Australian Magpie

Photo: Rosie Nicolai

Magpie

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What do Magpies look like?

Australian Magpies have black and white feathers with varying patterns and shapes, with a mostly black body. Males are white around the back of the neck, upper tail and shoulders. Females are grey coloured in these places. Magpies brown eyes and white colourings are the best way to tell them apart from other black and white birds like the Butcherbird or Pied Currawong

Where are Magpies found?

Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen) are very widespread across all states of Australia. They live in backyards where there are trees and adjacent open areas such as lawns, golf courses and playing fields.

Fast facts:

  1. Most Magpies don’t swoop people. 90% of male magpies won’t swoop and females don’t swoop at all. But for just six weeks from August to September some males may swoop and become aggressive. They are just defending their nest and protecting their babies.
  2. Magpies are intelligent birds and full of character with a melodious call. During winter and spring Magpies sing a short repetitive version of carolling just before dawn and at twilight after sundown.

Magpie – the full story

Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen) are very widespread and live in suburbs across Australia where there are trees and adjacent open areas such as lawns, golf courses and playing fields. For most of the year, Magpies are friendly and sociable, and may even venture into your house to beg for food. But for four to six weeks a year during August to September, the male Magpie will defend his home vigorously. For the rest of the year, people are completely safe from swooping Magpies!

Most Magpies don’t swoop people. Females don’t swoop at all because they are busy sitting on the eggs, and only 12% of male Magpies are aggressive. These few males only swoop for six weeks while their chicks are in the nest. Understandably, these dads are just being protective of their babies.

Male Magpies swoop people because they are protecting their chicks, but also because the person walking or riding by reminds the bird of someone who disturbed them in the past. Magpies have very long memories.

There is a lot to love about these distinctive Australian birds. 

Magpies are intelligent birds and full of character. They learn quickly if they are in a safe environment and not likely to be threatened by humans. When this happens, it is a real treat and joy to watch them and their antics in your backyard, and listen to their melodious calls.

Magpies build their nests in the outer branches of a tree, up to 15 m above the ground. It is constructed from sticks and twigs (occasionally wire), with a small interior bowl lined with grass and hair.

The Magpies’ appetite for eating the insects in your lawn makes them great backyard buddies as they will help keep your bug numbers down naturally.

Tips to avoid being swooped

There are a lot of simple things you can do to avoid being swooped by a protective Magpie dad defending his chicks, such as:

  • Walk quickly and carefully away from the area and avoid walking there when Magpies are nesting.
  • Make a temporary sign to warn other people.
  • Your Magpie is less likely to swoop if you look at it. Try to keep an eye on the Magpie, at the same time walking carefully away. Alternatively, you can draw or sew a pair of eyes onto the back of a hat, and wear it when walking through the area. You can also try wearing your sunglasses on the back of your head.
  • Wear a bicycle or skateboard helmet. Any sort of hat, even a hat made from an ice cream container or cardboard box, will help protect you.
  • Carry an open umbrella or a stick or small branch above your head but do not swing it at the Magpie, as this will only provoke it to attack.
  • If you are riding a bicycle when the Magpie swoops, get off the bicycle and wheel it quickly through the area. Your bicycle helmet will protect your head, and you can attach a tall red safety flag to your bicycle or hold a stick or branch as a deterrent.

Be a Backyard Buddy

During winter, you may be lucky enough to hear a group of Magpies sing a short repetitive version of carolling just before dawn and at twilight after sundown. They only do this during winter and spring, so get out and enjoy the special performance.

Magpies love:

  • Open woodlands with tall trees but no understory.
  • Big, old trees which give them somewhere safe to build their nests and sleep at night.
  • Hunting and eating insects.
  • Mimicking other birds’ calls, car alarms, dogs barking, phones ringing and even human voices.

But they don’t like:

  • People who come too close to their nests while they have eggs or chicks.
  • Garden chemicals and pesticides, which poison insects they eat and make them sick.
  • Fast cars with drivers that aren’t careful when going past bushy areas or parks.

Be a Buddy to Magpies

Try to:

  • Install a bird bath so buddies like the Magpie can have a drink, bathe or play in the water. Keep this water fresh and clean and place your birdbath next to dense bushes so birds have somewhere nearby to hide if a predator appears.
  • Include mulch, leaf litter and rocks in your garden as this will attract lizards and insects which Magpies and other birds love to eat.

Avoid:

  • Feeding Magpies and other wild birds, as they are very good at finding their own food and can become sick if they eat old seed or processed foods like bread.
  • Riding your bike near a nesting Magpie as they are more likely to swoop bike riders than people walking. Vary your route for the next few weeks and the male Magpie will soon stop.

Don’t be surprised if Magpies:

  • Sunbake – young Magpies love to soak up the rays and often flop on the edge of open compost heaps, wriggling to form a nice indentation in which to lie and bask in the sun – and the warmth from the compost heap.
  • Swoop men or boys but not women or girls – scientists have found that Magpies mainly swoop males between 10 and 30 years old.
  • Come into your house through an open door or window looking for food- these are very smart, and cheeky, birds.
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