This morning I was suddenly aware of a noisy disturbance just outside my office window. I looked up to see three Red Wattlebirds locked in a furious battle in the garden bed. In fact, I thought at first it was only two fighting each other. As I reached for my camera, they flew off, and I saw that there had been three birds fighting.
What caused this kerfuffle? I have no idea. As they flew off two of them were aggressively chasing the third one. The battle may well have continued elsewhere.
This morning I was on my way to take my mother-in-law shopping. As I passed the local golf course an Australian Magpie flew low and rapidly across the road in front of my car. Nothing unusual about that.
Hot on its tail, however, was a New Holland Honeyeater, aggressively chasing the much bigger magpie and snapping at its tail feathers.
It always amuses me how some of our smallest birds will actively and quite aggressively harass birds many times their size. Probably the most bizarre example I’ve seen is a Willie Wagtail coming in at about 20 cm (8 inches) attacking our largest bird of prey, the Wedge-tailed Eagle at about 110 cm (44 inches) and a wing span of 280 cm (112 inches).
These little birds know instinctively that the larger birds often prey upon their nests, taking eggs or baby birds. They seem to know no fear as they protect their little ones.
Do Blackbirds Swoop?
This intriguing question was posted by Jill on one my earlier articles. I assured her in my reply that I have never heard of this species swooping humans.
You have nothing to fear where Common Blackbirds are concerned. I have never experienced swooping with this species. In fact, they are usually rather timid and will readily fly away from humans. I have checked on the internet and found no recorded instances of Common Blackbirds swooping humans.
I also read through the article on Common Blackbirds in HANZAB (Handbook of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds Vol.7) and there is no mention of this behaviour. HANZAB is THE authority on Australian birds and is a compilation of all research done on birds in this region, including a comprehensive overview of all the relevant published literature on birds.
UPDATE: Since writing this article I have had many comments about Blackbirds swooping. Many have claimed that they do swoop. These comments have always come from American readers. I was writing about the Common Blackbird, an introduced species in Australia. They come from Europe and are not related to several species found in America which do swoop. The Red-winged Blackbird of north and central America is very aggressive I believe. Some readers may also have been confused by my comments, thinking I was talking about the Grackle.
Magpies and Lapwings
Most Australians know about the problem with Australian Magpies and swooping. They need to be given a wide berth when nesting. What many people do not know is that Masked Lapwings (also called Spur Winged Plovers) can inflict a nasty wound. Keep away from their nests or young is the message they are giving. On most occasions their attack is 95% bluff and injuries are rare. Last spring there was a very unusual news report on television showing footage of Magpie Larks attacking humans near the Festival Centre in the CBD of Adelaide. This is the only occasion I have known of this species swooping like their bigger cousins.
Kookaburras and Butcherbirds
Other species that may occasionally swoop include Kookaburras (one individual once took a sausage from a barbecue I was cooking). I once had an opportunistic Grey Butcherbird snatch a sandwich from my hand while on a picnic. In both these cases they were swooping for food – not attacking me. Gave me a fright though.
Geese, Ducks and Swans
In parks and gardens as well as zoos and wildlife parks, any of the species of geese can get a little aggressive. This is often as a result of too many people feeding them. Many species of ducks can also get this way. I’ve even known Black Swans to act aggressively. In most cases they are after food; they are not intending to harm people.
I have heard of an instance of an Australian Pelican eating a small dog on the riverfront at Renmark in South Australia. I’m not sure if this is a true story or an urban myth, but pelicans would be quite capable of this. What I have witnessed was rather scary. We had visited the bakery at Mannum and were sitting on a seat near the riverfront eating our lunch. A pelican came up to us and almost snatched a sausage roll from the hand of my daughter-in-law. Having a pelican a metre away staring you directly in the eye is very unnerving.
Emus and Cassowaries
Many years ago while visiting a zoo in the SW of Western Australia I had another unnerving encounter, this time with an Emu. I was in a walk through enclosure containing ducks, geese, emus and kangaroos. One Emu took a liking to my camera lens and my glasses. Being followed by an Emu – no – harassed is a better word – was distressing, especially as the said Emu constantly tried to peck either my glasses or the camera lens. I was so constantly under attack that I had to quickly leave the enclosure, much to the amusement of my family!
The Southern Cassowary of northern Queensland has a reputation for being aggressive towards humans. I don’t have personal experience of this species, but I know that when I do visit that region, I’m going to be wary of the cassowary!
Ibises and Gulls
Gulls and picnics seem to go together. Especially when you produce some fish and chips. It is as if you’ve put up a huge neon sign saying “Come to the feast.” Again, this is as a result of feeding by humans and not a direct attack to harm. Having said that, it is intimidating and annoying to have a Silver Gull standing on your picnic table 30cm away from your lovely chips. In some parts of Australia, Ibises are a major problem too, snatching food from children in particular. Our larger Ibis species are almost as large as a toddler learning to walk. Scary stuff for a youngster.
Willie Wagtails are generally loved by all Australians and is one of our most recognisable birds. What most people do not realise is that these endearing little creatures can be very bold and aggressive when there are babies in a nest nearby. Our resident Willie Wagtails have given us a little tweak on the head if we venture too close to the nest. And they are not too slow to attack birds much bigger than themselves; even our largest eagle, the Wedge Tail, is not immune from harassment.
Honeyeaters are not known for their aggression towards humans. If you get too close to their nest they will let you know, scalding you incessantly from a nearby branch. However, they can be very bold. Many years ago a friend in Port Augusta related to me an occasion when a honeyeater landed on his shoulder and tried to pluck a hair from his rather ample beard. While this incident is not a display of aggression, it does show how courageous they can be.
There have been a few recorded instances of people being attacked by eagles, hawks and other raptors. Only last year I was aggressively swooped by what I think was a Brown Falcon. I can’t be sure because I didn’t hang around too long. I was invading his territory so I beat a hasty retreat. He didn’t contact any part of me but it was a little unnerving.
How to Deal With Aggressive Bird Behaviour
- Give the birds space – keep away from their nest or their young. Think about how you would react if a large monster invaded your home. They are protecting their offspring so respect their space. If there is a magpie nesting on your usual walking route, try to take an alternative route until the nesting has finished.
- Wear protective clothing – this is particularly so with swooping magpies. Wear a hat or helmet to avoid injury. Some people say that painting large eyes on the back of a helmet, hat or cap helps to deter magpies from swooping.
- Don’t feed native birds – if everyone followed this rule there wouldn’t be a problem but it is probably too late for that. If you are having a picnic, don’t be tempted to throw food scraps to the gulls of ducks or whatever is nearby. Just one chip or bread crumb thrown at one bird will often result in dozens of birds flocking to your picnic ready for a handout. In the case of Gulls, it could result in hundreds surrounding your picnic spot.
- Carry a stick – I’ve proved this to be effective with magpies swooping. Carry a stick above one’s head as you walk through a magpie nesting zone. This deters them from attacking your head. Decorating the stick with ribbons can add to the distraction level.
- Carry a flag – this one is mainly for cyclists. Mount a pole on your bike with a flag at the top. It will help motorists see you too!
I invite readers to leave their comments about their experiences with aggressive birds.
- Which birds have swooped you?
- How have you been harmed by birds?
- What about birds in other countries? Do they swoop or attack?
- What solutions to aggressive bird behaviour can you share with readers of this blog?
- Readers on this blog have contributed many interesting comments – click on the comments section below this post.
- I have written a followup article called A Bit on the Nose. This post quotes in full an amusing email sent to the the Birding-Aus forum today. Special thanks to Bill for permission to quote the email in full.
Related articles and links:
- Common Blackbirds – my article that started me on this post.
- ProBlogger – this article has been submitted to the Group Writing Project “How to…” being run by Darren Rowse on ProBlogger.
While out in the garden today I was suddenly aware of a noisy scuffle nearby. They were at it again. The interloper New Holland Honeyeater trying to snatch insects from the resident Willie Wagtail’s favourite patch. This time they actually came to blows!
After a few seconds of screaming at each other, many ruffled feathers and a clash of claws they both retreated to nearby trees. After that there was an uneasy peace. The battle may be over but I feel that the war has just begun.
For details of the previous battle click here.
While working in the garden yesterday morning I was suddenly alerted to a noisy confrontation nearby. Our resident Willie Wagtails love to frequent one particular spot where there is an abundance of insects.
Suddenly a New Holland Honeyeater dived in to reap his share of the smorgasbord. The Willie Wagtail became quite aggressive, fanning his tail up high, ruffling the feathers all over and calling in what seemed to me to be in quite an angry – perhaps even distressed – way.
The honeyeater retreated to a nearby tree, only to swoop in repeatedly over the next few minutes. Each time the honeyeater would snap at the Willie Wagtail, zip away a metre or so, grab another insect, and retreat hurriedly to the refuge tree.
These attacks seemed to trigger even more aggression in the Willie Wagtail who decided to front up to the interloper. They then faced each other at about ten paces (bird step size – about 10cm) angrily calling in each others’ face. One last beakful of food and the New Holland Honeyeater decided that other parts of the garden were more attractive anyway, and it flew off. The Willie Wagtail continued to feast contentedly on his little patch.
- Aggressive birds – articles from my archives
This post updated in September 2015.