Australian magpies are very common around us here in Eltham, and they’re one of the most common birds in Australia. If you walk out of our front door you’re bound to see one soon, probably standing on the ground like the one in the photo above, ready to pounce on the grubs and insects they eat. You can see why early settlers called them magpies – they’re very similar in size, colouring and habit to Eurasian magpies, although they’re not part of the corvid family at all. There are a number of birds in Australia that look and act a lot like crows, but aren’t, including currawongs, butcher birds and choughs. They’re all fairly distinct but I haven’t got round to remembering the various combinations of eye, bill and feather colouring yet. Maybe writing a future blog post on them would help me!
Magpies are noisy birds. You often find them in argumentative family groups of up to five or six birds, making a huge range of squawks and squeaks as they squabble with each other or warn of approaching danger etc. The sound isn’t quite as harsh as cockatoos, but it’s not far off. Young magpies make a tremendous racket, usually when demanding to be fed like the one below:
Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!
Right, GET ME MORE FOOD!
In our first house here I remember all hell breaking loose one afternoon – I went to the window wondering if there was a snake or something only to see a large family of magpies having a full-on argument over who was going to get the next beak-full.
However as they mature their voice develops, and they gradually learn how to sing. There was one practising in the front garden the other day, interspersing chirps and squawks with something a little more melodic. Eventually they can produce one of the most lovely birdsongs, a complex lilting warble that is utterly distinctive. The tibicen part of their Latin name means flautist, and it’s an apt description. The New Zealand poem The Magpies transcribes the call as quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle which nearly does it, but I’d click on the links above if you want to hear the real thing. Magpie song is one of the quintessential elements of the Australian bush, and along with kookaburra laughter is the soundtrack to many a walk through the gum forests.
European magpies have a significant mythology, with a reputation for stealing shiny things along with many other superstitions. Australian magpies have a reputation too, but it’s very different – come nesting time it’s swooping season. September is the key month, but it can happen from July to November. Some magpies, almost invariably male, become intensely territorial in defending their eggs and chicks, and will attack pedestrians and cyclists who are nearby. You don’t need to look threatening, although it seems they are vindictive and will go for people they’ve taken a dislike to time and again. Just being within 100m-150m of the nest can be enough to provoke repeated dive-bomb attacks from that sharp and sturdy bill. They’re canny, approaching from behind and the first you know about it is a bash to the head as seen on this excellent helmet-cam video.
It’s not a joke either – a small number of people do get seriously injured every year. Swooping season is heavily trailed on the news, and signs are erected near repeat offenders. There are hundreds of folk remedies to prevent attacks – I’ve seen plenty of helmets festooned with cable ties and eyes painted on the back etc, and I’d certainly recommend hats / cycle helmets and sunnies or other eyewear.
I’ve been swooped a couple of times on my bike, once on Diamond Creek trail near Eltham station and again on Mount Pleasant road, although I suspect the latter was a noisy miner rather than a magpie. In both cases there was no warning, just a sudden thwack on my cycle helmet – so I got my head down and cycled off as fast as possible. It’s a big enough problem that some proper research has been done – unhelpfully the main recommendation was simply to avoid known swooping hotspots. Thanks for that!
They’re handsome birds, and their song is beautiful – but watch out in September!