I am constantly intrigued by the huge variations in the plumage of Australian Magpies. As we travel from home in Murray Bridge, South Australia, I am always on the alert for all birds seen, and especially for the common magpie.
Here at home we have the White-backed race. As we travel eastwards towards Sydney – to visit family there – we encounter both White-backed and Black-backed as well as many hybrid variations. A few years ago we travelled from Sydney south along the coast, ending up at the home of friends north of Melbourne. Once again I observed many variations in plumage colours.
The photo above was taken as we drove through the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, New South Wales on a visit to the zoo last year. All of the magpies I observed in that region were of the Black-backed race, as are those I have seen in the Sydney area. If you have a field guide to Australian birds it may include a map showing the locations of various forms of this species (or at least a description of where they are found).
This should alert people interested in birds – even if it is just a passing interest – to closely observe even the common species. You never know what will come into your field of view.
One of the most recognisable Australian birds would be the Willie Wagtail (see photo above). It is also one our most endearing birds, a favourite of many people. It loves occupying spaces close to human habitation, especially our gardens. We have a resident pair in our garden and we see them on a daily basis.
I have always known that Willie Wagtails can also be aggressive, feisty little birds. This has been in evidence in recent days in our garden, illustrated by the following incidents when it has attacked other, much larger species:
- Australian Magpies: our resident Magpies must be nesting somewhere on our five acre property here in South Australia. The male is consistently chasing almost every bird which comes near. Fortunately us humans are never swooped. Last Saturday, however, the roles were reversed. It was the magpie being chased – by a very aggressive and angry Willie Wagtail snapping at its tail as it tried to escape its wrath.
- Little Ravens: We often have small flocks of Little Ravens in our garden, usually up to about six or so. Yesterday I heard and then saw three ravens in the large mallee trees at the back of our home. As usual, they were cawing loudly. This attracted the attention of the Willie wagtail who rapidly came into the situation and began snapping at a raven’s feathers, tail and head, harassing the poor bird mercilessly. As soon as one raven flew off with a few caws in protest, the Willie Wagtail would turn its attention to another until all three were well and truly seen off the property.
I have only observed Australia’s largest bird of prey, the Wedge-tailed Eagle, on one occasion here in over 30 years. It is, however, quite a common bird throughout this part of the country and I have seen the species on many occasions in my travels. It always amazes when the tiny Willie Wagtail – not much bigger than a humble House Sparrow – aggressively attacking the eagle, snapping at it and even pecking at its back while hitching a ride. Such courage – one snap of the eagle’s beak would dismiss the wagtail permanently.
The reason for this aggressive attitude:
Normally the Willie Wagtails are friendly, docile birds. They will allow all manner of birds to cohabit happily in our garden. The reason for this sudden change of attitude is a simple little nest, like the one shown below. The photo below was taken a few years ago because I don’t want to disturb the mother Willie wagtail. She is currently sitting on two lovely eggs. She is not even afraid to come after me when I get near to the nest, snapping near my head until I move a reasonable distance from the nest.
The weeds near the nest will just have to wait a few weeks to be mown. Sigh.
I recently wrote about other birds nesting in our garden (click here).
It’s magpie swooping time again.
At this time of year people in many places around Australia are ducking for cover. It is magpie swooping time again. Around July and onwards our Australian Magpies start building or refurbishing their nests ready for the breeding season. Once the female has laid to eggs she is the only one to hatch them. Meanwhile, the male keeps guard over his territory.
This species is highly territorial and disputes over their patch are hotly contested. On our five acre (2 hectare) property we have three intersecting territories, so the conflict can sometimes get quite boisterous. Once nesting commences, these bird wars calm down. You could say that they are real life “angry birds”.
The fighting doesn’t always end there, however. While the female is sitting on the eggs, or the young are being fed while still in the nest, the male can be very aggressive in guarding his territory against anything, or anyone, he sees as a threat to the success of his progeny. Animals – including dogs, cats, foxes – other birds, walkers, gardeners, joggers and anyone misguided enough to venture within a hundred metres or so of the nest are all fair targets. Cyclists are a particular object of attack.
The male magpie will usually wait until the target has passed by, and will then attack from behind, a swift, smooth, nearly silent swoop aimed at the head. A swoosh of the wings and a few snaps of the beak from less than a metre behind is often the only warning one gets. By then it is too late. If contact is made the result can be both frightening and bloody. Their sharp beak can inflict a nasty break in the skin, and in a worst case scenario they have been known to damage an eye.
Preventing being swooped
So – what can one do to prevent getting swooped? I recently read this great list which was published here in South Australia in Weekend Plus: a digital magazine for seniors.
“We do need to take care around them because they have sharp beaks and claws and if they make contact, they can draw blood.
“The good news is that swooping season only lasts about six weeks, beginning when the eggs hatch and finishing when the young birds leave the nest.
“The best way to avoid being swooped is to change your route if possible, as they’ll only swoop within 50m of their nests.”
More tips for surviving the spring swoop
- Avoid making eye contact with magpies.
- Walk, don’t run past their nests.
- Travel in groups where possible as swooping birds generally target individuals.
- Carry an open umbrella or wear sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat.
- If you’re riding a bike, walk your bike through magpie territory or attach a flag to the back that is taller than your head.
- Don’t wave your arms or shout – this just proves you are a threat to the nest.
- If you know of a swooping magpie, put up a sign to warn others.
- Do Blackbirds swoop? How to deal with aggressive birds.
- A bit on the nose – a humorous close encounter with a bird
- Magpies behaving badly
- Bird wars
- Aggressive bird behaviour in the garden
I didn’t do much birding today.
I decided that the weather was far too cold. We are having a really cold winter’s snap here in South Australia with heavy rain, very cold temperatures, blustery winds and even snow. Snow in our state is such a rarity it receives plenty of coverage in the news. We average one snow fall every few years and it only lasts a few moments on the ground – if it reaches the ground. Nothing like the countries where some of my readers reside, I know, but then you don’t have to contend with our severe summers which we take in our stride. Or our snakes. Or spiders. Or sharks… you get the picture?
Despite the cold, inclement weather I was still able to be aware of the birds in and around our home and garden. The New Holland Honeyeaters and Red Wattlebirds were busily feeding on a few native plants and trees which are currently flowering. The Australian Magpies have stopped fussing about whether it is time to start building nests yet. A small party of White-browed Babblers scratched their way through the leaf litter a few days ago and the little family of Superb Fairy-wrens always seem to be happy to flit and hop around the garden, no matter what the weather dishes up.
Yesterday I noticed two Little Ravens scratching around in the grass I haven’t mowed recently. They seemed to be having a good feast. A few days ago I also heard several Grey Currawongs calling but they must have been just passing through our mallee scrub and not stopping. Earlier in the week I heard a Barn Owl screeching outside during the evening; we had visitors at the time so I didn’t go out searching for it.
- Just click on the name of any of the species mentioned in this post. A link will take you to photos and stories about each of the species mentioned. Reading those articles might help you to while away some poor weather in your part of the world.
As I start this update post, I regret to say that I do not have any photos to share. The reason is simple. This article resulted from an experience I had last week while playing cricket with my six and half year old grandson. We were in his backyard here in Artarmon, north Sydney, where we are visiting at present. We were really into our game when our attention was drawn to the sound of many alarmed birds near the garden, in the street and in nearby properties. I did not have time to race inside and collect my camera.
First it was the alarm calls made by at least a dozen or more Noisy Miners. They were really upset about something but we couldn’t tell what it was. Naturally we stopped playing our game and started looking around, trying to determine the cause of their distress. My grandson, despite his youthfulness, is often aware of the birds wherever he goes. My intense interest has rubbed off on him and his father.
Next thing the local Pied Currawongs joined in the chorus, along with four or five Australian Ravens. A few seconds later three Laughing Kookaburras joined in the loud calling, along with several local Australian Magpies going stir crazy as well. The local Rainbow Lorikeets, always here in large numbers and always very noisy, set off flying in all directions, calling madly. Three Crested Pigeons skedaddled off over the roof to an unknown destination while the Noisy Miners kept up their protestations.
Meanwhile, the enormous racket unsettled both the Grey Butcherbirds and the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, their raucous calls just adding to the general confusion. The only birds not upset were the softly twittering Welcome Swallows soaring over head. Or perhaps their twitters were in response to the noise below.
My grandson and I never discovered the reason for the commotion. We saw no evidence of a bird of prey, or an owl, or whatever had disturbed the locals. It generated quite a discussion with him about the possible causes.
We will never know. We can only speculate.