A Smile from a Swoop

Last week, I heard the familiar bill-clicks and a woosh of wind as an Australian magpie tore through the air centimetres above my head. It brought a smile to my face as I watched the attacker perch on a powerline above me. That was my first swooping in many months; I had been watching these magpies carrying sticks to build their nest for a couple of weeks and was wondering when my daily walk along that stretch of footpath was going to become a treacherous exercise.

Australian magpies are renowned swoopers, but there are several other species that strike fear into the hearts of passers-by. Masked lapwings are undoubtedly up there as fear-inducing birds. They are equipped with a sharp, bright yellow spur on each wing which has led to them being known by their alternative common name: spur-winged plover. In Melbourne, noisy miners and grey butcherbirds may also dish out their fair share of swooping.

This masked lapwing was caught for a scientific research program and the handling provided a great opportunity for a close look at the very impressive wing spurs. Before you ask, that is a squashed mosquito and not blood from a spur-inflicted injury! Image: Rowan Mott

This masked lapwing was caught for a scientific research program and the handling provided a great opportunity for a close look at the very impressive wing spurs. Before you ask, that is a squashed mosquito and not blood from a spur-inflicted injury! Image: Rowan Mott

These species are all perfectly suited to the suburban landscape. Our suburbs contain scattered trees and large expanses of lawn that dominate our streetscapes and backyards. This has greatly benefited magpies that rely on trees for nesting and roosting, but forage on open ground. Similarly, our urban parks and sporting fields replicate open grasslands and marshes that are the favoured natural habitat of masked lapwings. In natural settings, these habitat features are not common; however, as forests have been replaced by suburbs, we have created huge tracts of optimal habitat. Whereas other beneficiaries of this transition, such as galahs and crested pigeons, have been welcomed for the colour and beauty they bring, magpies and lapwings are much maligned for their habit of swooping.

So why did being swooped bring a smile to my face? It was because it gave me great hope that the individuals I had been watching each day as they began their breeding attempt would be able to defend their young against all threats that they may face. For swooping is not an aggressive behaviour, but rather a defensive one brought about by the presence of an intruder perceived as a threat by the parents. It is a natural behaviour that has been used to fend off threats to the nest for countless generations. You need only look as far as the commotion caused by a dog walker passing through the territory of a group of noisy miners to see that swooping is not a behaviour aimed only at people.

For a number of weeks after hatching, young birds such as this juvenile masked lapwing are unable to fly. This makes them vulnerable to predators and dependent on their parents to provide protection. Image: Rowan Mott

For a number of weeks after hatching, young birds such as this juvenile masked lapwing are unable to fly. This makes them vulnerable to predators and dependent on their parents to provide protection. Image: Rowan Mott

Nor is it just people and our pets that bear the brunt of defensive parents. Birds of prey, cuckoos, snakes and many other natural threats that stray too close to a nest may become the centre of some unwanted attention. If the appreciation that we are not the only creatures to suffer the indignity of being swooped is not enough to convince you that these birds deserve our respect, consider that the masked lapwing has other, less violent tricks up its sleeve (or wing to be more precise). These protective parents will put themselves in danger by pretending to have a broken wing in the hope that it will persuade you – the thing they consider to be a predator – that they are an easier meal than their defenceless eggs or chicks.

Swooping is a natural response of many breeding birds to the presence of a perceived threat. Here, a letterwing kite has strayed too close to the nest of a black-faced woodswallow and is being swooped as a consequence. Image: Rowan Mott

Swooping is a natural response of many breeding birds to the presence of a perceived threat. Here, a letterwing kite has strayed too close to the nest of a black-faced woodswallow and is being swooped as a consequence. Image: Rowan Mott

In an environment where threats abound (such as domestic cats, motor vehicles and foxes), the lengths that these birds go to in order to give their offspring the best chance of survival warrants our admiration rather than our admonishment - particularly given that the suburban landscapes we build are a major factor determining the number of times we interact with these species.

So, if we are to accept that swooping birds are a fixture of our suburbs and deserve our respect, how best can we co-inhabit our footpaths, parks and gardens in harmony? Bicyclists account for the overwhelming majority of victims in swooping cases involving Australian magpies. If you know where a swooping bird resides along your daily bicycle commute, you could try hopping off and walking for a short section to minimise the chances that you will be targeted.

If you are not a cyclist or walking your bike does not stop you from being swooped, you might want to take an alternative route. You may be asking, ‘How can I find a magpie-free route?’ The Magpie Alert website may be the answer you are looking for. It contains records of swooping incidents across the country and you can provide your own records to help others avoid particularly troublesome territories. By staying calm and rational about the dangers posed by swooping birds, we may be able to minimise the risks to our own safety as well as reducing the stress we place on our nesting neighbours. I think this is the very least we can do for these dedicated parents.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image of an Australian magpie courtesy of Rowan Mott.