The Cyclist's Defence Against Swooping Magpies

Subject: The Cyclist's Defence Against Swooping Magpies
From: Scot Mcphee <>
Date: Fri, 21 Aug 2009 09:48:12 +1000
2009/8/21 Tony Russell <>:
> Just my two bob's worth. We have at least two families of Magpies around
> our house and garden, they've been here for years. Never once have they
> swooped us, in fact , just the opposite, they tend to land and watch us
> closely, probably waiting for handouts. We can approach quite closely
> and talk to them , but they only respond with a few squawks and gurgles
> - never say anything.

I would like to add, in my *unscientific* opinion, that magpies which
come in close contact with humans - ones that live around housing for
example, simply are used to humans in proximity and often get fed (or
can otherwise scavenge food from) the people they are in contact with.
In other words, to these magpies, people are benign if not

On the other hand, I've ever only been swooped by magpies in *parks*
(this is a totally unscientific sample of two magpies). Given a
breeding magpie's territory is fairly small, only a few hundred square
metres if I remember my Kaplan correctly, a magpie in a park is not
likely to have close encounters with humans-as-benefactors, and the
majority of humans it sees, are often wearing brightly coloured
clothes and rushing about madly from one end to the other, something I
think that can be easily interpreted as aggressive behaviour. Plus
you've got the various categories of kids out for mischief, which
might include climbing trees near nests, running after birds on the
ground, and chucking rocks or other missiles. Ergo, to these magpies,
humans are fearful aggressors to be escorted off the premises as soon
as possible.

I suppose there would be a third class of magpie, those in the bush,
with infrequent human contact, but I'm not going to extemporise about

Another thing that occurs to me, is that I'm fairly sure we all
prescribe a certain class of intelligence to magpies. I am not of the
old school that prevents me from "anthropomorphising" animals. We all
have heard of the experiments with corvids which show they have
extraordinary problem solving abilities, i.e. are intelligent by
almost every measure. I think this intelligence is quite extended in
the animal kingdom especially among birds. I know our local magpies
can recognise my wife in the street and they behave differently to her
than other humans because she will give them treats from the back deck
of the house.

But also with this high intelligence I think comes a bunch of other
psychological tendencies such as sociopathic and other unruly
behaviour. Even lesser than this sort of extreme, I think at least
some birds definitely understand the idea of "fun" or "play" - look at
baby magpies who will play-fight on the ground with each other. For
many years when I lived there, I watched the cockatoos in Potts Point
(i.e. the ones in the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney). Once we
observed a handful of them cruising back and forth past a tourist on a
hotel balcony (the old international hotel in kings cross), screeching
loudly until they had the tourists attention, and then engaging in a
sort of crazy display flight using the wind deflection off the front
of the hi-rise building. I've also seen them cruising six feet off the
ground and when six inches off the back of a walker's head, let out a
single deafening screech frightening the hell out of the poor target.
I always had the impression this was all done "for fun". We dubbed the
cockatoos a gang of hoodlums. Once we had one attacking the
neighbour's fly-screen windows (this was in a block of flats), for no
reason I'm certain other than the sheer wilful pleasure of
destruction. We tried to scare it off by waving a broom at it. but the
cockatoo quickly realised  we didn't have the "reach" to get anywhere
near it, gave us a querulous look as if to say "What?!" and blatantly
continued slowly ripping the fly-screen to shreds.

Anyway, the point of this extended digression is to make a (currently
unscientific) hypothesis for two things:

1) Magpie behaviour will be influenced by their environment, so just
because the ones you might feed (or are fed by other people in the
neighbourhood) don't attack anyone doesn't necessarily tell us
anything about magpies in other environments.

and more radically:

2) That intelligent birds, including Magpies, may have other motives,
e.g. a testosterone-fuelled breeding male magpie may simply see
cyclists (or joggers, or children, etc) as some form of "sport"as well
living out its policy of maximal territorial aggression (see the links
between sport and war in humans for example!).


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