More than 4,600 people have been attacked by magpies in Australia this year to date. Nearly 70 percent of those were cyclists; five percent were runners; two percent were out walking the dog; and 0.2 percent were delivering the post.
This is not uncommon: the onset of the Australian spring is always accompanied by the distinctive beating of magpie wings, as the territorial breeding birds swoop down on anyone within a stone’s throw of their nests. It is generally accepted among the Australian people as an inconvenient but mostly innocuous part of life—as seasonal as hayfever, or summer storms.
But things seem to be particularly bad this year—and while most of the incidents recorded over the past 11 months (about 87 percent) have been harmless, at least 600 have resulted in some kind of injury.
Two particularly gory magpie attacks took place in southeastern Victoria last month: first when Jennifer Dyer was struck in the eye while having a coffee outside a shopping centre—resulting in an emergency trip to Melbourne and multiple surgeries—and then, days later, when 68-year-old James Glindemann had both his eyes violently gouged by a magpie while enjoying his lunch on a bench outside the same complex.
Glindemann had blood pouring out of his eyes as he was rushed to hospital for an emergency eye surgery, according to the ABC. More than six weeks later, he still hasn’t completely regained his vision.
"I sat down at a bench … and the magpie came up and I started talking to it because I like them," he recounted immediately after the incident. "And it looked at me and I didn't give it any food, so it just attacked me.”
The magpie jabbed its beak into Glindemann’s left and then right eye, penetrating the cornea of the latter.
“There was some blood that was dripping at one stage and it covered my eyes,” he said. “I could barely see, but I managed to find my car and I rang [emergency services]."
The birds responsible for attacking Dyer and Glindemann—as well as at least three other victims—were killed by authorities this week, after the local council hired a contractor to capture and euthanize them.
Glindemann, for one, commended the decision, saying “this particular bird has learnt a very bad habit. I don't think you can change that. I think it needed to be euthanized."
But Gisela Kaplan, professor of animal behaviour at the University of New England, told the ABC that “killing is never the answer” when it comes to fighting back against magpie attacks.
"There are so many grades of different actions one can take," she said. "Rehabilitation is one of them, removing them from the source and [sending] them far away is another, and breaking up the group is a third because they may have learnt from each other.”
Dr Kaplan also noted that these particular magpies had displayed uncommonly vicious behaviour, which she suggested they may have learned as a result of habitat loss and a shortage of food.
"Something is happening in their environment, in their interaction, in their contact with people," she told the ABC. "Twenty years ago when I started studying magpies I had never come across any single case like that."
This isn’t the first time such decisive action has been taken against errant Australian magpies, though. In 2018, police in New South Wales gunned down a magpie after it swooped an old lady in the street, claiming that attempts to relocate the bird had failed. The Guardian further reports that since August 2017, the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service has issued licences to harm almost 600 aggressive magpies. Of those, only 24 elected to catch and release the birds elsewhere.
So thousands of Australians have been attacked by magpies this year, and at least a couple of those assailants appear to have acted in uncharacteristically vicious ways—behaviour that would have been unheard of 20 years ago. But is this a good justification for “destroying” the native animals, which in 2017 were voted the Australian Bird of the Year?
Not according to the experts. Echoing Dr Kaplan’s credo that “killing is never the answer”, Sean Dooley, the national public affairs manager of BirdLife Australia, denounced the euthanasia option as a callous and tactless way of responding to unruly animals in their natural habitat.
“I’m quite often disappointed and downcast to see how many permits [to kill magpies] are given out,” Dooley told The Guardian. “It smacks of laziness and lack of imagination in that it’s the outdated mode of ‘native animals are a problem and the only way to get rid of them is to shoot them’.”
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