Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Australian Magpie

Well, that time of year is again upon us - Spring is in the air, the days are getting longer, weather is fining up, and flowers are in full bloom. Magnificent! It's also the time of year that many magpies are busy tending to bright new wee-baby magpies. And such it is that around this time of year some magpie parents can become overly aggressive, and have a tendency to attack passers by.
Most of us have childhood memories of aggressive magpies (I myself have many) - and as a cyclist I can't recall a spring that's gone by where I haven't myself been attacked whilst riding a bicycle.

I was swooped a couple of times early this morning while out training - my first airborne assault for the year. This prompted me to reflect on all that it is that I know about magpies. Very little time had passed before I came to the conclusion that I really don't know much about magpies at all. I mean - I know that I admire magpies for their courage, I love their song, and I seemed to recall that they are intelligent - or are they? I did a little research to satisfy my curiosity - inspired by my new - black and white feathered friend..

Aggressive Behaviour:
A small percentage of birds become highly aggressive during breeding season from late August to early October, and will swoop and sometimes attack passersby. The percentage is said to be less than 9%. Almost all attacking birds (around 99%) are male, and they are generally known to attack pedestrians at around 50m from their nest, and cyclists at around 100m. Attacks begin as the eggs hatch, increase in frequency and severity as the chicks grow, and tail off as the chicks leave the nest.

Dr Darryl Jones from the Suburban Wildlife Research Group at Griffith University found through a survey that; of those birds that do attack humans, about half will attack only pedestrians, 10 per cent go exclusively for postal workers on bikes, eight per cent will attack bicyclists, and the remaining third will attack any of 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 peck at the face and eyes.

In more recent years, the use of cable ties on helmets has become a more commonly adopted method of deterrence. Painted eyes at the back of the head (helmet) and/or rear facing sunglasses are reasonably common also.

The Herald Sun yesterday reported that Victoria's University of New England animal behaviourist Prof Gisela Kaplan says that helmets sprouting cable ties and eyes on the back of them, and even sunglasses, made cyclists look more menacing, encouraging magpies to defend their territory.
"They know humans, of course, but if someone wears all sorts of gear it looks like something from Mars, and that's what they respond to ... They don't mind the size of the predator. The more dangerous it seems, the more they have to act against it,"  Prof Kaplan said.
Her advice runs counter to Department of Sustainability and Environment guidelines suggesting cyclists wear helmets and draw eyes on the back to ward off nesting birds. Prof Kaplan said these "deterrents" could have the opposite effect.
"In fact, the magpie will alter the attack and try to attack around the neck or go for the face," she said.
Prof Kaplan said you were less likely to be swooped wearing no protection at all.

General Facts:
Well-known and easily recognisable, the Australian Magpie is unlikely to be confused with any other species.
The adult magpie is a fairly solid, sturdy bird ranging from 37 to 43 cm in length with a 65–85 cm wingspan, and weighing 220–350 g (8–12 oz). The plumage is pure glossy black and white; both sexes of all subspecies have black heads, wings and underparts with white shoulders. The tail has a black terminal band. The nape is white in the male and light greyish-white in the female.

One of Australia's most highly regarded songbirds, the Australian Magpie has a wide variety of calls, many of which are complex. Pitch may vary over up to four octaves, and the bird can mimic over 35 species of native and introduced bird species, as well as dogs and horses. Magpies have even been noted to mimic human speech when living in close proximity to humans. Its complex, musical, warbling call is one of the most familiar Australian bird sounds.

The magpie is generally sedentary and territorial throughout its range, living in groups occupying a territory, or in flocks or fringe groups. A group may occupy and defend the same territory for many years. Such energy is spent defending a territory from intruders, particularly other magpies, and different behaviours are seen with different opponents.

Don't hate the aggressive magpie, it doesn't hate you. Chances are that you and your bike are really freaking it out, and it's all just a big misunderstanding :) Oh, and maybe leave the cable ties to the cables - chances are that sticking out of your helmet they're exciting those overprotective parents even more??

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