Australia has a reputation for terrifying, deadly animals, from brown snakes to redback spiders to buff red kangaroos that can disembowel you with their feet. Fortunately, most of these hell creatures will won’t start anything if you just leave them alone. Unfortunately, magpies do not extend the same courtesy.
Also known as “spring” in the U.S., swooping season is in full swing in Australia, adding just one more reason for everyone to stay indoors right now. Every year from early August to late October, the Australian magpie loses its tiny feathered gourd and starts indiscriminately dive-bombing anything that comes within 50 to 100 metres (164 to 328 feet) of its nest, as seen in a video that went viral this week.
It could be a dog, it could be a person, it could even be a four-door sedan. Size doesn’t matter. The Australian magpie picks its battles, and it has picked all of them.
This extremely antisocial behaviour is due to an overblown sense of protectiveness, with the native flying razor blades trying to keep threats away from their newly hatched chicks. Unfortunately, in the beady, cold eyes of these deranged vigilantes, everything that moves is a threat to their newly hatched chicks — even innocent little boys on scooters.
Australians have become accustomed to this annual nationwide assault, carrying umbrellas and wearing helmets with cable ties sticking out of them (the effectiveness of which is debatable). There’s even a crowdsourced Magpie Alert website, helping people avoid areas where death is known to come from above.
Unfortunately, little can stop a highly determined magpie. The species has been responsible for surges in bird-inflicted eye injuries and blindings, with one particularly aggressive magpie even shot dead after terrorising a Sydney street for three years.
The potential for an arbitrary maiming is bad enough, but because 2020 is cursed, Australia’s swooping season may only get worse now that everyone is wearing face masks.
Aside from their overactive sense of danger, magpies are fairly intelligent birds which can recognise and remember human faces, and won’t attack people they don’t consider threats. As such, some experts suggest offering edible tributes to your local avian bully, so it will learn your face and know you come in peace.
“They will form very long friendships, like dogs,” animal behaviour expert Dr Gisela Kaplan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Even during the breeding season you can come close to them because they know you’ll do no harm.”
However, a magpie knowing your friendly face might not protect you if they can’t actually see it behind your mask.
“We don’t know whether [masks will make swooping season worse], but there is a chance because what we do know is that magpies can individually recognise individual people,” BirdLife Australia’s Sean Dooley told 3AW. “A magpie may know you and know that you’re okay, but if you’re wearing a mask they might not be able to recognise you.”
Dooley also cited previous research indicating magpies may swoop people wearing types of masks they associate with negative experiences. So if someone wearing a black mask previously threw rocks at a magpie, and you also happen to wear a black mask, you may be in for a bad time.
“It’s going to be really fascinating to see whether the reports of swooping increase,” said Dooley.
Not all magpies are suddenly possessed with this primal need to feast on human eyeballs when the weather gets warmer, though. Only about 10 percent of breeding pairs become so aggressive, and only the males, and only when they have chicks in their nest. The whole ordeal is typically over in around six weeks, by which time the chicks have grown and left the nest.
But like the wealthiest one percent of humans, the angriest 10 percent of magpies ruin everything for everyone.