How to survive when good birds turn baaaad
September is the peak of Australia’s own version of “home-grown terrorism” (as memorably described to me by a distraught and bleeding school principal, valiantly attempting to protect his pupils), when a small but conspicuous proportion of magpies throughout the country begin to attack otherwise innocent passersby.
It is certainly the most significant human-wildlife conflict in the towns and cities of this country.
Every year, many thousands of people are swooped, some are slightly injured and a few seriously (especially cyclists) – and a very small number may lose an eye.
It’s commonplace for some of us to recall the blur of wings and the click of that beak with a strange level of nostalgia, but it is sobering to appreciate that some of these attacks cause real damage and trauma. So what is going on with these otherwise favourite Aussie icons?
Irate magpie attacks neighbourhood cat and sends it packing. pic.twitter.com/vxn6Ig9XKS— Crispin Rodwell (@CrispinRodwell) May 31, 2016
What’s their problem?
Explanations for this all-too familiar behaviour are legion, with passionate advocates for more plausible theories such as:
territoriality - they are trying to keep us out of their patch
testosterone poisoning - they are so pumped with male juice they can’t help themselves
colour trigger - they just hate orange/yellow/purple.
While there is a lot we don’t yet know about this phenomena, all of the research conducted to date points clearly to the protective parent hypothesis.
Male magpies are adapted to drive away potential predators, and are especially when the chicks are vulnerable nestlings. For some reason, certain males (around 10% of breeding pairs) have come to view humans as serious threats to their chicks and act according.
While these avian assessments seems to be false (most victims are unlikely to have eaten a baby magpie!), the resulting swoops and attacks seem to be an attempt to drive intruders away from the nest tree.
Furthermore, when we flee from the onslaught, the bird’s main objective – moving a dangerous predator on – is successful and the behaviour rewarded.
Having proved to himself his proficiency at the task means he is all the more likely to try again next time. And when especially dim-witted humans - by continuing toward the nest - don’t seem to get the hint, the intensity of the message can become more and more pronounced.
Confused driver films as magpie attacks his car - https://t.co/2ORA9lqF1Y— AOL Cars UK (@AOLCars) April 19, 2016