A Magpie Swooping Trick You Probably Haven't Heard Of Yet

It could work, but we don't want to be the ones to test it.

01/09/2016 9:10 AM AEST | Updated 01/09/2016 3:15 PM AEST
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A magpie swoops a brave photographer.

Hands up if you've been swooped by a magpie. Australians trade stories of these wild squawking, scalp clawing, blood drawing bird encounters as though they're a right of passage.

And tales of how to avoid them result in a springtime army of people with ice cream containers on their heads, hats with eyes drawn on the back, helmets with sticks pointing out and those few brave souls who stop, face the magpie and stand their ground.

If you've not seen a magpie swooping before, check out this now legendary video of radio host Amber Wheatland putting her body on the line in the name of research.

As she says, the eyes don't work.

So what does work? And why do magpies hate us so much?

University of New England professor Gisela Kaplan has researched magpies for 25 years and has never once been swooped. Not once. Not even when she was on a rope dangling a few metres from a magpie nest.

"I have a little trick, you see," Kaplan told The Huffington Post Australia.

To understand her swoop-avoidance strategy, you first need to understand something about magpies -- they're fiercely intelligent.

"The neurons in the brain of a bird are much more densely packed than even primates, so the idea of a bird brain is entirely false," Kaplan said.


"Magpies can solve problems immediately, they can recognise faces and they have a memory of the past. They can also point to signal danger.

"All these indications suggest magpies are highly complex in a cognitive sense -- this is what we would call intelligence."

Kaplan said magpies were smart enough to remember friends and foes, and if a particular magpie had it in for people in general, you needed to show them you were friendly.

Why do magpies swoop?

Magpies only swoop for about six weeks of the year when they have babies in their nest, often at the start of spring.

Most magpies don't swoop, but when they do, it's the male protecting the nest and their resources.

Magpies will usually only swoop about 100m from the tree they're nesting in.

Magpies have been known to remember someone they believe to be a foe and exclusively swoop them for a lifetime which can be 25 years.

"Because I've never been swooped in 25 years of research, people will occasionally say to me to come with them and test it out on a magpie that doesn't know me," Kaplan said.

"I'll approach them with a little bit of mincemeat in my hand. It's like I'm saying 'I come in friendship, I offer you a gift' and the magpie will think about this.

"Because magpies can think.

"Usually, they won't take the mincemeat but they won't swoop either and if you come back the next day and put the mincemeat on the ground and take a few steps back, they'll usually take it.

"By the third day, the magpie will likely give you freedom of passage."

So there you have it.

National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Melanie Tyas told HuffPost Australia that feeding magpies, however, was not ideal.

"We try to deter people from feeding magpies and it's not because we're killjoys, it's because it can make them sick.

"Magpies usually eat insects, skinks, worms and even small mammals and when they eat them, they get all the bones and fur and everything. In comparison, eating mince is like us eating straight sugar."

Tyas said the best strategy to avoid being swooped was to avoid the area. She also said a bit of compassion wouldn't go astray.

"They're actually very good parents," Tyas said.

"They're just doing what we would do -- protecting the food bowl and their family and if you've ever heard a baby magpie squawk, they put up with that for weeks. I think they deserve a bit of respect for that/"

Magpie swooping avoidance strategies

Cross the road or avoid known swooping trees for the first few weeks of spring. There's national crowd-sourced map Magpie Alert showing you hotspots.

Show a problem magpie you're a friend using mincemeat as per Kaplan's suggestion.

Draw eyes in the back of your hat. Then run, because this one probably doesn't work.

Wear a hat with sticks poking out.

Pop an ice cream container on your head for protection.

Plan your annual leave to be out of the country for the first few weeks of spring. I hear Europe's nice.

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