Magpie Attacks Have Aussies Ducking

It's spring in Australia, and the magpies are swooping. This sleek, black-and-white bird turns aggressive in September and October, when male magpies protect their fledglings by dive-bombing passers-by.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

October is springtime in Australia, and that means the magpies are swooping. It sounds picturesque, but these sleek, black and white birds aren't dive-bombing in the distance. This time of year, they're swooping down on people, and many Australians have a story to tell.

Reporter Neva Grant went out to hear a few.

NEVA GRANT: Say you're riding your bike in one of Sydney's suburban parks. Suddenly, you feel the beating and whoosh of the wings and hear the sharp warning clack of a beak just above your head. You are being swooped.

Mr. ADRIAN CARTER: When they hit me, I take it very personally.

GRANT: Adrian Carter was dive-bombed by a magpie a few days ago when he paused on his bike to answer his cell phone. It lasted only a second, but we caught it on tape. Listen for the clack.

Mr. CARTER: Hang on. What's up?�

(Soundbite of bird clacking)

GRANT: The bird didn't touch him, but last month on the same trail, Carter says he got whacked.�

Mr. CARTER:�It's like somebody gives you a hard slap over the ear, a really hard slap.�If I hadn't been wearing a sort of a skullcap, it would have drawn blood, probably with its beak and its claw.

GRANT: Magpies can draw blood, on rare occasions they even aim for your eyes. But please, no Alfred Hitchcock jokes, because even their victims will tell you these birds are not evil. Just protective.�The male magpie swoops only in spring, and only if he thinks you're threatening his nest, which he patrols like a cop.�

Mr. CARTER: Do you see him on the grass, just over near the base of that tree?�

Ms. KATHY KANG: You can tell by the way he's walking that he's very confident, telling you you are on his patch.�

GRANT: That's Kathy Kang chiming in, another Sydney cyclist.�

Ms. KANG: So when I see a magpie looking around with its beady eyes sort of aggressively, I think that's him. That is the one who has swooped me three or four times in the past several weeks, up to the point where I never cycle through his territory.

GRANT: Kang says Australian magpies go after cyclists a lot this season, and people crash their bikes trying to avoid them. So biking websites have maps of magpie hotspots and tips on how to ward them off, like: Paint eyes on your helmet because magpies are less likely to strike if you're looking at them.�Or: loop those long plastic cable ties through your helmet, until you resemble a cycling porcupine.

Ms. KANG: I tried that. I went round for several days with cable ties attached to my helmet.

GRANT: How did that make you feel?

Ms. KANG: It made me feel like an absolute idiot.

GRANT: And Kang says it didn't even work. Truth is, magpies are intelligent birds, and if they think you're a threat, they will swoop. Experts say they can recognize and remember humans.�And all over Sydney, the humans come to know the magpies in their patch.

Mr. JESS RELTON (Park Ranger): Excuse me, mate. I heard there was a magpie nesting in this street.

Unidentified Man: Yup. He was just walking across the road near that red car up there a minute ago.

Mr. RELTON: Oh, yeah? Yeah? Do you know where the nest is?�

GRANT: We're in another suburb now, where a local park ranger is asking the newspaper delivery man about the dominant male in the neighborhood.

Unidentified Man: ...coming down this way.

Mr. RELTON: And that's where he dive-bombs?�

Unidentified Man: He won't attack them from the front. He'll do a swoop up, and then come down nearly on the ground level.

GRANT: In this neighborhood, too, the resident magpie seems to have it in for cyclists, park ranger Jess Relton thinks he knows why.�

Mr. RELTON: Some theories are because the bikes, they're quite fast. And it's a fast invasion of their territory. It's the same with small kids. I've heard of stories of mothers walking their kids to school, and the magpies swoop the children and not the mother.

GRANT: Suddenly, he looks up.�

Mr. RELTON: Oh, I just saw the magpie swoop - fly behind us.

GRANT: He's about a foot high, with elegant tuxedo-plumage. He's not swooping now. He has a family to attend to.�

Mr. RELTON: If you look up into that Norfolk pine there, it looks like we've got several young in the nest.�They're bringing food back for their young.

GRANT: And you can hear the fledglings just now.

(Soundbite of birds)

GRANT: But�there's another sound that park ranger Jess Relton wants us to hear.

(Soundbite of whistling)

GRANT: He whistles, hoping he can seduce a magpie to warble back.

Mr. RELTON: The magpie sounds like summer in Australia to me. I think it's a beautiful sound.

GRANT: The magpie is quiet, so Jess Relton asks a favor. Maybe you could find a recording, he says, because magpies only swoop a few weeks in spring. But they sing all year long.

(Soundbite of magpie warbling)

GRANT: For NPR News, I'm Neva Grant, in Sydney.

(Soundbite of magpie warbling)

HANSEN: You're listing to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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