Life in Canberra got a little more interesting last week. Spring has started springing and the magpies have started swooping.
Yeah, there was that whole other thing with the leader of the ruling party being ousted and a new prime minister being installed in the top Aussie spot, but I’m telling you the magpies are more interesting.
When we arrived in Canberra last October we were given a notebook containing information about our appliances, a check-in list, and lots informational pamphlets about caring for furniture and living in our government owned house. None of this was much different than what we got when we moved into our Kinshasa house – except the sheet detailing the snakes and spiders that want us dead.
Everyone knows that Australia is full of things that want to kill you. Sharks, crocs, box jellyfish, the deadliest snakes on the planet, many of the most deadly spiders on the planet – they are all out there, lurking behind the next bush, tree or waterhole. But, almost a year in, we haven’t see a single snake (yes, I’m knocking wood right now…). We’ve seen a few spiders, but nothing that has struck fear in our hearts. And, being as we live in the “Bush Capital” we are thankfully far away from all the water-based Down Under terrors.
But, as we round out the first half of our tour, I’m starting to suspect that the things that are really likely to kill you in Australia are things that nobody tells you about.
For instance, there is no sheet in our book for kangaroos. Kangaroos won’t bite and poison you, but there are a lot of them and they are in the middle of the roads.
All. The. Time.
They are basically the equivalent of deer in North America. You round a corner and there they are: kangaroo in headlights. Like deer, roos move in an unpredictable way, so all you can do is slow down and hope for the best. So far I’ve had a coupe of close calls, but I’ve been lucky enough to avoid a kangaroo collision. Still, I’m pretty sure that if I meet my end on this tour, it’ll be because I ran into a big burly kangaroo buck on the road, not because a Red Belly Black snake got me.
And then there are the magpies. At this time of year, magpies strike fear in the hearts of Australians as the males become dive bombing kamikazes attacking pedestrians and cyclists that dare venture too close to their nests. As a result, from August to October, Aussie bike helmets start sprouting zip ties in an effort to ward off attacks, and visits to the website https://www.magpiealert.com/ become more frequent as people from all over the country log on to report areas where they have been swooped.
Today we received a management notice at the Embassy with safety tips for staying safe from magpies including:
· Travel in groups where possible as the birds often target individuals.
· It is important to try to stay calm, if you panic and flap then this is more likely to appear as aggressive behavior and provoke a further attack.
· Try to protect your eyes with your hands, those large beaks are very sharp and eye injuries have been previously recorded.
· Remember magpies are urban species too, so there is generally no escaping them!
Am I the only one who reads this and immediately pictures Hitchcock’s classic film The Birds?
The Aussie magpie is about the same size as a good sized crow. They’re known for learning to recognize human faces – and remember them for years. They mate for life – and can live for up to 20 years – and establish territories for whole families, which, as a group, are called a “tiding.” As a side note, I can’t decide if a “tiding of magpies” is better than a “mob of kangaroos,” but in my book they both come close to rivaling a “murder of crows” and a “mumeration of starlings” as group names go.
When we moved in last year a small tiding of magpies came to call on us. Over the course of the year our favorite magpie, who C named “Feathery,” has found a mate and they come to our house every morning, stand on our doorstep and “carol” to us in the hopes that we’ll give them some food – which, often to B’s chagrin, I almost always do.
My hope is that the friendship I’ve built up with Feathery and her family will afford me some immuity from the murderous intent of the local male magpies this swooping season. But, since I suspect I’m in far more danger of injury from my neighborhood magpie than I am from a roaming croc, I’m going to don my zip ties, travel in groups, and check the website…just in case.