A man's unorthodox attempt at scaring magpies from his backyard with a homemade scarecrow has backfired spectacularly. Despite resembling a creepy leftover Halloween decoration, he believes birds were literally flocking to his garden to "worship" what they appear to think is some kind of "magpie god".
Giulio Cuzzilla's problems began when magpies began stealing kibble from his cat’s feeding bowl, so he fashioned together a homemade “owl” to keep them away.
But rather than frighten the birds, they instead started bowing down and speaking to it. Concerned about what he had done, Giulio filmed the strange incident through the window of his suburban home in western Sydney.
After the effigy was erected, the magpies regularly “worshiped” it for over a month, Giulio Cuzzilla told Yahoo News Australia. That was until a storm drenched his backyard, soaked the paper bird, and its head fell off.
Giulio's video of two magpies squawking at the “magpie god” has attracted over 3.7 million views since it was uploaded to TikTok on Sunday. The thousands of comments have focused on the odd appearance of the owl as well as the magpies' bizarre behaviour.
How a Bunnings hack led to ‘magpie god’ creation
One Tiktoker described the owl as a “dried out rat”, while others were kinder and compared it to a work by Cubist painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso, who actually owned a pet owl named Ubu.
Giulio has lightheartedly taken the criticism all in his stride. “I now know it doesn’t really look like an owl, but a dead cat rather,” he joked on Sunday night.
He explained there’s a simple reason as to why he decided to make the owl himself. “I was looking online to buy one of those owls on Bunnings Warehouse, but they cost a bit, so I thought I’d just make one. I made it out of paper mache and feathers that I got from the $2 store.”
While the bird may look strange, it initially kept the cat food thieves away, but magpies are a bird known for their intelligence, so after a week their curiosity got the better of them. “They got used to it, and got closer and closer, realising it’s not a threat. And then they started worshiping it,” he said.
What do the experts say about the magpie god?
We reached out to the world’s foremost expert in magpie behaviour Emeritus Professor Gisela Kaplan in Animal Behaviour at the University of New England. She’s studied the species for 25 years and wrote the CISRO book Australian Magpie which has been published in two editions.
After analysing the footage and listening to the sound, Kaplan immediately knew the magpies weren’t worshipping the owl at all. “That’s a territorial call,” she said, pointing out that the sound is distinct from a melodious food call magpies often make to call in their family to have a feed. “It doesn’t start off aggressive, but they clearly state it’s their territory.
“There is an implicit threat in it, because this particular ‘image of a bird’ is in fact in their territory. So they claim finders keepers over the food,” she said.
Kaplan explained the birds continue to stare at the owl from every angle, shifting from right to left eye, while trying to judge how it will respond. She believes the magpies would have eventually expected the owl to go away, and its refusal to move would have left them confused.
But while many Australians associate magpies with the aggressive behaviour that’s occasionally exhibited during breeding, she has realised the species is usually “extremely polite” by human standards.
“They give these warnings and say: Do you mind, you’re in our territory you should leave. Some of their calls are just diplomatic niceties indicating: You’re stepping on our turf. And that’s what they’re doing,” she said.
Another high profile author, Professor Emeritus Darryl Jones from Griffith University, who penned the books Getting to Know the Birds in Your Neighbourhood and The Birds at My Table, gave a similar assessment to Kaplan.
"Given the striking black and white of the model, it's clear that the birds see it as some sort of magpie, despite the primitive design — It's the stark black and white that they are responding to," he said.
"Their collective carolling is stock standard territoriality behaviour. It means 'bugger off! This is our territory!'"
What can we learn from the magpie incident?
While most of the discussion about the video has focused on the magpies, one Australian bird expert’s attention was immediately drawn to what is not seen in the video — the cat. Birdlife Australia spokesperson and editor of Australian Birdlife magazine, Sean Dooley, thinks the thieving magpies problem could have easily been solved by feeding the cat inside.
“It would have been a better outcome for the cat, because it’s safer indoors, but it’s also a far better outcome for wildlife,” he said. “Even though people say ‘My cat is fed so it will be fine’, it doesn’t matter how much you feed a cat the instinct to hunt will still override that and it will kill for the sake of it.”
Secondly, Dooley’s attention was drawn to what the magpies were eating. While many people argue against feeding wildlife altogether, kibble is actually not a harmful food for magpies.
“It’s certainly no cause for alarm,” he said. “According to experts, when we look at nutrition, quality dog or cat food is actually the best thing you can feed magpies. It’s far better than feeding them mince. That’s not a great food for them. There’s an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus … and it’s very sticky so it can cause bacterial infection.”
What happened to the magpies?
The magpie video was originally shot 18 months ago, but after Giulio stumbled upon it again, he decided to share it online for the first time.
Since then he’s moved down the street, but the magpies have followed him and his supply of food. While he started off feuding with the birds, he’s now become quite fond of them.
“When you see their nature and their funny ways you can see they’re pretty cute,” he said. “We even named one of the babies Ricky.”
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