It’s magpie swooping season – the time of year when male birds seek to protect eggs and chicks from potential predators.
At this time of year my morning commute to the tram stop sometimes feels a bit like extreme sport as I’ve been forced to take refuge beside lamp posts and under any available canopies to avoid getting clawed in the back of the head.
The fear of being attacked by magpies is not new. For me, it might hark back to the horror of seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds as a child. As a teenager growing up in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, I recall swinging a bike chain above my head as I rode past parklands where a tidings of magpies gathered.
But maybe I was going about it all wrong. Several experts, including Gisela Kaplan, an emeritus professor in animal behaviour at the University of New England, suggest we are better off to try to make friends with our potential attackers than to try to fight them.
Kaplan told ABC radio last week that magpies have long memories and once they know you don’t pose a threat, they will make you a friend for life. But if you are nasty to them they will hold a permanent grudge against you.
While Kaplan didn’t go into specifics of how to make friends with magpies (feeding them is discouraged) during breeding season, the best way is to show them some respect by leaving them alone and avoiding going too close to their nests.
If nothing else, magpie swooping season reminds us that we we share our cities with a multitude of wildlife. In some parts of Melbourne there are estimated to be as many as 20 foxes living in a single square kilometre of territory.
And while none of us would ever wish to be swooped by multiple magpies or to encounter a skulk of foxes in the dead of night in one of Melbourne’s urban wasteland areas, these animals can provide an enlightening connection to the natural world that is increasingly elusive to city dwellers. And if we lose this connection to nature, we may cease to be prepared to stand up to protect it in the long run.
As British journalist George Monbiot has written: “Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.”
So perhaps instead of trying to go into battle with the magpies this swooping season, or seeking to insulate ourselves from the bewildering diversity of wildlife teeming all around us, by finding a harmonious relationship with our urban wildlife (even magpies) we will be better equipped to tackle the bigger environmental problems currently facing us.
This article first published in the print edition of The Age