Why do magpies swoop? And what can we do to avoid the swoop of shame? We investigated.
Magpie swooping

Magpie swooping season has arrived. Image: Shane Miller via Victoria Park WA

Spring is here (atchoo!) and we all know what that means.

Country-wide cyclists reach for zip-ties, school kids arm themselves with umbrellas, and magpies look to protect their patch from any threat they can lay their beak on.

So, why do magpies swoop? And what can we do to avoid the swoop of shame? We investigated.

What causes magpie swooping season?

Researchers of a paper published in our Emu Austral Ornithology journal studied three common hypotheses behind magpie-human attacks, particularly in suburban areas. They sought to uncover whether the attacks were triggered by territoriality, brood-defence or (magpie) testosterone.

The study found no support for magpie testosterone levels being correlated with aggression towards humans. But it strongly supported the idea that attacks on humans were brood-defence focused, over any association with the territory. So, brood-defence can be identified as the cause of attacks. But is there anything we can do to stop being swooped?

This young footballer certainly earned his title as a winger.

Avoiding the swoop of shame

Understanding why magpies swoop is one thing but having the power to avoid it is another thing altogether. Here are some swoop safety tips.

Know your swooping hotspots

Keep informed about streets, parks, schools, and trails in your local area by reading local newspapers and online community boards or contacting your local council. Wildlife Victoria even offers a swooping bird map so you can do your research before you hit the streets.

Don’t harass wildlife

Don’t interfere with or throw stones at birds, and don’t harm their nests. Harassing and provoking birds can make them more defensive and may lead to more swooping style attacks. Maybe try forming a magpie friendship instead?

Change your route

If you can’t beat ’em – avoid ’em. Keep track of where swooping birds attack and find an alternate route. Some extra steps for the day and keeping the local wildlife happy? This a win-win!

Protect your head

Less of an avoidance tactic and more of a last-case-scenario. If you get caught in an attack use your noggin to protect your noggin and cover your face and head.

You might be wondering – where’s the advice around the fantastical magpie-avoidant headwear for spring? It’s times like these where we will gladly throw it back to 2010. It was the year our brave researchers in Canberra took science to the streets to test a series of magpie-repelling fashions. Their findings? Less is more.

We can’t endorse the results and we would never advise riding your bike without a helmet. But it quite clearly dispels the myth that elaborate helmet decorations do anything to stop a swooper.

Want to learn more about this quintessential Aussie icon that (September aside) we do actually like? Then check out this great book available through CSIRO Publishing: Australian Magpie – biology and behaviour of an unusual songbird.

13 comments

  1. i liked that part of this article .its very informational for me.i want to share in my friend list.
    Researchers of a paper published in our Emu Austral Ornithology journal studied three common hypotheses behind magpie-human attacks, particularly in suburban areas. They sought to uncover whether the attacks were triggered by territoriality, brood-defence or (magpie) testosterone.

    The study found no support for magpie testosterone levels being correlated with aggression towards humans. But it strongly supported the idea that attacks on humans were brood-defence focused, over any association with the territory. So, brood-defence can be identified as the cause of attacks. But is there anything we can do to stop being swooped?

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  3. Can we see the experiment with a wig on the helmet?

  4. I have found that not showing any aggression is the best policy.
    I have walked below a nest with another person who waved a branch at the Magpie and every time we came to the same area he got attacked the Magpie ignored me.
    They do recognise people it seems.
    However if on a bicycle it seems they have a dislike perhaps it has to do with the infra sound emitted by the bike which the Magpie may hear.
    Could one of the team investigate if bicycles emit sound outside human hearing range but inside Magpie hearing range?

    1. I am certain it is the helmet that is the issue, not the bike. This is based on an experience last year:

      I rode my kids up to a park, where they played for an hour or two. I did not even know there was a Magpie in the area. Leaving the park from a different direction, I put helmets on the kids to go home as we were traveling by bike and out of nowhere a magpie started swooping aggressively at my son, who was absolutely terrified. At this point we had not been near the bike, but you can bet I got him on it and got out of there as quickly as possible! If you watch the video clip embedded in the blog post it also supports the notion that helmets aggravate magpies, rather than the bike.

      1. yeah i have a huge group of around 20 that come into my yard and i live on a street full of cyclists, any time a cyclist with a helmet rides by they freak out and fly off, but they don’t even seem to notice cyclists without helmets. i’ve also watched them get spooked by a skateboarder wearing a baseball cap

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