When good birds go bad.

September in Melbourne brings many things, but the two most noticeable are the AFL finals and Australian Magpie attacks. The AFL finals involve an oval shaped playing surface, a pointy ball and large numbers of people apparently running in all directions. The magpie attacks involve any shaped playing surface that takes their fancy, a pointy beak and large numbers of people apparently running in all directions. I kid you not – it’s a season of disappointment for many football fans and a season of fear for those who have badly behaved magpies at the bottom of the garden, or any number of other locations where magpies lie in ambush.

The Australian Magpie is not actually a magpie at all in the sense of European or American Magpies. The European Magpie (Pica pica) is a black and white crow, a corvid. While the Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is generally “crow like” in appearance, it is in fact in separate family, the Artamidae. This family contains woodswallows and butcherbirds and is restricted to the broad Australian region. It’s called a Magpie because of its Black and White Colour – not because of any relationship to the other magpies. In this way it provides a good example of why the relationships suggested by common names can be misleading.

The Australian Magpie (just Magpie from now on!) is a familiar bird over much of Australia, and is probably one of the most widely recognized Australian birds. It is used for many sporting clubs logos and most famously is associated with the Collingwood Football Club, which is generally referred to as “The Pies”. (In reality they are referred to in many other ways as well, mostly derogatory and mostly justified!). Magpies can be seen readily in urban areas, and in many cases they take up a territory that may include a number of gardens. This leads people to have their “own” magpies, which are regularly seen in the same garden. Who owns what is debatable here!

Having magpies in your garden can be a really wonderful experience; they are birds full of character and personality. If you can get past the mad staring eyes and the awful reputation that is. Without question they are wonderfully musical birds, with their specific name alluding to their rolling, mellow flute like call. In Latin Tibicen means piper or flute player. As a migrant I find this “organ like caroling” of this bird one of the most identifiably Australian sounds I have heard. If I was to leave tomorrow it would be the strongest sensory link to this country, all myths of outback heroes shrink into insignificance compared to the song of this bird. For me at least, this bird is Australia.
Yet in the breeding season about 10% of these birds undergo some form of psychotic personality transformation. The splendid black and white birds in the garden bed become some form of organic missile intent on the destruction of its foe. And if you happen to be that foe you can be in for some serous harassment. Magpies remember who you are, and they seem neither to forget nor forgive. Once you become a target its best to admit defeat rapidly and go somewhere else, and what makes it worse is that birds have been known to hold the same territory for 18 years! The birds attack their chosen target by swooping at the head and often make contact with beak or claw. It needs to remembered that we are not dealing with a small bird here – 5 cm +beak, weight up to and exceeding 300g. When the breeding season starts it pays to be vigilant.

Yet it’s easy for me to say that you need “to go somewhere else”, but what if your job takes you along the same streets at more or less the same time every day? What if that street contains a pied time bomb waiting for your arrival? I suppose you would need to deploy defensive measures of some kind. The postmen and women of Australia Post are in the front line of the conflict with the mad and bad magpies that wait in the depths of our suburban wilderness. As the magpies attack the head, the most common form of defense is to expand the head! The “hair extensions” used in the picture are supposed to make the magpies miss the top of your actual head and hit the extension instead. It seems like an unequal battle to me, plastic zip ties on one side and 300g of aggressive bird on the other – looks like it’s one nil to the magpies.

As you can see from some of the images here, magpies are not just black and white but have shades of grey as well. This seems fitting for a bird that can sound angelic one minute and morph into the devil incarnate the next. I think I’m glad I don’t have to deliver the post in September!


nmonckton said...

They might mug you, but at least they don't steal your silverware - which European Magpies are reputed to do.

Muz said...

S- there are greater similarities to the human variety that first thought; some of the AFL "pies" fans are reputed to also attack anything moving, especially after a losing game (dare I say an all too frequent occurrence?!!). And they too defend territory ferociously, even if it is only their local pub.
On a more serious note, Oz magpies are also actually reputed to steal shiny objects - I have had a flouro golf ball nicked by one on a country course.

Nigel Monckton said...

Crikey! A golf ball - I'm reminded of the monty python sketch about coconuts in medieval England