Swooping magpies are just trying to be 'good dads', expert says

Protective dad: A magpie swooping at Bensons Lane playing fields, Richmond. Picture: Geoff Jones
Protective dad: A magpie swooping at Bensons Lane playing fields, Richmond. Picture: Geoff Jones

AS Father's Day approaches, it's time to think of that other species of protective parent that is celebrated around this time of year: the magpie.

According to Holly Parsons, Urban Bird Program Manager at Birdlife Australia, the swooping magpie male makes up only around nine to ten per cent of all magpie dads, in a classic case of the mean minority giving the rest a bad name.

"Swooping is a parental defence mechanism that the males have. You see it mostly when there are eggs in the nest, or sometimes when chicks leave the nest early and aren't flying particularly well yet, in which case the dads will get quite protective," Ms Parsons said.

Magpie breeding season begins from the end of July and "really takes off" in September and October, Ms Parsons said.

Research shows magpies can recognise human faces, and can get to know humans they come in contact with regularly - for example if they live in your garden - and won't attack those they don't deem to be a threat.

"It's actually those that are nesting in public spaces like areas where there is a lot of [human] traffic that there tends to be more swooping birds because there are more faces they need to get to know. It can be quite overwhelming [for a magpie] if it's a busy area and there are more faces coming through," Ms Parsons said.

Magpies also target "particular types", she said.

"If they've had a bad experience, like kids throwing rocks or sticks, then they will target kids in school uniforms," she said.

"We also know they don't like cyclists; they will swoop pedestrians 50 metres around the nest, and cyclists up to 100 metres around the nest - probably because [cyclists] are moving so fast, and the birds actually can't see a face because there's a helmet on, which is why cyclists get hit more often."

Ms Parsons said your best bet in order to avoid being swooped is to avoid the area if you know there's a swooping magpie there. You can also try to "make friends" with the magpie by talking to it in a friendly way as you pass.

"Magpies swoop from behind and they often get around your ears and eyes so you can wear sunglasses to protect your face, and carry an umbrella - just don't wave it around, which will make you a target," she said.

It's also important to remember that magpies swooping is not "the norm".

"The vast majority of magpies are harmless, and even enjoy interacting with people. [Swooping magpies] is a small population of birds that dominate the news," Ms Parsons said.

"They are incredibly intelligent birds, the fact that they can recognise faces is incredible.

"These are birds that are trying to be good dads and protect their young.

"We share our spaces with these birds, and while there may be a small portion that are aggressive for a month or so, the rest of the year they are wonderful members of our society and are engaging to have around."

This story Angry bird? No, just a protective dad first appeared on Hawkesbury Gazette.