August 31, 1996

Article at New Scientist

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Wronged magpies fight back

By Wilson da Silva, Melbourne

AUSTRALIAN wildlife can be a real health hazard—and it’s not just spiders and snakes that are the problem. The first detailed study into magpie attacks has found that a staggering 98 per cent of men and 75 per cent of women born in the country are likely to have been attacked by the birds by the time they reach adulthood.

A survey of more than 3000 people in Brisbane, carried out by researchers at Griffith University, found that most victims were attacked as children, with young boys and bicycle riders being the favourite targets.

The birds attack fewer adults, but when they do they tend to target joggers and postal workers, say Darryl Jones and Nick Cilento. About a quarter of those attacked needed medical attention. “You can just about say that if you grew up in Australia, or certainly around Brisbane, you were attacked by a magpie,” says Jones.

Despite the number of injuries, the attacks have never been taken very seriously. But people are starting to demand action. Between 300 and 600 attacks take place a year in the Brisbane area alone.

In 1992, nine people lost the sight of one eye. Three victims have sued local governments after being attacked on public land, prompting local authorities to fund the research.

Most attacking birds are male and become more aggressive during the breeding season, from August to October, when they have chicks to defend. Although there is little reliable information on why magpies attack people, it is clear that only a tiny fraction of the birds are responsible.

“It’s not a genetic, fixed-species trait,” says Jones. “Virtually every bird we’ve studied has a specific target group—certain birds will target adult males with bald heads or women with prams, or whatever it might be.”

He speculates that the birds may have been primed to attack certain types of people by some act of human aggression. “Something happened that made the magpies target that group, and I bet it was some nasty experience like having chicks pinched.”

It is harder to explain the small number of birds that seem to attack all year round.

“There’s only six that we know about, out of something like 10 000 nesting in Brisbane. But they are loony birds, and I suspect the testosterone has gone to their heads.”

Jones and Cilento hope to extend their survey, and monitor aggressive birds. Next year, they plan to attach oestrogen implants to 10 of the worst offenders, to see if it reduces the number of attacks.