Australia’s social, yet savage songbirds prepare for their annual swooping season

Be friendly to UniSA’s Magill Campus magpies, as this nest is directly above one of the main thoroughfares (Image Source: Simon Delaine)

By Anna Day | @anna_day_

With only a couple more weeks left of winter, most of us are looking forward to the warmer weather spring brings.

But springtime also heralds one danger that darkens the clear skies: magpies.

If a magpie has ever swooped you, you’ll know it’s not a fun time.

Magpies have garnered a reputation for being overprotective and aggressive, but as with any villainised character, there is more to them than meets the eye.

Chris Shute studies product design at UniSA, and was swooped at UniSA’s Mawson Lakes Campus two weeks ago.

“I had just finished a tute and was heading out of the campus towards the train station,” he said.

“I walked out of the main building onto an open section of lawn surrounded by trees and was swooped from behind.

“The magpie flew past my head first and then attacked one of my fellow classmates.”

While Mr Shute understands the magpies were very likely protecting their young, he still resents the swooping.

“There were signs dotted around the area warning of potential swoopings, and while I respect nature, it’s pretty ridiculous that we have to live in fear whenever we walk outside,” he said.

Mr Shute said he already had an uneasy relationship with magpies, and that the birds’ connection to a certain Australian Football League (AFL) team didn’t help either.

But after his encounter at Mawson Lakes, Mr Shute dislikes the birds even more.

“This encounter has made me more intimidated…towards them,” he said.

“It has confirmed my belief [that] they are bastards.”

Professor Darryl Jones is a behavioural ecologist and Deputy Director at the Environmental Futures Research Institute at Griffith University.

He said that almost all the swooping occurs when there are chicks in the nest.

“The only time when swooping occurs, and this is the standard September-October period which everybody remembers as magpie season, is when the chicks are in the nest,” Professor Jones told ABC’s Off Track.

“We think its entirely about brood defence, and it’s typically the male whose job it is to keep predators away from his precious chicks.”

Professor Jones said a magpie’s swooping has nothing to do with territoriality but is instead about protecting the chicks.

“Territoriality is what they do when they swoop another magpie to get it away, but when they swoop at a human, they’re not trying to keep us out of their territory; they are just trying to keep us away from the tiny little patch that surrounds the nest,” he said.

“The attack zone, as I call it, where people get swooped in, is just the immediate surroundings for the nest, not the whole territory.

“If it were the whole territory, there would be nowhere safe you could possibly go.”

Professor Jones emphasised that during spring, only 8 to 10 per cent of all magpies will actually attack humans.

“Lots of people think that as soon as the clock ticks over to the 1st of September or some time like that, suddenly the world is a dangerous place because every magpie will start attacking you,” he said.

“The complete majority (90 per cent) of magpies during the breeding season don’t even look sideways at people, and they don’t recognise people as threats; they don’t have any problems whatsoever.”

Professor Jones said that while this statistic puts magpie swooping into perspective, this isn’t to downplay the seriousness of magpie attacks.

“Of course, this small fraction gets all the attention, and as they should: they cause serious damage, they take eyes out, they injure people, they cause people to fall off of their bikes,” he said.

“They cause a lot of dramas, but it’s very important to realise that it is only a very small portion of magpies out there that are attacking us during the breeding season.

“It’s just as well because there are so many magpies that Australia pretty much wouldn’t be habitable if every magpie attacked us.”

 

 

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One thought on “Australia’s social, yet savage songbirds prepare for their annual swooping season

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