Magpie Myths

Wildlife Posted Sep 8, 2020
The truth about magpies isn’t so black and white.
From their beautiful warble in the rain, to the sense of dread they inspire each Spring, the Australian magpie is one of our most colourful creatures. Despite their prevalence across the country, many of us don’t know them as well as we should. Here are some common myths about magpies — and some reasons to love them.
Myth 1: All magpies swoop

Only male magpies swoop, and even then, it’s only a small percentage — about 10% of breeding pairs — and they almost only swoop when they have chicks in their nest. 

While they might not all swoop, magpies are unusual in that they’re territorial all year round. They seek out a good patch of land that’s teeming with invertebrates under the surface, and spend much of their time walking on the ground, head tilted, listening for prey. Once they find a good spot, they’ll stay there for life — around 20 years — defending it from other magpies. 

Myth 2: Magpies target certain colours 

None of the research about magpies to date has found that magpies target specific colours, such as orange, yellow or purple. Instead, it is widely believed that they swoop purely to protect their young. 

Although they may not be enraged by certain colours, magpies that swoop tend to target specific types of people. For instance, some magpies will only swoop cyclists, while others will target pedestrians. A small percentage will indiscriminately attack anyone. Unfortunately, these are often the magpies that choose particularly busy patches for their territory, such as parks or sporting grounds. 

Myth 3: Cable ties on helmets, or eyes on the back of a hat, scare magpies 

Both these ideas are based on sound concepts — that magpies attack from behind, so fake eyes will make them think they’re being watched, and that magpies won’t attack a spikey surface. However, neither seems to do much good. Magpies don’t seem to notice the eyes, and may attack from the side instead, and don’t seem overly bothered by the appearance of cable ties. The only real benefit either strategy offers is some sort of head protection for when a magpie does swoop. 

The best option to avoid an attack is, as is usually the case, the simplest — avoid the area the magpie is protecting. 

Myth 4: There’s nothing to love about magpies 

Ok, that might be an overstatement, but if you’re prone to being swooped, at the height of Spring it can be hard to remember anything positive about magpies. So, next time you hear the terrifying flapping and clacking of a magpie attack, (try to) remember they:

  • Have one of the world’s most complex songs, and their scientific name — Cracticus tibicen — refers to this, as tibicen means 'flautist’ (an uncommon alternative name for the magpie is the Flute Bird)
  • Mate for life, but they’re adaptable — if a male magpie dies, his place will quickly be taken by another male, who will raise the chicks as his own
  • Can identify individuals by their facial features — studies have found that they will know literally everyone in the area they live in (and that’s not an exaggeration).  


Jen Lofgren
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