Magpie mayhem as students swooped outside Fisher Library

Avoid the ‘target area’ at all costs.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

The Australian magpie usually eats worms and insects, but during swooping season on campus there is only one prey that matters: students. 

According to Magpie Alert’s Magpie Swooping Map, there has been just one campus attack this year when ‘Sophia’ was swooped while walking on 28 September outside the Anderson Stuart Building. Fortunately, she was not injured.

However, Honi has received multiple reports that suggest swoopings are much more common. Evidence suggests that the primary suspect is a male Australian Magpie living in and around the fig trees outside Fisher Library and the Anderson Stuart Building.

Seth was FaceTiming near the Moreton Bay fig tree outside Fisher Library when he was swooped. He told Honi: “It was very scary, I had to then run while on FaceTime into the library and do my COVID sign-in while being harassed by this magpie.”

“For the first time in my life, I had a positive-ish interaction with USyd security. They were like ‘are you okay? I just saw that’ and I was like ‘yeah, I’m fine.’”

Seth maintained that he doesn’t hold any grudge toward the magpie: “I really love magpies, I think they’re really amazing birds. I understand where they are coming from.”

Alice had a similar experience. She told Honi: “My friend and I were just sitting on Eastern Ave, minding our own business, sipping our Mango LaCroix before heading into the library when I saw a magpie sitting in the tree opposite us.”

“I’d heard about this malicious magpie before (his reputation precedes him) so was instantly cautious and backed away. And yet the magpie flew out of the tree and straight towards us! We ducked and narrowly avoided its razor-sharp beak but quite frankly it was terrifying.”

Xavier was swooped on the Quad lawns outside the Great Hall while on a Zoom class last Wednesday: “I was swooped out of nowhere just sitting by myself, and I moved, but they followed me. I had to keep getting up to shoo them away from me, and after a while I chose to just leave.”

Like Seth, Xavier generously holds “no ill feelings — I know they’re just trying to protect the nest. It’s hard out here though, for both parties.”

Video still: a student being swooped outside Fisher Library on 13 October

Despite their reputation, only a small proportion of magpies attack people, says Professor Darryl Jones, a behavioural ecologist and magpie expert at Griffith University.

According to Jones, swoopings occur only in the six weeks when chicks are in the nest.

“It’s just what they would do if a snake or goanna was approaching. I would suspect that the tree has a nest and that’s the cause of the drama.”

So, what’s the best defence against a maleficent magpie? “An umbrella is the simplest method. They almost always swoop from behind so if one buzzes you, turn and face it and walk out of the zone.”

“The male is probably stressed out of its mind with all these threats so it could do anything. But don’t hassle it or retaliate; that will only make matters worse.”

Professor David Phalen, from the USyd School of Veterinary Science, agreed: “One cannot stop magpies from swooping.”

In a statement, a University spokesperson said: “We recently became aware of a magpie swooping on campus and are currently installing signs to notify people in the target area.”

Honi understands that magpies have swooped students during springtime around Fisher Library for years.

A sign warning students of swooping magpies. (Courtesy of Maxim Shanahan)
The ‘target area’. (Courtesy of University Spokesperson)

The surge in magpie swoopings on campus is a reminder in our anthropocentric world that students share the space with many creatures that have different uses of the urban environment to our own.

“Our campus is home to a variety of animals, from magpies to possums and even a protected species of swallow that nests in the Quad every year. We aim to treat them all with respect and leave them undisturbed,” a University spokesperson said.

When asked whether urban living is encroaching on magpies, Professor Jones said: “This is one situation where the wildlife says ‘Urbanisation? Bring it on!’ Cities are literally magpie heaven: endless well-watered lawns and food everywhere, with a few tall trees to nest in. There are way more magpies in cities than in the bush.”

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