Monday, 6 November 2023
It’s a sure sign that spring is in the air when the birds of the bush begin to feather their nests and lay their eggs. At this time of year it’s easy to stumble across a nest or two, whether you’re looking for them or not.
There are three basic reactions of birds when people approach their nests too closely, though this often depends on the stage of breeding (whether eggs, nestlings or fledglings are present).
Some birds merely slip quietly off the nest, blending into the background and hoping that nobody notices them or their nests. Others perform a conspicuous distraction display to draw your attention away from the nest or young birds. The third strategy, especially just after the young have fledged, is to attack.
That’s another sign of spring — when the magpies begin swooping at passersby. However, it’s only a small proportion of magpies that actually swoop people in the springtime (most don’t bother), and only some of those swooping birds actually make contact with people’s heads, but, nevertheless, they’re the ones that get all the publicity.
Though I’ve never set out to be attacked by a breeding bird, it is through fate rather than intent that over the years I’ve managed to road-test a number of these birds’ swooping strategies.
Spur of the moment
After the magpie, Australia’s most prominent swooper is the Masked Lapwing. While incubating a clutch of eggs, lapwings are often mild mannered, performing a graceful distraction display with a bowed head and outstretched wings. However, after the mottled, fluffy young have emerged from their eggs it’s a different story — the swooping begins.
Often swooping from a great height, an attacking lapwing doesn’t always make contact, but when it does, it’s not just a glancing blow — it hits you with considerable force, sometimes hard enough to leave a bruise, even if its prominent yellow wing-spurs don’t puncture your skin. Unlike other swoopers, lapwings don’t aim only for your head — they are just as content to strike you in the back or even on the buttocks. They’re persistent too, not giving up until you’ve fled the area. I’ve read of one victim in Tasmania who retreated to his car while under attack, and even as he sheltered inside, the lapwing continued to strike the vehicle!
Not a magpie, but…
One of the least-likely swoopers is the Magpie-lark. Few people would believe that this innocuous bird can inflict any damage, but think again.
At first, an attack from a Magpie-lark seems rather comical, with the bird fluttering flamboyantly above your head, apparently trying to land on you. Then the truth sinks in, as it tries to scratch your scalp with its sharp claws, and some Magpie-larks even aim for your eyes. It was only when I received a scratch about a centimetre from my eye (which drew a little blood) that I realised that the bird meant business. Magpie-larks are not only surprisingly vicious, they’re also quite persistent, and retreat is the only remedy.
The Noisy Miner is another persistent swooper. They readily harass birds as large as White-faced Herons and as small as Spotted Pardalotes — and they’re not afraid to confront people either.
One or more miners will swoop straight at your head, deviating only at the last moment to miss narrowly. This is accompanied by a rapid clicking of their yellow beaks and much calling (which, incidentally, sounds rather like the calls of a fledgling Magpie). However, they seldom, if ever, make contact, so their threats, although dramatic, are ultimately merely annoying.
Born to be mild
The least intimidating of them all is the Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike. A BFCS once ‘attacked’ me by gliding down from its nest and then giving an agitated creer call as it gently fluttered about, perhaps a metre above my head. Then, with its ineffectual display of bravado apparently complete, it flew back to its nest-tree. And that was it — over in a couple of seconds! It was an anticlimax, like being attacked by an animated moist towelette.
Some victims have reported that a cuckoo-shrike’s dive-bombing is “vicious”, consisting of continuous sorties accompanied by much bill snapping and calling, but the one that swooped me was mild in the extreme.
The nastiest of them all
In contrast, it seems the nastiest of all the swoopers is the Grey Butcherbird. At first, it fixes you with an icy stare, almost daring you to enter its domain. Then, in a calculating manner, it flies directly at your face with a clear intent to injure, and it does so again and again, cackling all the while.
Sometimes they veer out of the way just in time; sometimes not. Anyone not quick enough to dodge out of the way will surely donate a little blood as a result. Its hooked beak is a weapon, and the butcherbird knows how to wield it!
I’ve never found a nest of a Little Crow, but I’ve read the accounts of those who have. Apparently the species uses a more novel solution than merely swooping at the intruder — with each swoop the crow accurately squirts a jet of faeces at the interloper. Genuine dive-bombing.
Plenty of other Australian birds also swoop to protect their young — even the most inoffensive birds can attack. Some are intimidating, some are amusing and others are just plain hazardous. So, be warned this spring — watch out!
This article first appeared in Australian BirdLife magazine. Limited numbers of copies of Australian BirdLife are available for sale at BirdLife Australia’s e-store.
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