Swoopy Bois - what are they up to?

Is there a more Australian right of passage than getting swooped by a magpie? Almost everyone has been chased through their local park or street with the clacking of a beak following closely behind.

Even before spring approaches this year we are hearing many more reports of swooping behaviour by birds around the country. So what is going on and what should you do if you get swooped?

 

Australian Magpies are the birds most well-known for swooping, but it is not a behaviour exclusive to them (look at the spurs on the wings of Masked Lapwings – they are designed to do damage if they need to). The trigger for swooping though for almost all birds is parental protection - birds swoop to protect their babies from a perceived threat (you).

This year we seem to be getting reports of breeding activity a little earlier than usual, and so that includes reports of people being swooped.

 

In the case of magpies, it is the males that do the swooping. Magpies are one of our most common Australian birds, found across almost all of the country and in most habitats but especially fond of our towns and cities. Thankfully not all males take part in this behaviour. In fact, less than 10% do. While it is comforting to know that not every magpie is ready to attack when you walk through the park, it is scary when it does happen. So what should you do if you do get swooped?

 

The temptation is, of course, to run screaming away with your arms flailing about wildly. Unfortunately, that is the worst thing you can do. It simply reinforces to the bird that you are something to fear and they are right to swoop you! Instead, try these tips:

  • If you can, avoid the area while the bird is actively swooping. That tends to be for around a month while the young are in the nest. Once they are out and mobile the swooping tends to stop.
  • Wear sunglasses and a hat. This will protect your eyes. You can try the old ice cream container with eyes on the back of your head as well, but the jury is out on if that works or not. The theory is that because magpies swoop from behind, they won’t attack if they think you are watching them.
  • Stay calm if you do get swooped. Move quickly out of the area but resist the urge to wave your arms or attempt to hurt the bird. If you have an umbrella, keep it up but don’t wave it around. Magpies swoop in an area of about 50m of their nest at pedestrians and 100m at cyclists.
  • Cyclists are particularly disliked by magpies. So to stop the swooping, the best thing to do is to get off and walk rather than to keep riding through (which also means you are less distracted and moving slower and safer). You can also wear a helmet with cable ties attached, or a flag on your bike – as it directs them towards the highest point rather than around your face.
  • Talk nicely to the magpies you come across! We have no evidence that this works though some swear by it. We do know that magpies recognise faces though, so be friendly to those you see and hopefully come spring they will be friendly to you too.
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