Swooping Magpies: Surviving the Mad Magpie of Toogoolawah!

Australian Magpie
Talk to an American or a Brit or almost anyone else about Australia and the conversation inevitably comes around to animals. Not the cute ones, like koalas and wombats and baby kangaroos, but the ones out to get you - the deadly ones.  There is no denying this country has its fair share of dangerous creatures. Google 'the most venomous snakes in the world' and there are bound to be a few Australian natives on the list. Then there is the world's most deadly bird, the beautiful but very cranky cassowary; one of the world's most dangerous spiders, the Sydney funnel web; the lovely to look at but deadly to touch blue ringed octopus and the infamous Irukandji jellyfish. The funny thing though is that nobody ever mentions the animal Australia is most afraid of, the creature which sends grown adults into paroxysms of dread with a single flap of its wings, the springtime terror of southern skies - the Australian swooping magpie.

Swooping Magpies

Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the magpie is a harmless, even tempered, innocuous looking creature most of the time. All this changes in swooping season. Almost without warning Australia's skies become littered with avian Luftwaffe patrolling parks, streets, footpaths and backyards across the country. The ultimate Angry Birds they dive-bomb, intimidate, harass and menace the entire population of 24 million people.


The Mad Magpie of Toogoolawah

It is Day 2 of the 161 km Brisbane Valley Rail Trail and David and I have set off to cycle from Toogoolawah to Harlin - a round trip of 28 kms (17 miles).  The temperature is in the low 20s° C (68° F), the sun is out, there is almost no wind and we are looking forward to an easy, uneventful ride. As we set out we are blissfully unaware that danger lurks just ahead. Spying on us from above, the Mad Magpie of Toogoolawah is planning his attack.

Just as we pass the last few houses in town and hit the trail he makes the first swoop. I am a few metres behind David and see the bird hurtling down from above. Like an Exocet missile locked on to a target nothing will stop him. I cry out a warning. It is too late. David is hit on the temple, just below his helmet. The magpie spears him beak first, breaking the skin and drawing blood. David yells in pain but holds his nerve and keeps cycling - furiously! The magpie's territory - aka 'attack-zone' - probably only lasts a 100 metres (300 feet) or so. If David can make it to the other side he will be safe.

The magpie comes around for another run. I yell! David cycles! The magpie swoops! This time screeching like a demon at the gates of hell and flapping its wings furiously in a cacophony of satanic sound. David is now cycling one handed, waving furiously at the air with his other arm in a futile attempt to confuse the bird's radar. It plummets to within inches of his helmet before pulling up and around, and down again for another run.

I watch helplessly, calling warning after warning each time I see the bird plunge. Then it stops. David has reached the outer edge of its territory.

Now it's my turn!

Brisbane Valley Rail Trail at Toogoolawah
The Brisbane Valley Rail Trail outside Toogoolawah. David is checking Google Maps blissfully unaware he is about to enter a magpie attack zone.

The magpie lands on a branch of a nearby gum tree. He stares at me with an evil, malevolent gaze as if daring me to go forward.  I shake with fear. What do I do? My nerve isn't as strong as David's. I don't think I can stay steady on my bike under such a sustained fury. But I have to get to the other side. I am literally an accident waiting to happen.

Following advice I have read from 'experts' in Magpie self defence. I decide to dismount and walk. It doesn't work! Within moments I am also under attack. The bird from hell swoops again and again, screeching and flapping. If its purpose is to frighten me enough to leave and NEVER come back, it has succeeded!  I try to remember anything which might help. Another gem of 'expert advice' is to 'look the magpie straight in the eye' - they won't attack if you stare them down. You HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING! I keep my helmet on and head down, pushing forward relentlessly through the barrage of swoops until finally I reach the other side. Safe at last!

Until, of course, the return journey.

Our car is parked on a street just beyond the magpie's territory. On the way back we decide to strike out across country giving the trail as wide a berth as we can. It doesn't work! Magpies are smart and this one knows he will see us again. No doubt he has been watching out for us all day.  To add to our woes our perfect weather has evaporated and we are cycling ahead of a fast moving storm. It catches us as we enter Magpieville. Now we have driving wind and rain to contend with as well as a crazy bird.

We make it to the car - wet, worn out and vowing never to return to Toogoolawah in swooping season.

I would like to tell you that this was the only swooping magpie we encountered in our 5 days of cycling the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail but it wasn't. We sustained an average of two attacks each day.  None were as ferocious as that first Mad Magpie of Toogoolawah and none score a direct hit but by the end of our trip the mere sight of a bird eyeing us from above is enough to fill us with an icy river of fear.

Magpie warning sign
Magpie warning sign. You see these everywhere in swooping season.

How to Avoid a Magpie Attack. 

My Advice - 

  • Don't live in Australia!
  • Don't go outside - ever, or at least ever in swooping season.
  • If you must go outside, carry a defensive weapon and wave it furiously above your head at all times (see David's magpie deterrent stick below) OR wear full body armour.
  • Avoid known magpie territory (ie: the entire continent).
  • If you must pass through magpie territory in swooping season only do so in groups large enough that you can send others through first and use them to draw the enemy fire. Young children are especially useful for this. They haven't yet developed a healthy fear of Australia's most terrifying creature.  
  • Pray! It doesn't help but it can't hurt either.

Magpie deterrent stick
David with his magpie deterrent stick (aka: bicycle pump)

What the 'Experts' Say -

  • Avoid areas defended by a Magpie  - Tricky if you happen to live in one.
  • Walk quickly through the area  - Or, more likely, run, panic and pray!
  • Walk with others. Magpies are less likely to swoop a group of people  - This brings to mind the old joke about two guys facing a lion. One says to the other 'can you outrun a lion'? The other replies 'I don't have to, I only have to outrun you'.
  • Wear a hat or carry an open umbrella - Have you ever tried cycling with an umbrella!
  • If you are riding a bicycle, dismount and walk - This just doesn't work!
  • Never deliberately provoke or harass a magpie - Finally, something I can agree with.
  • If you have a magpie near where you live, make friends with it by offering it tidbits of food. Magpies won't attack unless they perceive you as a threat - I just can't see that working with the Mad Magpie of Toogoolawah. 

A Few Magpie Facts.

  • Less than 10% of magpies swoop. Those that do often have a preference for specific targets - either people they recognise or certain types of people such as cyclists or pedestrians.
  • Magpies swoop to defend their nest and stop swooping once the chicks leave home.
  • Nearly all swooping magpies are male - That figures!
  • Magpies have a swoop zone in a radius of about 150 metres (500 feet) from their nest.
  • Swooping season various from one part of the country to another. It runs for about six weeks between August and November - The bad news is that the 2019 season has more than a month to go.
  • A flock of magpies is called a 'murder of magpies' - It figures.
  • Magpies are a protected species - As tempting as it might be assassination is not an option.

Don't get me wrong - I love Magpies!

We have a pair of magpies which live with us. They inhabit the trees in our back yard and the National Park next door. They think the place belongs to them - and they are probably right. They spend countless patient hours walking our lawn searching for insects and worms.  They nest in one of our trees and they never swoop! I spend far too much time watching them.

Did you know Magpies can hear the sound of grubs and worms under the ground? Next time you see one watch for it to turn its head toward the sound of food.

Have you ever been the victim of a swooping magpie? Do you have any suggestions to avoid an attack? 

Click on this link for my other posts on wildlife in Australia.

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magpie in swooping season

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  1. I've heard of these nasty birds on the news. Bad luck for David. I would suggest a tennis racket to swat at them but that probably run afoul of the protected species law. You could move to New Zealand. We don't hav the dangerous animals and I've never heard of a swooping magpie here.

  2. I love that Pamela Allen wrote a children's picture book on this...I once defended myself by swinging an empty champagne bottle at it - my friend got hit in the temple and almost lost an eye!

    1. Haha- one of those things which I imagine is a lot funnier in the retelling than it was at the time.

  3. I can't believe this, I've been swooped before but this sounds like a western movie... I know Australian wildlife can be dangerous but this is simply evil... Still, they have personality...

    1. They have loads of personality and I love them I just wish they wouldn't swoop.

  4. The 'avian luftwaffe'! That they are! Have had a few near misses over the years :)

  5. Entertaining reading, AND informative. Thanks for this post.

  6. OMG! What terrible birds! Poor David. I can't believe they can be so furious and territorial. I have to admit when l visited Australia, the big and deadly buys were on my mind as well :-). I'm glad your neighbour magpies don't swoop. It's a terrible to say, but l giggled a little reading this. Thanks for that.

  7. Worst year for dive bombing by the most aggressive magpies I have ever come across had blood drawn behind both ears while cycling through their territory. From the Brisbane Council website: "The most well-known bird for displaying swooping behaviour is the Australian magpie, however other species of native birds have also been known to swoop including the masked lapwing (plover), butcherbird, magpie-lark (pee-wee), little friarbird, torresian crow and noisy miner." Interestingly when I see those warning signs about swooping magpies I don`t get swooped. In Toowoomba where I cycle there are many tree lined streets and bike paths so I guess they can`t sign post everywhere I have stopped riding during the day it`s just too dangerous in my opinion sunset rides are a safer time.

    1. Interesting you think it is the worst year ever. We just put it down to Queensland magpies. We have been swooped in Sydney, where we live, and in Victoria but never as aggressively as on the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Maybe it is the drought.

  8. They're only birds, they're not carrying guns or knives or little chainsaws. I live in Moore and ride the BVRT regularly. The secret is to ride slowly, keep both hands on the bars to keep control of the bike, wear sunglasses, put a shade brim on the helmet. If you ride quickly they can keep pace with you pecking at the helmet. Local entertainment in spring is watching people speeding past squealing, flailing and the crashing the bike. How would you cope in crocodile country?

    1. I am sorry you seem to have been offended by my post. If you had read the whole post you would know that I did not speed past the Mad Magpie, 'flailing, squealing or crashing my bike'. I followed the advice on numerous signs, to dismount and walk. It didn't work. I have a shade brim on my helmet - that didn't work either. I don't wear sunglasses when I cycle because I find them dangerous - much harder to see bumps and swerves in the path. Over many years of cycling we have encountered countless swooping magpies - they are a fact of life in Australia. I have no idea why but the BVRT magpies, and particularly the Mad Magpie of Toogoolawah, are angrier and more vicious than magpies elsewhere - but they are.

      Perhaps instead of entertaining yourself with the sight of people being attacked, injured and scared out of their wits, you could try a little sympathy for your fellow human beings. I wrote this post not long after a five month old baby girl died when her mother tripped and fell while trying to protect her from a swooping magpie - yes magpies are just birds but they can be dangerous and deserve caution.

      As to crocodiles. We are sensible and careful when we are in crocodile country. Like magpies in swooping season, we treat them with the respect they deserve.