Magpie, An Australian Story
It’s springtime in Australia so that means the most feared of all Australian wildlife is out — not a deadly snake or a spider, not even the great white shark, but a bird. The magpie.
In my cycling days, I had had my fair share of magpie divebomb attacks. The sight of a magpie sitting on a low branch, scanning the surrounding area would strike fear in my heart. In later years, as I take my children to the playground in October and November, I am vigilant with hats, bike helmets and sunglasses, aware that as I try to protect my babies, the magpies are protecting their own babies in their nests.
Is all of this fear unwarranted or misplaced? Who has more to fear, we humans, or the magpies?
I started writing a children’s book a few years ago with a magpie and other Australian wildlife as characters. The more I learnt about Australian birds during the writing process, the more I came to admire and love our magpies. My attitude to their springtime swooping changed as a result.
Magpies are highly intelligent birds. They are capable of learning and recognising human faces. They have complex social interactions. And of course, they are dedicated and protective parents.
I have learnt to befriend the birds around me. Maybe it’s my imagination but I think they are friendlier to me and my family because of it. Birds have more intelligence than most people give them credit for so perhaps it’s not fanciful thinking on my part.
Recently I was at a large park with my children. No one else was there when we got there. A magpie swooped one of my children (she was wearing a hat and didn’t even notice, so no damage done). I offered the magpie some of the fruit that I had with me and it accepted it. The magpie did not bother us again for the rest of the afternoon. Other families turned up and the magpie started swooping again. Their children reacted by throwing sticks and sand at the bird. This did not deter the magpie; if anything it was more zealous in protecting its nest. Eventually, the other adults told them to stop.
This incident made me wonder at the automatic response of human violence against nature. If you are worried about a bird swooping you because it wants to protect its nest, why would you think that throwing objects at it would make the bird less inclined to see you as a threat? I spoke to the other adults and mentioned that my offering of apple pieces to the magpie had made it leave us alone, so perhaps if they tried to befriend it, they wouldn’t be attacked. They were surprised as if it had not occurred to them. It made me sad that there is such prejudice against these beautiful birds that many people’s immediate response is to threaten them with violence.
As natural habitats decrease around our cities and suburbs, there is less space for wildlife, so our birds are forced to cohabitate with us. We can live easily with magpies for ten months of the year but come October, the public attitude changes. Magpies become public enemy number one, although they are simply protecting their young in the only way they know how. And if the only trees available to them are in a suburban park or a verge tree, then what choice do they have?