July to November is that time of year when Australian magpies start to swoop. Naturally, some people get nervous. Yet it’s important to remember as Spring approaches that these intelligent birds are doing what comes naturally. They’re not out to get us as many media reports would have you believe. Instead, male Australian magpies are just trying to protect their territory and young. After all, protecting the family is as vital to magpies as it is to us.
So between July and November, how can we coexist peacefully with our feathered friends while they have eggs or newly-hatched chicks in the nest?
Magpie etiquette: How to stay safe during the swooping season
The first step in magpie etiquette is showing some respect by being aware of our behaviour in their space. Here are a few tips to help you stay safe from a swooping magpie:
Don’t wave your arms, shout or act aggressively:
If you get swooped, do not act aggressively toward the magpie. Did you know magpies have inbuilt facial recognition? Research shows that these birds recognise and remember up to 100 human faces. So any defensive actions on your part will only reinforce the magpie’s impression that you’re a threat. Think of your face being put on the magpie’s most wanted list at nesting time.
Avoid magpie defence zones:
During the breeding season, if you know there is a swooping magpie in the area, take an alternative route. You’ll only need to do this for around six weeks until the parent birds’ chicks are less vulnerable. Overall, magpie swooping season tends to occur between July and November, depending on which state in Australia you live and the seasonal conditions.
Dress for protection:
If you can’t avoid a swooping male bird’s ‘defence zone,’ wear a hat and sunglasses, hold a school bag, or place an open umbrella over your head. Importantly, some magpies will make defensive contact, so protect your eyes and avoid looking up.
Spike up your helmet:
Adding cable ties to your bike helmet prevents a defensive male magpie from making physical contact with your helmet, but it’s unlikely to stop the swooping.
Walk your bicycle:
Some male birds only turn into areal assassins when they see cyclists on the move. So get off your bicycle and walk. Swooping males usually only defend their nests for about 150 meters.
Resist approaching fledgling magpies:
Fledglings often end up sitting on the ground after attempting to fly. Baby magpies are fluffy, cute and very trusting. The temptation to pick them up is hard to resist, but keep in mind the parent birds will be watching. Maggie-mum and dad may think you’re trying to harm their baby and swoop. If you’re worried that the baby is injured contact the wildlife rescue group in your area.
Consider a peace offering:
One way to win a magpie’s trust is by offering food. But don’t feed the birds junk food like bread or cheese. Instead, provide morsels of fresh meat (like mince meat). Even dog or cat biscuits soaked in a bit of water offer a healthier choice. If you’re super keen to call a truce with your swooping assassin, coat mince meat in Wombaroo Insectivore Mix. The supercharged native bird rearing mix will give nestlings an added boost of nutrients.
One Postman’s secret weapon against swooping magpies
If anyone knows a thing or two about swooping magpies, it’s Australia Post. Canberra postman, John Kanard, decided to show the resident magpies on his route that he wasn’t a threat. His secret? Muesli bars. (Read the full story posted in the Canberra Times.)
Understanding the Australian magpie will help you demonstrate respect to these clever birds and keep you safe during the swooping season.
Fun social behaviour and lifestyle facts
In 2017 the Australian magpie was voted the nation’s most popular songbird. Not only are these black and white songsters loved for their impressive vocal abilities, but their propensity to play, parent well and willingness to form enduring friendships with people win hearts Australia-wide.
The magpie belongs to the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, rooks and jays. This family of birds is known for their high intelligence. For example, in February 2022, researchers placed small GPS tracking devices on a group of Australian magpies, intending to learn about the birds’ movements and social dynamics. However, the clever and crafty magpies teamed up to outsmart the scientists by helping each other to dismantle and remove the tracking devices.
The collaboration was an example of altruistic behaviour rarely observed in birds. It provides strong evidence of problem-solving and cooperation among magpies.
8 more things you didn’t know about magpies
Despite the Australian Magpies’ reputation for swooping, they are actually very social birds with a strong sense of family. Did you know:
1. Only ten per cent of male magpies swoop at nesting time.
2. Australian magpies are one of Australia’s most accomplished songbirds. Moreover, they can mimic a wide variety of calls from over 35 bird species. But even more impressive, magpies can mimic human speech, dogs, sirens, mobile phone ring tones and more.
3. Magpies mate for life. They live 25 – 30 years and are territorial, tending to stay in the same area for their lifetime. These birds value family as much as we do and are wonderful protective parents. Any attempts to relocate a male swooping magpie risks disrupting their close family unit.
4. Juvenile Australian magpies often invent games using sticks, rocks, bits of wire, feathers and leaves. Pegs are also a favourite toy among suburban magpies.
5. Play is an integral part of an Australian magpie’s day. They’ll jump on each other, lay on the ground, pull each other’s legs, and even engage in mock fighting.
6. Sunbathing is a favourite pass time. You’ll see magpies lay on the ground and spread their wings. While it may look like a crash landing, the bird is simply sunning itself and attending to its daily hygiene. Sunlight destroys feather mites.
7. The mother-daughter bond is very strong between adult females and their daughters.
8. Australian magpies can locate insects and beetle larvae underground by sound and vibration alone.
We can coexist peacefully with these intelligent birds by being aware of our behaviour during nesting season, respecting their space and taking simple precautions.