.

    What is the use in protecting you head from the magpies but leaving it vulnerable to the road in case of accident (I do realize that you are not officially advocating not wearing a helmet but that is probably the effect it will have).

      "what if you had a wig on over a helmet" ... hahaha, not only would magpies avoid you, but so would everything else :P

        Cant look any more stupid than cable ties, fake eyes, coloured pipe cleaners stuck to it.

      A CSIRO carpark had a magpie swopping bikers in their carpark... so they they played scientist
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wHreVKgOT4

      Only time they didnt get swoop was when he took off the helmet, they dont like the colour, or the shine of it.... try a wig, or cover it with a dull fabric or wig/faux fur/felt.

    "with remarkably few being less catholic in their preferences." - Crazy Christian loving bird or nobody wants to associate themselves as a christian any more?....

    -You decide-

      catholic used as an adjective with a lower case c.

      catholic [ˈkæθəlɪk ˈkæθlɪk]
      adj
      1. universal; relating to all men; all-inclusive
      2. comprehensive in interests, tastes, etc.; broad-minded; liberal

        Dammit you ninja'd me I was about to say that :P

        But yes this is correct, when spelled with a lowercase 'c' the word "catholic" is an adjective and means "universal". It's only when it's spelled with an uppercase 'C' that it becomes a noun and has a religious meaning.

        Last edited 31/08/13 3:18 pm

    I've been harassed by a Maggie for the last two years on the way to work around spring time. I never once thought that taking my helmet off would work as a form of dissuasion. I'm gonna give it a try - victory or death!

      Best of luck dude! Report back if you survive, otherwise I'll see you in the funny pages.

      With my luck I'd be fined $80 for not wearing a personal safety device.

    I've only every been swooped once, luckily I had a helmet on. Thing is the magpies around here are pretty confident, have some food in your hand and it'll fly right to ya.

    I got put in hospital by a magpie one year, The bloody thing cut my head open so I needed stitches....I was not the only one that magpie had sent to the hospital that day, I don't know what got into him but the council had to move him away (or shoot him) because he was one angry bird. I've felt a little sick this time of year ever since, as i'm walking to work or home a little bit of my brain is tensing up, ready for the click and smack in the back of the head.

    The magpie at home we just ended up feeding......now it comes over and gives you a worm if you're sitting outside, it also seems to show off its babies to you, we call it frank.

    One trick that has worked for me in the past is to "stare them down". Just keep facing them and they wont swoop, in my experience anyway. Had one near the front of my uni and i just had to keep looking at him for a good 200 meters. If i did that, he just left me alone.

    I guess it falls in the same category as the eyes on the back of the helmet. They wont swoop if they think they are being watched. That being said, i wouldnt suggest doing this if you are riding a bike at high speeds :P

      yes, works for me too. My strategy has been to, as soon as one swoops me, to stare straight at him (usually accompanied by a few choice words) and don't look away for a moment. They'll still hover over you until you get away from their little patch, but so far none of them have had a go. The problem is, looking backwards while riding the bike away isn't exactly a safe thing to do either. Last year I nearly hit a car as I was swerving into the road....

    When Im out in the garden I theres always about four magpies that hang around me, like, hanging out next to me. When Im digging things up theyre following closely behind pecking through the dirt. If I find a grub I throw it to them.

    Ive never been swooped by a magpie in my life. Guess Ive never been considered a threat by them.

    Or take the advice in this song I wrote after being swooped by a Magpie.
    http://alternateroute.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/The_Magpie_Swat.mp3

    in my neighbourhood. when a magpie swoops someone. we have butcher birds that fly and attack the magpies! true story. its like the butcher birds protect us as we walk!!

    Last time I had a magpie swoop me I was driving a targa top car. Dived straight at me front on, heard that "click" then it collected the top of the window frame, tumbled, hit the back of the roof as the targa top was removed, tumbled, then hit the wing.

    Stupid bird.

    If you befriend the magpies around your house/street by feeding them during the year, they will remember you and wont swoop you during swooping season.
    At my fathers house, we had a massive magpie family at the property ( only 9 acres) and they never attacked us or any visitors because we would leave some mince meat out for them. During mating season they would actually ring their young with them as well. Now they wouldnt let us pat them, but they never attacked us

      I agree. This strategy has worked very well for us too. Our street is swooping-free.

    Any advice for the dropbear season? I'm beginning to panic already.

      Small group of kindergartners on a field trip should placate them.

    The native mynahs are worse at our place. They nest in the tree out front of the house and attack you as soon as you walk out the front door! We've found over the years that the only way to stop them is to knock their nest out of the tree as soon as they start building it.

    I guess that this wouldn't work for me being that I have a shiny bald head.

    If they think they're defending their nests, then making a point of seeking out and destroying the nest any time you're attacked would probably change the local birds' behavior. It seems cruel, but if they're actually injuring people...

    In our street we just feed the magpies. There is a pair that have raised chicks here for 6 years and because we feed them occasionally (they like mince) they have never attached anyone walking down the street. They see us as potential snack providers not predators.

    I have been swooped regularly over the years - always thought it was the colour of my hair (red-ish). Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! I'd wear a hat - still get swooped. Wear a bike helmet - still get swooped. I get swooped no matter what. It is a terrifying and dangerous experience especially when I'm riding.
    I think best way to stop getting swooped is to avoid the birds if possible, and with that in mind, I had an app developed.
    It's called SWOOPERS (obviously) and it's an interactive app that allows people to upload information as to swooping hotspots, or if not uploading hotspots, it's a map that pinpoints swooping locations.
    The app has only just come on-line so the number of locations will not be great, but to see what the app is capable of, have a look at the map of Bendigo, VIC - lots of swooping hotspots pin-pointed.
    As the app is interactive, the more people who use it, the more people will benefit.
    The app is available in the Appstore, and we are on Facebook as well.

    https://itunes.apple.com/tr/app/swoopers/id579212687?mt=8

      I live in Bendigo :(. Tomorrow I am likely to add more hotspots on our bike ride. I know the location of some angry, angry birds. No I cannot avoid them, it is the rail trail.

    If I were you guys, I would just post this every two months or so... Because that doesn't smack at all of Today/Tonight's "journalistic" practices....

    I recommend going to the magpiealert.com website and registering your attacks this season. That way cyclists and other members of the public can avoid troublesome birds! I registered an attack there last year, just hope the bird has moved on this year!

    I live in Magpie Hell. There are about a hundred or more swoop sites in the town where I live and the authorities won't do a darn thing. We have a massive over-population of the pest in this area.

    As a regular cyclist there are no alternative swoop free routes to use in this area at peak swooping season...which lasts 4 plus months here. Swooping here occurs 8 months of the year, well outside of breeding season. Yep thats right. 8 months of the year. Ican avoid some sites, and for a few weeks take a break from riding the bike, but as cycling is my sport, I need to train and ride regularly and it is not unreasonable to expect to be able to for most of the year without my safety being put at risk by these pests because it seems no one in authority is willing to address the problem.

    Let me also correct a few wrong statements out there:
    1. Feeding the pests ... I don't have time to feed the ten thousand or more Magpies that nest in and near my town. They are a wild animal. Please don't feed them. This will only encourage the pest to breed beyond its natural capacity and create a greater risk to the cyclists they will swoop who don't feed them.
    2. Magpies do not remember faces-if that were true then they wouldn't attack the first time round as they could not remember a face they've never seen before. Logical huh? Im not sure who comes up with all this nonsense abut how they remember faces-its a load of rubbish. Ive been swooped hundreds ofs times so I know what Im talking about. Magpies swoop because they.... swoop. Not all Magpies swoop in breeding season. Some swoop for many months of the year.
    3. Waving sticks, using eyes on the back of helmets, spikes, or staring at Magpies when they swoop etc etc etc does not work to prevent or deter ongoing attack. Aggressive Magpies will swoop regardless.

    My view is that some non-aggressive swooping has to be tolerated, but as a cyclist getting swooped ten or more times in a 20-40k ride here is the norm, not the exception. In some cases on a 5k ride you can swooped 6-10 times. Some swoop sites are less than 400m apart.

    Roads and footpaths are for human use. There are other places for Magpies to nest.

    Aggressive Magpies near main intersections or on any road corridor are a hazard-as one has to take their eyes off the road to avoid being struck (ie neck injury) or clawed- when one also has to watch out for traffic, potholes, and the occasional snake in the warmer months.

    There are provisions in law for Magpies that are aggressive and present a safety risk to be removed or culled. Magpies are not endangered species, but are protected. However because most bureaucrats don't ride bikes and hardly get swooped in any other context ....so don't appreciate the problem a regular cyclist faces. Some one has to first get seriously injured or killed before appropriate action is taken by the authorities it seems...........

      You're riding your bike, which means you have a helmet on, which means even if they peck you it won't do anything. So, what, are they knocking you off your bike?

        Friend of mine was riding a bike with helmet on. Magpie still got a piece of his eyebrow

    Tennis racket is very effective.....

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