Magpie attacks in Australia (and how to avoid them)

The Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen), a native to the country, and an inadvertent import to New Zealand, is a lovely bird, but also a smart and cheeky one. Here’s what it looks like:

I didn’t realize that magpie attacks were a regular thing in Australia, but it’s true. As Wikipedia reports, they get aggressive during breeding season:

Magpies are ubiquitous in urban areas all over Australia, and have become accustomed to people. A small percentage of birds become highly aggressive during breeding season from late August to early – mid October, and will swoop and sometimes attack passersby. The percentage has been difficult to estimate but is significantly less than 9%.  Almost all attacking birds (around 99%) are male, and they are generally known to attack pedestrians at around 50 m (160 ft) from their nest, and cyclists at around 100 m (330 ft). There appears to be some specificity in choice of attack targets, with the majority of individuals specializing on either pedestrians or cyclists.  Attacks begin as the eggs hatch, increase in frequency and severity as the chicks grow, and tail off as the chicks leave the nest.

These magpies may engage in an escalating series of behaviours to drive off intruders. Least threatening are alarm calls and distant swoops, where birds fly within several metres from behind and perch nearby. Next in intensity are close swoops, where a magpie will swoop in from behind or the side and audibly “snap” their beaks or even peck or bite at the face, neck, ears or eyes. More rarely, a bird may dive-bomb and strike the intruder’s (usually a cyclist’s) head with its chest. A magpie may rarely attack by landing on the ground in front of a person and lurching up and landing on the victim’s chest and pecking at the face and eyes.

Magpie attacks can cause injuries, typically wounds to the head, and being unexpectedly swooped while cycling can result in loss of control of the bicycle, which may cause injury.

Here’s a video of a magpie attacking an Aussie cyclist 13 times in a row:

This year has been particularly bad for magpie attacks. As reader Michael told me:

There have been 3,253 recorded attacks and 518 injuries linked to magpies across the country in 2017, according to the Magpie Alert website. Australia’s swooping season starts in spring as predominantly male magpies dive down on cyclists, pedestrians and runners who go near nests. Of the total, 702 attacks occurred in Victoria, which ranks third behind New South Wales and Queensland for number of attacks.

If you go to the site, you’ll see a map of magpie attacks, with the symbols in red marking injuries:

How do you avoid this? As Atlas Obscura reports:

Dr. Richard Osborne, an oncologist and avid cyclist, can be seen showing off his new defense mechanism, a bike helmet equipped with children’s noise blowers. Connected to a tube in his mouth, he simply blows into it, and the party favors unravel with a little toot, spooking any magpies near him. A simple idea, but as can be seen in the video, an effective one.

Here’s a photo of the helmet in full scaring mode; it seems to work a treat:

37 Comments

  1. Angela
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    My cats and I have been dive bombed by mocking birds during breeding season.

    • busterggi
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Yeah, a couple of summer ago some mocking birds had a nest just out of climbing range for my cats and I swear they enjoying torturing the kitties.

  2. Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I propose that a study should be made on campus with efficacy towards reactionaries and regressives! 😉

    • BJ
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      “Almost all attacking birds (around 99%) are male, and they are generally known to attack pedestrians at around 50 m (160 ft) from their nest, and cyclists at around 100 m (330 ft).”

      These birds clearly suffer from toxic masculinity.

      • Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Teehee. Continuing: only when provoked by females in a certain condition. Females, always the culprit. /s

  3. BJ
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Damn, magpies, you scary!

    Look at that picture. They even look like they have that arrogant sense of their own superiority. I’ve seen the same look in some cats (though that’s usually justified).

  4. Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Some years ago, I read of a defense used by researchers studying Australian Magpie nests, apparently in rural areas. Naturally, the birds attached and injured the researchers. The birds only attacked the backs of the researchers heads. So the researchers wore hats with big painted eyes on them. The magpies didn’t actually land after that.

    However, the bit about birds attacking eyes in urban Australia suggests something has changed. Are the birds too comfortable with humans? Or are human eyes too small to be scary?

    • DrBrydon
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      I was going to suggest painting big eyes on the helmet, like some butterflies have on their wings.

      • Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        Maybe an artificial stuffed owl on the helmet. Wouldn’t look too silly…

        • nicky
          Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          Owls are often mobbed by small passerines. From the frying pan into the fire? 😆

    • tjeales
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      The eyes don’t work! https://youtu.be/YGGTcYfrEZU

  5. craigp
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Ah, memories. I remember, many years ago, walking through some trees in my university grounds back in Sydney. I vaguely heard a quiet swishing sound then 2 seconds later I feel a heavy thump in the back of my head then I see a magpie flying upwards in front of me. It drew blood, presumably using its talons. They can definitely be quite aggressive!

  6. Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Cool! I loved seeing and hearing magpies in Oz. Never had one attack us!

    Oz: Birdland! Such wonderful birds!

  7. Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    So, to add to the cool (and dangerous) things about Australia: one can get divebombed by dinosaurs. 🙂

  8. Posted October 24, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    That first bloke has discovered a new kind of extreme sport.

  9. Posted October 24, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I remember such “attacks” by magpies at SF State U (then C) in th late 1960s and at SD State U (then C) in the early 1970s. Are people just now discovering this behavior?

  10. Phil Garnock-Jones
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been attacked like that when cycling in New Zealand. It’s frightening and relentless. One Australian researcher told me they remember and attack particular individual humans. They were common here in Wellington when we came here in 1994, but declined rapidly coinciding with extensive possum trapping. Maybe the rise in native birds like tūī and kākā after the possum trapping somehow caused a decline in magpies, or maybe there’s no link.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      There were attacking magpies on my grandmother’s farm one year. They had nested about 40m from the house They seemed to take a particular dislike to a cousin who was only six yo at the time. They never attacked my grandmother or me. Other people had varied experiences.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        Don’t farms have shotguns? (Even in NZ).

        cr

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted October 24, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          Yes, they do, but getting the gun out is a bit extreme. Just keep out of the way for a while. There were plenty of places to go where the birds didn’t attack because they couldn’t see you.

  11. Phil Garnock-Jones
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Also their song is spectacular, accurately captured in the Denis Glover poem “Magpies” https://nzpoems.blogspot.co.nz/2011/04/magpies-denis-glover.html

  12. Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a pic of a mean-looking magpie that I’ve had on my hard drive for about 12 years:

    https://imgur.com/83ZbqAG

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      Remarkably patient. Most birds would have got bored after the first decade and hopped off to warm up on the processor.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        😎

      • Posted October 26, 2017 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Okay, point taken. 😉

        Here’s a pic I’ve had on my hard drive for about 12 years of a mean-looking magpie.

  13. darrelle
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    This post caused me to review the Wikipedia entry on Magpies and led to something really interesting I’d never heard of before.

    The Wikipedia entry notes that Corvidae, which Magpies are, are the only non-mammals that can recognize themselves in a mirror test. It then mentioned in passing that a recent study suggests that giant manta rays may also recognize themselves in a mirror test!

    Here is the link to that study, Contingency checking and self-directed behaviors in giant manta rays: Do elasmobranchs have self-awareness?

    I can only view the abstract and several video clips without buying the paper. Here are a couple of snips from the abstract.

    “Manta rays have a high encephalization quotient, similar to those species that have passed the mirror self-recognition test, and possess the largest brain of all fish species.”

    “The present study shows evidence for behavioral responses to a mirror that are prerequisite of self-awareness and which has been used to confirm self-recognition in apes.”

    • tjeales
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      European Magpies are in Corvidae but Australian Magpies are not, they are in Artamidae

      • darrelle
        Posted October 25, 2017 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        Huh. Thanks for the correction.

  14. James Walker
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Australian magpies are quite bold. The one winter I stayed in Canberra, they would wander in to my apartment if I left the patio door open. I never saw them dive-bombing anyone, although I did see a cockatoo doing it once.

    I guess I’ve been lucky this year – despite seeing lots of magpies on my walk from the tram stop into work (suburban Melbourne) they’ve usually kept their distance.

  15. Posted October 24, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    An observation is that magpies recognise individual people.

    The magpies living near our house will ‘swoop’ strangers during the breeding season, but they never attack us or our nearby neighbours. I suppose that they get used to seeing us regularly and we’re not viewed as a threat. We don’t feed them.

    rz

  16. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    “they are generally known to attack pedestrians at around 50 m (160 ft) from their nest, and cyclists at around 100 m (330 ft).”

    I see they’ve got their priorities right.

    cr
    (rabid motorist)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      On second thoughts, after viewing that video of the cyclist getting attacked (‘Oh Jesus Christ. Bloody hell mate!’) I’m inclined to think the magpie may be motivated, like our keas in NZ, by curiosity and a malicious sense of humour. I think it’s just enjoying the loud weird noises the target makes every time it taps the black shiny thing on top.

      cr

  17. tjeales
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Definitely getting to know and being known by a group of magpies outside of the breeding season helps. It’s only going into new territory that’s scary. For my bike helmet I attach long zip ties with the ends sticking out. This has proved so effective that you will see around 90% of bike riders here in Brisbane similarly festooned. The magpies are working out ways to get in under the zip ties and bite your ear. More elaborate head gear is now appearing around town to fool these clever birds.

  18. Kelcey BURMAN
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    And what’s worse the minor birds have now learnt this behaviour from the maggies especially to the dogs but at least they only do it for a few weeks. They never used to do this.

  19. James Walker
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally, the Guardian Australia has an open thread on Australia’s best (and worst) birds: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/24/open-thread-what-is-australias-best-bird-and-what-is-the-worst

    • tjeales
      Posted October 25, 2017 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      magpies should be in the top five on both lists

  20. Felix K
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    I remember being attacked in such a way a few years ago by a Black Kite (Milvus migrans). It swooped down on me from behind and gave me a nasty thump on the head with its talons. I did bleed a bit but not strongly, so I suppose the bird wasn’t stretching out its claws when it hit me.

    The incident took place in the city of Karachi, Pakistan where kites are very common as in many other South Asian cities. I don’t know if the bird had its nest nearby but suppose so.


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