September is the high point of the “swooping season”, although the birds nest from July to December and can also whiz during these months. To make matters worse, magpies can breed at any time within these months, and if they have one brood of chicks at the start of the season, they can have a second even months later.
Are all magpies dangerous?
Although extremely rare, deaths related to magpie attacks occur. Aside from Baby Mia, a man died in Wollongong in 2019 after crashing his bicycle in an attack by a magpie.
The birds themselves can also cause injuries. In 2020, a man and woman suffered eye injuries in separate incidents in the Victoria area that involved a particularly aggressive magpie. Scratches on the head, neck or face from the birds’ sharp beaks are far more common.
Even so, magpies have an undeserved reputation as an aggressive species, says Castley.
“Most birds are not aggressive, even those defending their territory will show reluctance, but some are aggressive and cause problems,” he says.
Local councils usually keep a record of magpie attacks, while the independent website Magpie Alert compiles national data based on input from readers. So far this year, 212 magpie attacks have been recorded across Australia, with Queensland recording the most of all states with 88 reported attacks.
Magpies aren’t the only bird to strike in Australia: peewees, butcher birds, and plovers do too, although Dooley says magpies are more common, the number of incidents is higher.
What should you do if you are attacked by a magpie?
“It is almost a rite of passage to be ambushed by a magpie in Australia, but it can be frightening and harmful. It’s rare, but it does happen, ”admits Dooley.
He says when a magpie targets you it is best to stay calm, although this is difficult to do when an angry bird slaps you in the face.
“Usually they don’t try to contact you, they want to scare you, so they attack you from behind,” says Dooley.
“Waving your arms around or moving a stick or something will only make the bird madder, so the best thing to do is walk, not run, away from the area.”
Castley says instead of waving your arms over your head, it’s best to just place them over your head to protect him.
“So go as fast as you can, but don’t run, protect your face and get out of here as soon as you can to minimize the risk of injury,” he says.
But how can you avoid being run over?
Of course, if you know there is a nest, stay away. If you can’t avoid nests, be aware that cyclists are more likely to be attacked than people on foot, and runners more often than hikers. Dooley says that’s because the birds view something that moves quickly near their nest as a much greater threat than something that moves slowly.
“The birds don’t have time to judge if someone is a threat if they move too fast, so they just decide it is and start falling,” he says.
Castley says tricks like taping googly eyes on the back of your helmet are of mixed use, and agrees with Dooley that carrying a stick to whip the birds will only annoy them more. “A better bet is something like an umbrella that can protect you without annoying the bird,” he says.
Outside of the immediate situation, Dooley says, playing a long game could help you avoid magpie attacks – at least around you. Since the birds can spot individuals, you can make an effort to befriend them to make sure they realize that you are not a threat, he says.
“Obviously, having some ground beef in your pocket while hiking or biking is a bit inconvenient, but if you feed it at home during other times of the year, they’ll remember the breeding season,” he says.
“And in general, if you don’t piss off the birds, most of the time they’ll leave you alone.”
Is something being done about the problem star?
Most councils across the country have a magpie policy. Brisbane City Council, which covers the area where Baby Mia died, has relocated the magpie believed to be responsible for the attack. It had already put up warning signs in the park where the bird had its nest after raiding several other people in the past few weeks.
The Wellington Shire Council in Gippsland last year destroyed the two magpies responsible for attacking people’s eyes, saying the birds had learned dangerous behaviors and could not be safely relocated.
Dooley says because magpies are so common in human-inhabited areas, it is in both of your best interests to get along. “They’re not bastards, they’re really caring parents. We just share the same living space and have to try to find a way to coexist. “