Magpies – Truly a Devil Bird

One of the most common and yet peculiar superstitions in the UK is to salute a single magpie (Pica pica) to avoid bad luck. This is often accompanied by some form of salutation such as “Good Morning, Mr Magpie, where is your wife?” Magpies are monogamous and mate for life so a solitary bird has been considered a bad omen. The custom has also been traced to the myth that the bird was the only species not present at the crucifixion, lending to the belief that it is a cursed bird that brings bad luck.

Don't Look Back - Just Ride!

Certainly that seems to true if you happen to be riding a bike during the spring in Australia, where the local variety is noted for territorial aggression. Last Sunday, four-year-old Seth McInnes, out riding his bike in a Toowoomba park near Brisbane, Australia, was attacked by a magpie that pecked out his left eye leaving him blind in that eye and in excruciating pain. When I read this story, I was reminded of the shock scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” where the birds peck out the eyes of various victims. Such swoopng attacks are not uncommon during the August/September mating season for the male Australian magpie which is a much bigger version of its European cousin. The article even has advice about how to avoid attacks and injury such as wearing broad brimmed hats and dark glasses. Apparently, magpies will not attack if you look at them directly and if you walk through a danger zone, draw eyes on the back of a hat or wear your sunglasses on the back of your head. I don’t think I would risk staring down a swooping aggressive magpie and prefer the shotgun tactic.

BTW, the Latin word for magpie, “pica” is also the term for the weird psychological disorder, where sufferers eat non-nutritive substances such as nails, glass, buttons, dirt etc. The origin for the word comes from the belief that magpies eat and collect almost anything and especially have an eye for shiny things.


Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

29 responses to “Magpies – Truly a Devil Bird

  1. Great trivia in the last sentence — I just made reference to pica (the disorder, not the bird) in a comment on Russell Blackford’s blog not two weeks ago! (Was drawing an analogy between how we consider some food preferences to be subjective, while others — like pica — are pathological, vs. the idea that we consider some moral judgments to be subjective, but we still call sociopathy a pathology)

    I feel very sad for the poor victim of the attack though. Worst part about becoming a parent: The news gets way more effing depressing…

  2. The idea that magpies won’t attack if you’re looking at them is probably a myth. I read recently that drawing eyes on your hat or helmet might even have the opposite effect and cause the birds to take more interest in you. The best strategies seem mostly to be to avoid nesting areas as much as possible, or if magpies are nesting close to your house, try and befriend them out of nesting season by feeding them – they are far less likely to swoop people who they recognize as ‘friends’ (they are very smart birds). The experts say that if you do get swooped, cover your head and walk quickly toward shelter – don’t flail around and attempt to ward off the birds. They won’t go far from the nest, so if you look like you’ve been ‘driven off’ they will leave you alone.

    Around where I live, cyclists have taken to fastening plastic cable ties to their helmets – I don’t know whether it works or not, but a lot of people seem to do it! It certainly looks bizarre – especially if, as I saw a few weeks ago, the plastic ties are all different colours and there’s a lot of them!

    • Most predators will refrain from attacking if you stare them straight in the eyes, because that is a threat. Running away, OTOH, will often trigger a chase and an attack. That is why if there is a dog threatening you by staring straight at your, with or without barking, threaten it back by staring it straight into the eye, but while you do so, slowly walk away while keeping eye contact. You will notice that the magpie in this and other pictures attack from behind, because it is safer for them to do so. If an animal see another one attacking from the front, then it will have time to fight back. Ambushing an opponent from behind is the safer thing. Therefore drawing an eye on the back of your hat is likely to work.

      • brucehood

        Seems to make a lot of sense. Another observation I made once was watching a dog chase down and kill a pigeon in the park. As I watched, the bird continued to fly at ground level. Even though it could have easily flown up into the sky, it was eventually caught. How illogical until I realized that the main predator for these are birds of prey who have the advantage in open air but are compromised when diving to attack near the ground.

        • Rox

          On the other hand, pigeons have adapted very well to being “attacked” by small children, so why not by dogs ? By far their most common attackers are small children, and they just fly a short distance out of reach, and then continue as before, Maybe your pigeon was using its daily small children tactics.

          I have often noticed squirrels in mixed flocks with pigeons in London parks, as well as pigeons mixing with ducks being fed at ponds. Recently I was surprised to see many crows (getting almost back to the subject !) mixing with pigeons and ducks being fed, at a pond on Blackheath, which has large numbers of crows (what do they normally eat ?). The crows seemed quite tempted to follow the ducks into the water !

  3. Rox

    Well, magpies are common in the gardens around where I live, and I have never heard of anybody being attacked or being afraid of being attacked by them.

    The first time I heard this “Good Morning, Mr Magpie, where’s your wife?” I thought it was very eccentric indeed. However, I was brought up in London and Surrey, where people say “One for sorrow, two for joy”. So if they see one, they eagerly look out for a second one, which amounts to the same thing. It also ties in neatly with the idea of the poor magpie being widowed (but how do people know not to say: “Good Morning Mrs Magpie, where’s your husband” ?).

    I remember once seeing a French film set in the Middle Ages where there was a similar omen associated with seeing a lone bird rather than two.

  4. I call ‘myth’ also on the ‘look directly, eyes/sunglasses’ advice too. In fact, looking directly may risk getting hit in the face and worse. 😦 I’ve taken to just plain avoiding magpie-heavy areas during the spring rather than risk being attacked here in Australia. I’ve known of too many people who have felt a hit and come away with a few specks of blood on their shirt after being swooped. 😦

    The ‘shotgun’ tactic has been used in extreme cases where people have been seriously hurt, but it’s just not feasible for all cases where swooping occurs. Avoidance is best policy.

  5. Rox

    This is not a “local variety” or a “cousin” of Pica pica at all ! It happens to have a similar black and white colour scheme, but it is not in the same species, genus, or even family. It is, in fact, related to butcher birds. So perhaps its odd habits are more excusable. The thing to remember about magpies in Europe is that cardinals need to be careful to look after their rings.

    • Nice work, that also explains why all the Australians are like, “I don’t even go near these birds in the spring,” and all the Brits are like, “You guys are scared of magpies?!?”

    • Rox

      I am surprised that nobody has pulled me up for confusing two separate legends here. It was a jackdaw, the Jackdaw of Rheims, who stole a cardinal’s ring, according to a poem in the Ingoldsby Legends by Richard Harris Barham.
      The Thieving Magpie is best known from the opera by Rossini, and the magpie steals a silver teaspoon, with no church dignitary involved.

      However, European magpies are related to jackdaws, both being part of the Corvidae, the crow family, sometimes considered more intelligent than dogs and cats.

  6. brucehood

    You can tell that I am not an ornithologist – thanks for the correction Rox

  7. Rox

    I’m not an ornithologist either, but there is always guesswork and Wikipedia.

  8. There must have been an awful lot of birds at the crucifixion

  9. Tricmc

    Great joke youtube video of how to avoid Australian magpie attack from some scientists at the CSIRO

  10. Hi Bruce,
    I was wondering if the photo of the cyclists and the magpie is yours, and if I could use it in the newsletter of BikeSA where we mention something about the swooping magpies? Would be great to hear from you, would like to use it today… Thanks! Sanne

  11. stephen verchinski

    See Roman warrior and corvidae. Bird swoops down in battle allowing for a distraction and killing of the opponent. Black raven is the totem bird on our family crest and as an opportunist feeder or pica feeder, is seen with a golden ring in its beak. Our crest unfortunately has only one bird…

  12. Rox

    ” Bird swoops down in battle allowing for a distraction and killing of the opponent ” The way this is written, it isn’t a very clearcut or verifiable claim. More details might be interesting. But you don’t seem to be talking about magpies. I can’t find this Verchinski family crest, either, not even from Americans who peddle such things. Your raven wouldn’t be a magpie.

  13. Tanya

    OMG I git swooped by a Magpie yesterday…twice …2 of them went for me straight for my eye and bite hard so I’m swollen and bruised and cut eyelid…had a tetanus shot…weirded experience ever and thankfully not worse damage to the eye…that poor boy….very painful I must say..and it’s here in autumn in Sydney…

  14. Tanya

    BTW ..I was hoping really good luck to have this happen…
    Lucky I’m not superstitious

  15. roxks

    This year magpies built a nest in a tall rosebush in my back garden, about three metres horizontally from the bedroom window,It didn’t worry us at all,

  16. Davo

    Why cant there be a nationwide culling of these vermins. All they do is bring terror and heartache, I fear for my kids. Sorry, i got no feelings for these birds!

  17. Rox

    Is this in Britain or Australia, Davo, or somewhere else ? It has emerged that there is a big difference. Tanya is presumably in Australia, I am in Britain.

  18. Anonymous


  19. Nzeaka Emmanuel Ezimako

    Is it true that magpies recognise themselves in the mirror?

    • Rox

      How could we possibly know if the magpie was thinking “That’s a magpie”, or “That’s me” ?

      I suppose you could observe one moving first one wing, then the other, then its head, to establish if the bird in the mirror was in fact itself. Has anybody tried this with a cat or a dog, which would probably be much easier to do ? In my own experience, without really thinking about it much, I think cats take mirrors unthinkingly in their stride on a daily basis like humans do, which suggests that they don’t imagine another cat is around, and that would be partly because there would be no other cat smell.

      On the other hand, I think birds have been known to attach their reflection in a window. I reckon those Australian magpies would do that first, and work out the possibilities afterwards.

  20. Jayson Black

    Truly a Devil Post

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