Death by Magpie?


Australian magpie

Last year there was a lot of talk in the British papers about ‘Death by Cows’ following the recent death of a woman who was trampled in Wiltshire. In the summer of 2009 there were four people killed in a period of two months after being trampled by cows. While such attacks are relatively rare, in recent years a number of people across the UK have been killed or injured in similar incidents.

Walking my dog one morning, not far from our home in suburban Perth, Western Australia, with these thoughts in my head, I was startled by a whoosh and flash of wings, close enough to my face for me to feel the air move. I increased my pace and hesitantly turned, expecting to see a magpie. Instead I saw a wattlebird missile and I was in its direct path. It narrowly missed me, but connected with the top of my dog’s head. She was the target, not me. I broke into a jog, shoulders hunched and head tucked low, leaving the poor dog to fend for herself.

The stories of injuries caused by magpies and, in fact, death attributed to magpie attacks was fresh in my mind. I’d been listening to a wonderful programme on ABC Radio National  as I drove home from work one day. The programme hadn’t dwelt on the injuries, but on the ability of the magpies to remember and to recognise people’s faces, their dislike of males rather than females, and the fact that they get infuriated by bicycles. More importantly, the swooping only happens when they have young in their nests for a few weeks in spring. In many areas these aggressive magpies are shot, but most people believe that there must be more humane ways of solving the problem. After all the magpie is one of Australia favourite birds. According to the Suburban Wildlife Research Group at Griffith University, if we had a better understanding of what triggers a magpie attack, it might be possible to develop better management strategies.They surveyed people who had been attacked, and found that despite being the target of magpie wrath, 90% of the victims didn’t want the magpie to be destroyed. 

I loved this advice they offered:

How to avoid being attacked

  • If you get attacked while riding a bike or horse, get off immediately
  • If a particular bird is harassing you repeatedly, choose a different route for the next few weeks until the chicks fledge
  • Wear an icecream container on your head when crossing magpie flightpaths

This got me thinking again. No, not about using an icecream container as a fashion accessory every spring, but about another wildlife problem.

Recently in Western Australia our Premiere, sanctioned by the federal environment minister (both Liberals), started the cull of great whites, tiger and bull sharks over three metres in length, even though the great white is classed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list of endangered species.

The first shark to be culled, a female tiger shark, was on Australia Day, January 26, 2014. I wondered at this day’s significance. It was a day when Australians traditionally took to the beaches in droves. I wondered how many of these beach goers would prefer a thriving marine environment to a lifeless ‘swimming pool’? For if the ecosystem is changed and predators are removed, then eventually the marine environment suffers and becomes degraded. If they witnessed the four bullets to the head that it took to kill that female tiger shark would they still approve? Doubtful. As with the magpies, compassion and common sense prevail.

International and national condemnation has followed these weeks of culling. In February, thousands of people protested in rallies around Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Only this week the world’s top surfer, Kelly Slater voiced his support saying that killing sharks off the WA coast is ‘crazy’ and they should be left alone. The Conservation Council WA, Sea Shepard, Animal Amnesty, West Australians for Shark Conservation, the Greens and many of the people I see on the beach every day, applaud his comments.

6000 protest the shark cull on Cottesloe beach, WA.

6000 protest the shark cull on Cottesloe beach, WA.

But has our Premier been listening?

And so I come back to the story of the ‘killing cows’. Was there a call in the UK for farmers to cull these ‘dangerous’ animals? There certainly has been a number of deaths and many sightings of these ferocious creatures. People even stray into their environment to enjoy walks in the countryside, as we in Perth enjoy swimming in the ocean. A recent study found that the risk of being bitten by a shark while swimming off Perth in summer, is just one in 30 million. And, there has been only one fatality off a Perth metropolitan beach in the last 40 years. There has been an increase in shark attack around Australia, but also the population has grown significantly and there are more people in the water. Australia also has venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, box-jellyfish, stonefish, blue-ringed octopus, crocodiles and the humble bee. According to Australian Geographic the honey bee kills one or two Australians a year. On average, sharks annually claim fewer lives and spiders can be just as dangerous. Maybe our Premier would wish to wipe out all these potentially deadly creatures?

As for me, I think I’ll just keep on swimming in this beautiful ocean we are so privileged to have on our doorstep, walk my dog through the leafy suburbs in spring, take walks through the English countryside when I am fortunate enough to visit, and take pleasure in the  life, whether it be ‘wildlife’ or ‘domesticlife’, that share these special places with me.


Other info from ABC RN: – Magpies are only aggressive for six weeks of the year, around August/September, when they have chicks in the nest.
– Most magpies attack the same few individuals again and again, possibly because they remind the bird of someone who once hurt them.
– Only the males attack (the females are too busy sitting on the eggs).
Magpies are excellent mimics and can even imitate the human voice.

Read more:

Magpies behaving badly › Nature Features (ABC Science)

Western Australia’s shark cull will hit breeding stock of great whites

Bees more deadly than spiders in Australia        Source: Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2008

  •  Images:

15 thoughts on “Death by Magpie?

  1. Really interesting post. Loved the advice on how to avoid being attacked by magpies! But in all seriousness, will we ever stop trying to tailor the Earth to perfectly suit us – destroying species who’ve occupied her for much longer than we have – and is it right?


    • Thanks for taking time to comment. I thought I’d replied, but now as I look back …
      I go through moments of optimism when I see those people who are really trying to preserve species and ecosystems, who stand up against whaling or logging of ancient forests, and then I look at greed and senseless destruction and wonder at how the world has become such a place.


  2. Nice post. One of the things I love about Australia (and other places) is the wildlife/sea life. That’s part of what draws to me different countries – to see their animals in the wild. I hope they will always be there.


    • Thanks. Excuse my tardiness – I thought I’d replied! I agree with what you say. Most of the countries I go to are because of the ‘untouched’ nature, but these places, once so remote are becoming harder and harder to find. And then it is in our ‘finding’ them that they become the target for change and possible destruction.


  3. Brilliant, clever post. We have to learn to share our planet and respect the creatures we live alongside. I’m a scuba diver, so I’m firmly in the ‘shark fan’ camp. The shark cull really is political decision making at its most insane. It’s proposed to run for three years isn’t it? I can only imagine the devastation of shark populations in the area if that happens. It is tragic. Hopefully common sense will prevail in the end.


    • I was a keen scuba diver too, once! In fact, I learnt on the wrecks and reefs around Brunei. Australia’s politics have gone mad – we have a truly right wing government on both our federal and state levels here, and common sense, environment and compassion have been lost to policies that favour corporations, short term gains and big business.


      • Having taught diving here, I must say, Brunei is a great place to learn…warm water, good conditions, very quiet dive sites, lots of interesting things to see. Beats cold English quarries, hands down!!

        Very sad to think that (Australian) politics might/will impact wildlife so catastrophically. I guess we just all have to keep doing our bit to raise awareness and rail against nonsense policy decisions! It’s the same the world over; not that that makes it any better!!


  4. So true about the diving. I would never have learnt in a cold quarry! I have some great memories of diving in and around Borneo. The shark cull here is still very controversial and has temporarily been halted. We will see what evolves as it is getting international condemnation – there are so many better ways of solving the problem and at less expense. At least the World Heritage Council have stepped in to halt our government ( supporting big business) doing as they please on the barrier reef.


  5. So interesting! Read the entire piece and became more and more enthralled. I will admit, when I read about putting an ice cream container on your head….I smirked a bit…..but you got me right back to the serious stuff. I am struck by how smart a magpie is…..and by the logic used in your argument here (I am an old debater). Very well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the compliment. It reminds me that when I started my blog this was what I wanted to do; write articles and have a rant! Also, only today the wattlebirds are swooping the dog again, but thank goodness the shark cull was so unpopular it is no more.


  6. I hope that in the two years since you wrote this blog the shark cull has ended. In Canada we do not get news of Australia about this sort of topic. My husband and I travelled to Western Australia as part of a 26,000K drive in a campervan around Australia in 1990 with our two kids who were then 2 and 4. We loved Western Australia :Perth Freemantle and the coast going up to Broome and on to Darwin. BTW in England if you see a single magpie you have to salute it or you will have bad luck. I do not know the origin of this superstition but when I lived there I always did salute.


    • It was halted but our government still has a bad environmental record on so many other issues.
      I remember the magpie thing when I was in the UK. I think we had to spit if we saw a single one or it brought sorrow!


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