It turns out magpies can, and do, form friendships with humans - and not just when they are depending on them for food.
As Gisela Kaplan, Professor of Animal Behaviour, University of New England, writes in an article published on The Conversation, “A key reason why friendships with magpies are possible is that we now know that magpies are able to recognise and remember individual human faces for many years.
“They can learn which nearby humans do not constitute a risk. They will remember someone who was good to them; equally, they remember negative encounters.”
This was the case for a magpie named Penguin, who made headlines in 2016 headlines after forming an unlikely friendship with a Sydney family.
So why do magpies swoop people?
“It’s worth bearing in mind that swooping magpies (invariably males on guard duty) do not act in aggression or anger but as nest defenders,” writes Giseal. “The strategy they choose is based on risk assessment.”
A high-risk person is basically anyone who wasn’t present at the time the nest was built.
“Which unfortunately is often the case in public places and parks, the professor explained. “That person is then classified as a territorial intruder and thus a potential risk to its brood.
“At this point the male guarding the brooding female is obliged to perform a warning swoop, literally asking a person to step away from the nest area.”
If you happen to encounter a protective magpie, Gisela recommends staying calm and slowly walking away from the nest. Once at a safe distance, allowing the magpie to see your face could prevent you from being attacked by the same bird in the future as they remember faces.
“A sure way of escalating conflict is to fence them with an umbrella or any other device or to run away at high speed. This human approach may well confirm for the magpie that the person concerned is dangerous and needs to be fought with every available strategy.”
This article originally appeared on Better Homes and Gardens.