New Zealand Birds – Australian Magpie

We were hiking down to Homunga Bay, a scenic secluded bay on the North Island up the coast from Waihi. Rebecca was a little ahead of me as we emerged from a lightly forested area and entered a farmer’s pasture.

“There’s a bird swooping at me,” she called back.

“Okay, I’ll be right there.”

I didn’t think much of it. Rebecca commonly exaggerates things. I was used to this type stuff from her and of course when I arrived there was no bird in sight.

But as we began to cross the open pasture off in the distance I saw a black and white mass maybe thirty feet off the ground moving straight toward us at a rapid speed, no, make that at a very rapid rate of speed and it wasn’t slowing. It looked like a jet fighter coming at us.

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The bird—yes, it was a large bird—then dive bombed straight down at us coming within a foot or two of my head. It swept back up into the air, flapped its wings to stall and then dived again.

mag2 copy

Involuntarily we both ducked as the bird continued to attack us. This was the Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) defending its territory and maybe a nearby nest.

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Not to be confused with the magpies back in Colorado who steal your picnic lunch, this bird is a completely different species and was attacking us with a vengeance. After a number of hectic dive-bombing runs each one seemingly coming closer and closer to our heads, the bird disappeared beyond a fence line.

UnknownThe Australian Magpie was introduced from of all places—Australia—to New Zealand in the 1860’s to help control farmland pests. Initially 1000 birds were introduced. Like many of the introduced species to New Zealand, it liked it here and thrived. This large black and white bird is about 16 inches in length. It builds its nests in trees. Along with the usual materials sometimes strange items such as old spoons, pieces of barbed wire, glass and pieces of china are placed in the nest. The magpie is not afraid. It will attack and kill other much larger birds. Common in farming areas, they are often now considered a pest. They breed from late August to early October and that is when a small percentage of the birds, usually males, will attack.

Lest you think I am exaggerating the intensity of the magpie’s swopping attacks, they are apparently quite common and lead to injuries where the birds actually peck at the face, neck, ears or eyes of individuals often attacking from behind. More often, they cause injuries to bicyclists by causing them to lose control.

Deterrents for pedestrians include wearing broad-brimmed hats, placing your sunglasses or fake eyeballs on the back of your hat, holding branches above one’s head and . . . taking another route since the birds often attack the same people in the same place every day.

imagesBicycle helmets are often not sufficient protection since the birds can attack from the sides. Attaching upright cable ties to the helmet seems to help . . . if you don’t mind looking like a complete idiot. A number of videos on the Internet show the birds attacking people and others list detailed advice on how to keep safe (http://www.wikihow.com/Keep-Safe-from-Swooping-Australian-Magpies).

As for our bird, he continued to attack us on the way down through the meadow and then again on our way back up a few hours later. Several times he showed up unexpectedly from behind with a great rush and flapping of wings close to our heads. Eventually we reached the tree line and were safe.

What sound does the Australian magpie make? “Quardle oodle ardie wardle doodle” says “The Field Guide to Birds of New Zealand,” or alternatively “waddle giggle gargle paddle poodle,” from the children’s book Waddle Giggle Gargle by Pamela Allen.

The first above described sound of the magpie actually comes from a very famous, well-known New Zealand poem by Denis Glover that contrasts the transitory passing of life of a farming couple in the Depression years with the timelessness of nature as epitomized by the magpies.

The Magpies

When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Tom’s hand was strong to the plough
and Elizabeth’s lips were red
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Year in year out they worked
while the pines grew overhead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

But all the beautiful crops soon went
to the mortgage man instead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Elizabeth is dead now (it’s long ago)
Old Tom’s gone light in the head
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

The farms still there. Mortgage corporations
couldn’t give it away
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.

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3 thoughts on “New Zealand Birds – Australian Magpie

  1. Ahhh, what a charming ending – NOT !!!!! But then, it was a delightful story of my daughter and son-in-law being viciously attacked by a deranged bird ….. You get a A+ for this one.

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