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Blood and feathers: Sydney's angry birds take their toll

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Stephanie Gardiner and Glenda Kwek

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How to avoid a magpie attack

It's spring time and magpies are in attack mode like this angry bird in Newcastle.

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Sydney is in the midst of a real-life game of angry birds - and these creatures have cyclists, runners and even small children in their sights.

There's one family the kids have got different hats on and the mother had a towel over her head as they try to get past the magpie 

"This thing is drawing blood," one school principal complained recently.

Fearless ... size doesn't count for a magpie protecting its nest.

Fearless ... size doesn't count for a magpie protecting its nest. Photo: Kylie Pickett

An expert even warns that we should treat these feathered fiends like lions, tigers and bears.

It all sounds a bit Hitchcockian, but these aren't bloodthirsty evil birds - they're just magpies, who are fulfilling their role as "policemen of the bush" in the peak of nesting season.

That means for a four-week period while their mates' eggs hatch, the male magpie will fearlessly take on anything of any size that encroaches into his territory.

Under attack ... a male magpie takes exception to a motorised human intruder on its territory in Lambton in NSW.

Under attack ... a male magpie takes exception to a motorised human intruder on its territory in Lambton in NSW. Photo: Darren Pateman

Professor Gisela Kaplan, who has been studying magpies for decades, said female magpies incubated their eggs between August and September while their male mate-for-life played sentry.

"It's in his interests to guard her and protect her and guard the nestlings. He needs to do a good job or she would actually divorce him ... and find another male." (Read more about magpie habits here)

View Magpie attacks in a full screen map


We took a look at some of Sydney's swooping hotspots, as suggested by smh.com.au readers.

Heathcote High School

One fearless magpie has been attacking teachers, students and parents as they walk alone near the school's gym for about a month.

"This thing is drawing blood," school principal Geoffrey Dodds said.

"We've had a parent come to the door one afternoon and say 'I've just been attacked by a magpie' and she turned around and there was blood streaming down the back of her neck.

"She had to be treated in our sick bay.

"It's certainly not a bird that's scared to take on anybody."

Magpie warning sign

The swoopers ... students at Heathcote High School know magpies well. Photo: Geoff Dodds

At one point there were four attacks in two days, with some students having skin on their scalps and ears punctured.

Mr Dodds has sought permission from National Parks and Wildlife to have the bird destroyed.

"I didn't go seeking the order lightly, because by and large you try and avoid these things by walking around the area.

"But unfortunately this bird has set itself up beside the school's gym and then it just chases people; it's gone well beyond the pale of ordinary magpie attacks.

"But it got to the point where I couldn't ignore it any more."

National Parks and Wildlife said it gave permission for the magpie to be killed by a trained exterminator, but the order was withdrawn because there is an ongoing review of the permits after community concerns.

"So we'll just keep looking up and keep waving our arms and using umbrellas and all those sorts of things and somehow get to the holidays and hope that in those two weeks the bird will have settled down," Mr Dodds said.

"I've heard of one school where they used to issue the students with ice-cream containers [to cover their heads].

"Our kids wouldn't do it; there's no point in me suggesting it."

St Peters

Magpie warning sign

Watch out ... a Marrickville Council sign warning of aggressive magpies. Photo: Glenda Kwek

A few years ago, Marrickville Council erected an "aggressive magpies" warning at Camdenville Park in St Peters after a reported attack.

The sign, which also includes advice on how to reduce your chances of being swooped on, is the only one in the area, a council spokeswoman said.

Marrickville residents said another swooping spot was at the Petersham RSL Club's car park.

Here are the magpie danger zones you told us about:

Manly Vale

Small children and their parents run the gauntlet along Campbell Parade every morning, using sheets, towels and umbrellas to protect themselves from a magpie terrorising the neighbourhood.

Resident Vernon Leonard said his wife recently became one of the bird's victims.

"My wife has actually got a dent in her bike helmet where she got dive-bombed.

"She was a bit surprised really, because she always assumed they swooped over and went away and tried to frighten you.

"But this one obviously went straight for her head with his beak and left a dent in her bike helmet, which is quite an achievement."

Mr Leonard often sees a single angry bird swooping on parents and children as they walk to the several childcare centres along the street.

"You see parents walking along; they've got umbrellas, they've got sheets over their head.

"There's one family the kids have got different hats on and the mother had a towel over her head as they try to get past the magpie."

Mr Leonard has lived in the area for 15 years and the same spot is favoured by swooping magpies - he suspects the same bird for the past couple of years - every spring.

"He's there every year and he's there right now.

"He lives around here somewhere and it's his territory."

Mount Annan

This swooper holds a serious grudge against cyclists.

A magpie has been stalking mountain bikers on part of the Mount Annan Botanic Garden riding path for weeks, but leaves joggers and walkers alone.

The garden's horticulture manager Dan Bishop said it was the only swooping magpie in the whole of the 1000-acre gardens.

"If you're walking it doesn't bother you, but if you're on a mountain bike it gives you a lot of grief.

"It's a frightening experience, but nobody's been hurt.

"This particular one seems to have a thing for mountain bikers.

"It follows them for probably 200 metres or so while they're riding."

The magpie doesn't attack groups of cyclists or riders who get off their bike and walk along.

"We've only had the track open for 12 months and this magpie, up until 12 months ago, was in an area of our garden that didn't get heavy use.

"We're hoping that the magpie will either move away to a part where he's not going to be disturbed by the mountain bikers, or get used to the mountain bikers but it hasn't happened.

"This is the second year really that it's happened.

"It's hard to tell, but it probably is the same bird: in the same location, with the same behaviour."

How to avoid an attack

- Don't wear a shiny helmet. Shiny surfaces make magpies believe they are in greater danger. The scarier the object you wear on your head, the more a magpie feels it has to act.

- Treat magpies like bears or lions. Instead of running away, screaming or flapping your arms, get off your bicycle, move to the other side of the pathway slowly and watch the magpie.

- Make a temporary sign to warn others.

- Walk a different route - away from the magpie's territory

- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

from the NSW Environment Department and Professor Gisela Kaplan

27 comments

  • No mention here that many people lose eyes to magpie attacks every year? In Queensland four kids are blinded in one eye every year and many more injured. One was blinded yesterday. I also met a guy whose little girl was undergoing her second eye operation after a magpie attack.

    For some reason, many people don't care about these kids and instead defend the aggressive bird which has blinded them. I'm still amazed though that any member of the public would seek to leave an aggressive bird in place above a school where it is attacking children. Inhumane madness..

    Commenter
    John Jones
    Date and time
    September 23, 2011, 12:46PM
    • Given that we humans are the most aggressive and oppressive species on this planet, I think we should cut the Magpie some slack. BTW there is one basically in my front yard who has swooped me twice in the past week - just need to keep a hat near the door.

      Commenter
      skifan
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 23, 2011, 12:53PM
      • If a Shark attacks someone it is usually hunted and killed...same with most species which attack.....just saying....

        Commenter
        Jade
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 23, 2011, 12:56PM
        • Above featured magpie is on one of the busier roads in Newcastle (New Lambton)-this particular bird beaked me in the back of the neck on riding home from John Hunter Hospital

          Commenter
          Dr ms
          Location
          Newcastle
          Date and time
          September 23, 2011, 1:03PM
          • @John Jones - you can mitigate the risks of magpie swoops - hats, glasses/sunglasses etc. And they're doing what they do naturally, and only for a few weeks a year.

            On the other hand, this happens: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/wallaby-found-dead-shot-with-arrow-20110923-1knus.html. Calling for the callous person who did this to be euthanased would cause outrage. Tell me what this wallaby did to deserve this, and what mitigation it could have consciously engaged in?

            Commenter
            James
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            September 23, 2011, 1:09PM
            • Here we go again, How dare any other living thing exist on this planet other than the human animal. Have those whingers out there thought about how they affect the lives of other creatures as they go about their daily activities? Just remember the human animal is the only animal that craps in it's own nest .... it's called pollution!!!

              Commenter
              claireh
              Location
              sydney
              Date and time
              September 23, 2011, 1:12PM
              • @Jade. Maaaaaate. I feel for the kids who've lost an eye due to these birds. But at least they're not run over and killed by a car whose driver says they couldn't see due to the sun in their eyes.

                Used to love feeding these birds at the park. I think they're legends.

                Commenter
                Believer
                Date and time
                September 23, 2011, 1:15PM
                • Hmm. They were here first. We have to assimilate to their cultural values not the other way round.

                  Get used to it, humans. Avian mega-flu is just around the corner. Haven't you seen Hitchcock?

                  Commenter
                  Captain Question
                  Location
                  there
                  Date and time
                  September 23, 2011, 1:17PM
                  • Given this is only for a few weeks a year we should be more than capable of putting up with the inconvenience.

                    The quote from the article says it all: I've heard of one school where they used to issue the students with ice-cream containers [to cover their heads] .. Our kids wouldn't do it; there's no point in me suggesting it."

                    If people aren't willing to put themselves out by a minor inconvenience don't go blaming the bird!

                    Magpies are smart and intelligent birds. I grew up on a large country property with several families of the birds, and was never swooped once - because they new we meant them no harm.

                    Commenter
                    rob1966
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    September 23, 2011, 1:21PM
                    • Bicentennial Park in Glebe - The diagaonal path from the Northcote/Eglington Rd junction. Continue down Northcote and take the centre path. This seems to be far enough away.

                      Rozelle - Along James Craig Road.

                      Five Dock - Henley Marine Drive near Timbrell Park (near Timbrell Drive Junction)

                      Also Five Dock - The last few seasons has had a swooper outside Doremy College.

                      Mortlake - Rickard St near Heath St

                      Commenter
                      Matt
                      Location
                      Sydney
                      Date and time
                      September 23, 2011, 1:22PM

                      More comments

                      Comments are now closed

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