Magpie swooping tragedy sparks debate: 'Killing not the answer'

The uniquely Australian call of magpies, known as "carolling" is always a sign that spring is in the air.

However, for a devastated Brisbane couple, it will forever be a traumatic reminder of the day they lost their cherished five-month-old daughter, following a freak accident involving a swooping magpie.

Earlier this month, baby Mia and her mother, Simone, were enjoying a stroll around Glindemann Park, in Brisbane’s south, when Simone fell trying to avoid a swooping magpie.

Tragically, Mia was fatally injured in the fall, with the incident shocking the city “to the absolute core,” according to Brisbane Lord Mayor, Adrian Schrinner.

Baby Mia shown in two photos. Source: GoFundMe
A five-month-old Mia died in a horrific swooping incident. Source: GoFundMe

The council had reportedly since received several complaints from concerned locals about swooping magpies in the park and the bird involved in the incident was relocated shortly after.

A spokesperson for the council told Yahoo News Australia that an investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Doing what comes naturally

Australian magpies have inhabited this continent for over thirty million years and are hailed as being one of the top songbirds in the world.

Magpies can live up to twenty-five years and, once they find a suitable "patch", they tend to occupy the same territory all their life.

Professor Gisela Kaplan, author of The Australian Magpie, has a great deal of respect for a bird she has been studying for most of her career.

She objects to people referring to “magpie attacks” and wants people to understand that these highly intelligent birds are not aggressive, but simply doing what comes naturally.

Australian magpies are notorious for swooping. Source: Getty Images
Australian magpies are notorious for swooping. Source: Getty Images

Between July and December, around 10 per cent of male magpies have the important job of defending their vulnerable chicks from potential threats.

This period only lasts for around three to four weeks and it’s very unusual for magpies to swoop outside this breeding season, which has its peak in September.

According to Professor Kaplan: “if a magpie swoops towards you, they don’t intend to hit you".

"It’s simply warning you to move on and stay clear of its chics. If the male magpie doesn’t do a good job protecting the nest, the female will divorce him.”

Public safety versus protecting wildlife

For local council authorities around the country, magpie swooping season can pose a real dilemma.

A responsibility to ensure public safety on council property can sometimes conflict with protecting vulnerable wildlife.

In certain states in Australia, including Victoria and New South Wales, councils can apply for a permit to destroy wildlife posing a threat to public safety, including magpies.

Last year, two "rogue" magpies were responsible for a series of attacks on five people in Sale, in southeastern Victoria, two of whom required emergency eye surgery.

The local council applied to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, the government department with authority to deal with wildlife in Victoria, to bring in a contractor and the birds were later removed and euthanised.

An Australian magpie. Source: Getty Images
Magpie 'attacks' are most often harmless, with 87 per cent resulting in no injuries. Source: Getty Images

Sale locals are hoping not to see a repeat of last year’s aggressive magpie behaviour and a spokesperson for Wellington Council confirmed “it has started communicating with the community this week about being aware of the area’s biodiversity and the fact that all sorts of wildlife will be on the move".

"Council will also provide resources about what to do when locals come into contact with wildlife," the spokesperson said.

In NSW, police have, on several occasions, shot and killed magpies after receiving multiple complaints from concerned residents.

However, speaking to the Courier Mail recently, a spokesperson for the NSW Department of Environment said when it comes to issues with native animals and public safety “the department seeks to resolve negative interactions using non-destructive methods”.

Similarly, Brisbane Lord Mayor, Adrian Schrinner, does not back the use of lethal force against native birds, despite the recent tragedy.

Speaking to the Sunday Mail, following the incident, Mr Schrinner said “firing weapons at magpies in highly populated suburban areas and public parks is just not practical or safe”.

A spokesperson for the Queensland government also told Yahoo News Australia it has not received a request from any local councils in the state for extra control measures against magpies, including lethal control.

Killing native birds not the answer

As magpies lose more of their natural habitat and are drawn to populated areas, such as council parks, Professor Kaplan is concerned about the public backlash when swooping magpies "clash" with humans.

She argues we need to develop a greater understanding of magpie behaviour and how to behave around them, especially during the breeding season and that “killing native birds is never the answer".

"There are so many grades of different actions we can take”, according to Professor Kaplan.

“Rehabilitation is one of them, removing them from the source and sending them far away or breaking up the group because they may have learnt from each other.”

Reducing your chances of being swooped

Research has shown magpies are as intelligent as dogs and able to recognise, as well as remember, faces.

Once they become familiar with you, they’re less likely to perceive you as a threat.

In places such as public parks where a lot of casual strangers tend to gather, magpies have less opportunity to become familiar with people and are potentially more wary.

Professor Kaplan offers some simple advice for reducing your chances of being swooped by a magpie during nesting season:

  • Be aware of your surroundings when you’re outside and if you see a magpie hovering, let them know you’re around and make a slight detour from the area they’re in.

  • Don’t run or make a sudden movement. Stand still and remain calm, as difficult as that may be.

  • If you’re riding through magpie territory, get off your bike and walk. It’s also a good idea to walk or cycle in a group as swooping magpies are more likely to target individuals.

  • The Magpie alert website tracks aggressive magpie behaviour in your local area and is updated daily.

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