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Wildlife Matters: Those wretched magpies

When I was a small child I had to walk by myself about a mile along a country road to get to school.

"It's not fair!" I blurted out, with the truculence of a five year old.

"You'll be all right," said my mother who remembered that when she had been my age she had had to drive a horse and sulky six miles to reach her school.

But I was not convinced.

Perhaps the biggest hazard on the way to school were the magpies and it was not I who bore the brunt of their attacks, but my little brother (at least he was little then).

About a hundred metres down the road from our house stood a couple of big old gum trees that were a favourite nesting site for magpies. And they were fierce! On one occasion they hit the back my brother's head with sufficient force to penetrate his old sou'wester rainhat (which he was wearing for magpie protection) and draw blood.

So we used to wear our school bags on our heads when we walked to school.

I read somewhere recently that it is only slightly demented magpies that divebomb people and if you feed them they won't attack. Apparently they are able to recognise every individual person living within their territories and seem to hold a particular grudge against some people.

My father, as a very old man took great delight in feeding them in his backyard, and one became so tame that it would come and sit on his knee. They didn't attack him.

When Joe and I moved to our property on the far north coast of NSW, I planted eucalypts, which in time grew into big trees, and a family moved in. Fortunately they were not the attacking kind.

But during our recent camping trip to Barrington Tops National Park we visited Pollblue Swamp where we met a couple of people coming back from their walk waving sticks above their heads.

"Magpies!" they said, with ominous gloom. We knew immediately what they meant. But Laura, who had experienced a childhood free of magpie attacks and was not sufficiently cautious, received a painful "thwump" on the back of her head.

So we armed ourselves with sticks and walked backwards along the track.

There were also magpies at our campsite at Junction Pools in Barringtops NP but fortunately they too, were not the attacking kind. At least they weren't aggressive towards people. But a wedge-tailed eagle that soared over their territory was not so lucky. It suffered a sustained attack lasting for more than ten minutes.

It was a significant struggle requiring vigorous wing flapping for the magpie to reach the height at which the eagle was soaring but time after time it returned, beak open, always approaching from behind.

Sometimes a wing was targeted, and sometimes the tail.

Sometimes just a flyover was enough when the aggressor missed its target, as it struggled to follow its victim's effortless circular gliding pattern.

And the magpie was not shy of making contact, delivering a sharp nip to the eagle's feathertips.

This bird was shooting to kill (figuratively speaking)!

It was all very distracting for the wedge-tail but in the end it simply soared effortlessly out of the danger zone and the attack ceased.

The magpie must have been exhausted.

But in spite of the aggressive tendencies of some birds, this is an iconic Australian species.

I went out to lunch, yesterday, with two friends both of whom spontaneously related friendly magpie stories, without any prompting from me.

Magpies have endearing qualities, and mostly Australians love them.

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