Tuesday, April 10, 2012


I have had a magpie, the Australian magpie, in the back yard recently, turning over my dog's bones to see if there is any meat left on them. I also see them in the Park occasionally and on the outskirts of town. Another much maligned bird I think. Would that we were not always finding some reason for persecuting and killing birds.

The bell magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, was brought to New Zealand by the Acclimatisation Societies to control pasture pests and was protected until 1951. Two sub species brought here were the white-backed magpie of Southeastern Australia and Tasmania and the black–backed from northern Australia and New Guinea. In New Zealand the white–backed predominates except in the Hawke’s Bay and in North Canterbury. Like other Australian introductions, the original birds have undoubtedly been supplemented by other birds coming across the Tasman of their own accord, so technically, magpies could be deemed native birds.

I think a lot of their bad press comes from people mistaking them for the Euopean magpie, a quite different character. In the 1990s a vociferous campaign was launched against the magpie but after some complaints from defenders of the magpie, research was iniated by Landcare which came to the conclusion that magpies are not a real threat to native birds. The only native bird they give a hard time is Kahu, the harrier hawk, which is notorious for ransacking nests and does not distinguish between native and introduced.

However, aggression towards people is another matter. For most of the year magpies are not aggressive, but for four to six weeks during nesting they will often defend their territory vigorously. People walking past may be seen as ‘invaders’ of the territory, prompting the magpies to fly low and fast over the person clacking their bills as they pass overhead.

The experience of a magpie attack can be quite alarming, but it is usually only a warning. Only occasionally will a bird actually strike the intruder on the head with its beak or claws. If this unusual behaviour persists, there are ways of reducing the risk of physical injury to humans.

If a magpie swoops at you, walk quickly and carefully away from the area, and avoid walking there when magpies are swooping. Make a temporary sign to warn other people. Magpies are less likely to swoop if you look at them. Try to keep an eye on the magpie, at the same time walking carefully away. Alternatively, you can draw or sew a pair of eyes onto the back of a hat, and wear it when walking through the area. You can also try wearing your sunglasses on the back of your head. Wear a bicycle or skateboard helmet. Any sort of hat, even a hat made from an ice cream container or cardboard box, will help protect you. Carry an open umbrella, or a stick or small branch, above your head but do not swing it at the magpie, as this will only provoke it to attack. If you are riding a bicycle when the magpie swoops, get off the bicycle and wheel it quickly through the area. Your bicycle helmet will protect your head, and you can attach a tall red safety flag to your bicycle or hold a stick or branch as a deterrent.

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