You may have noticed that local magpies have been showing signs that breeding time has come again. Males and females are both collecting sticks for their rather messy, large nests, high up in trees. And a small percentage have begun swooping.
Magpies, usually males protecting a brooding female or chicks, swoop to defend their nest, rather than out of aggression. You may have observed that if you have magpies living on your property, they are far less likely to swoop you. As a good territory is hard to come by, magpies will defend it every day of the year, and will know every single person who lives in it. Research tells us that magpies can recognise human faces for many years and remember which humans constitute a risk and which ones are friendly towards them. When an unknown person approaches, which is unfortunately often the case in parks or along footpaths, we may be seen as a threat, and the magpie is warning us to keep away.
Competition for territories is fierce, and some magpies will not secure one until they are 5 years old. In fact, only 14% of adult magpies ever successfully breed and although they can live for 25 or 30 years, they may only successfully raise 7 to 11 young to adulthood in a lifetime. So there is a great deal of importance in protecting each young.
Magpies are very intelligent and have complex social systems. While magpies, Cracticus tibicen are named for their song (tibicen means 'flautist'), they are also incredible mimics and can even mimic the human voice. Listening out for magpies when you are walking or cycling is a good way of knowing if they are nearby.
Magpies are protected throughout NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. This makes it against the law to kill the birds, collect their eggs, or harm their young.
Other advice for protecting yourself:
- Avoid magpie swooping hotspots, and if you come across one, make a temporary sign to warn other people.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, or shelter under an umbrella, to protect your head and eyes
- Try to keep an eye on the magpie while walking carefully away, as magpies are less likely to swoop if you look at them. Alternatively, you can draw or sew a pair of eyes onto the back of a hat, and wear it when walking through the area. You can also try wearing your sunglasses on the back of your head.
- If you are swooped, walk calmly away, as running or waving objects like umbrellas, can provoke further attack.
- If a magpie swoops while you are cycling, it will probably stop swooping if you get off your bike and walk.
Local scientist, Gisela Kaplan has written an article on how magpies can for relationships with people. Her book, Australian magpie: biology and behaviour of an unusual songbird is also available from ARC libraries.
Ann Jones from ABC radio has a program on magpies - Beyond black and white: The secret life of Australia's marvellous magpies.
Published on 20 Sep 2018