The Covid rule which could spark a spike in magpie swoopings

It’s that time of year again. The trees are blossoming, days are becoming longer and dive-bombing magpies are protecting their turf.

While swooping magpie attacks are relatively uncommon, experts suggest that with compulsory face mask-wearing, we may experience more close encounters than usual this spring.

Magpie experts are concerned these notoriously territorial birds will be more inclined to swoop during the upcoming breeding season because masks are making it more difficult for them to distinguish facial features.

Australian magpie swooping. Source: Getty Images
Australian magpies can recognise faces, but they have trouble recognising people wearing masks. Source: Getty Images

Magpies remember faces and hold grudges

Scientists have carried out experiments on magpies using face masks and have made some remarkable findings.

Not only can magpies, through facial recognition, recognise other magpies and up to at least 100 different people, they are also less likely to feel threatened by a face that looks familiar.

With us all wearing face masks, it’s more difficult for the birds to distinguish facial features and so they may potentially see every passerby as a threat.

Speaking to News Corp, Griffith University magpie expert Darryl Jones said mask-wearing could lead to magpies wanting to attack everyone because they see everyone as a potential predator.

“Normally a magpie will get to recognise the regulars in their area and are less likely to view them as a threat," Mr Jones said.

"But with people’s faces covered by masks, the magpies can’t tell who’s the nasty one so, in their minds, it’s safer to belt everyone.”

Australian magpie looks at the camera. Source: Getty Images
Australian magpies are notorious for swooping. Source: Getty Images

Animal behaviourist and Animalia podcast co-host Farley Connelly agrees and suggests there’s a chance magpies may be swooping more this spring because they’re unable to recognise humans wearing face masks.

Speaking to ABC Radio Melbourne, Mr Connelly said: “I think it can really only come out in specific circumstances and that’s if you have a swooping bird and you have a swooping bird that recognises a group of people in an area and it may decide it dislikes a couple of those people”.

Magpies and cyclists

Cyclists are all too familiar with dodging swooping magpies during breeding season as bike helmets cause some confusion for the birds.

In fact, magpies, who are known to be extremely territorial, have been known to swoop bike riders up to 100m from their nest.

Experts believe cyclists tend to be singled out more by magpies because they don’t recognise them as a person, but rather as a large predator coming towards them.

Magpies also often swoop cyclists from behind and this is thought to be because their faces are less visible due to their helmets.

Magpies respond to stranger danger

Magpies occupy the same territory all their life, which can last up to 20 years.

Once they find a suitable patch, such as a park, they will protect their home from any unwelcome visitors.

Ethologist and Australian Magpie author Professor Gisela Kaplan suggests that with Covid enforced lockdowns, more of us are limited to exercising in public parks and other areas populated by nesting magpies.

Whilst magpies might be used to seeing familiar locals in their territory, they’re not used to seeing casual strangers and are more likely to perceive them as a threat, especially when their faces are half covered by a mask.

“Magpies possess the intelligence of dogs and remember human faces,” according to Prof Kaplan.

"They even remember who are the nice ones and who are the nasty ones. Large numbers of unrecognisable people walking through parks during lockdown may force magpies to attack more.

"If a magpie swoops towards you it doesn’t mean they want to hit you, rather it’s a warning swoop, especially if your face is not recognisable."

If a magpie is flying towards you, Dr Kaplan's advice is to "look up so they can see your face, because they do recognise faces".

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