Cracticus (Gymnorhina) tibicen, Australian Magpie Click to enlarge image
Australian Magpie Image: D Rowland
© D Rowland

Swooping on intruders, including humans, does tend to trigger some debate over whether magpies are actually aggressive or defensive.

Magpies swoop in spring

Peak breeding season for Australian magpies is August through to November, which is normally when the swooping begins.

During this time, they're primarily looking to defend their nest and its inhabitants. Male adults are using their body language – beak clapping, whooshing above your head and screeching – to warn you to keep away from their eggs or newly-hatched chicks.


Magpie call


Magpies dawn and dusk choruses are one of the most loved Australian bird calls. This is probably due to the melodic nature of the calls. The calls or vocalisations of the magpie can be Research by Emma Rose Roper on the vocalisations of the Australian magpie found that "Australian magpies are involved actively in the acoustic sounds they produce. They produce solo vocalisations when they are not constrained by social and environmental factors. Magpies improvise upon, invent and imitate new melodic material throughout their lives."


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Magpies construct their nests in the outer branches of trees and these can be up to 15 metres about the ground and use the same nesting sites each year.

Magpies live in groups of 3-24 birds in the west and 2-10 in the east of the country. Suitable breeding sites are in short supply and once attained, a territory must be defended to prevent it from being reduced or seized. All individuals in a group help defend the territory from other birds, but it is usually the males that defend the nest during breeding season. Magpies will often hold a territory in excess of ten years and have a lifespan of 25-30 years.


Australian Magpie - With spider in mouth
Magpie - With spider in mouth Image: PublicDomainPictures
© PublicDomainPictures

Magpie Breeding behaviours

Australian Magpies are strongly territorial and defend their territories both from other magpies as well as potential predators. Unfortunately, some individual magpies perceive humans as a potential threat and accordingly, swoop down with a fast warning flight, occasionally making contact. Only a small minority of Australian Magpies behaves like this, and some of these aggressive magpies will only swoop on particular people.

Territorial behaviour varies greatly, depending on the stage of the breeding season, so most of the aggressive Australian Magpies will only be a problem to humans for a couple of weeks. Wearing a hat during the period in which a bird is aggressive is one practical way of avoiding injury; another is to avoid the area for a couple of weeks.

Magpies are protected throughout NSW, and it is against the law to kill the birds, collect their eggs, or harm their young.

No matter how you categorise this bird’s behaviour (at certain times of the year), it does possess some beautiful attributes.

So when out and about this Spring, remember: be alert not alarmed.


Magpie - Sitting on fence
Australian Magpie sitting on fence Image: PublicDomainPictures
© PublicDomainPictures

Why do magpies swoop cyclists?

Cyclists are a fast moving target seen as a threat to a nesting group of magpies.

Magpies are an intellegent bird, able to recognise upto 100 individuals and will swoop riders from 50- 100m away from their nest.

To reduce the risk of being swooped upon, be aware of where the magpie is nesting, respect our native wildlife and avoid the area if possible.


Magpies at the Australian Museum
Mounted specimens of Cracticus tibicen [=Gymnorhina tibicen] (Australian Magpies). Held in Education for teaching purposes. O.73498 & O.73499 mounted together on one stand. Image: Alan Leishman
© Australian Museum

Experts advise against fighting back against the bird or running away quickly. It is important to stay calm, if you panic and flap this is more likely to appear as aggressive behaviour and provoke further swooping. You should move away from the area slowly. Magpies tend to attack from behind so facing them has been known to avert an attack.

To find out where swooping magpies are in your area you can visit Magpie Alert, "Australia's social website to track aggressive swooping magpies. If you are a cyclist, walker, runner or maybe a concerned member of the public then help protect others and share swooping magpie attacks on-line at https://www.magpiealert.com/ "