It’s early spring in Australia. Deciduous trees are starting to turn green again, cherry trees are starting to blossom and cyclists are starting to look like they belong on a reality television program called “Aliens are here among us”. Or at least the smart cyclists do, the not-so-smart ones will be learning the hard way in the next few weeks that the alien-look is for their own safety. Meanwhile, my birds are starting to notice how my hair resembles desirable nesting material. Spring horrormones are definitely here.
Ok so why do cyclists resemble aliens in Australia at this time of year? It’s due to all of the pipe cleaners and cable ties that they attach to their helmets in the hope that it will deter magpies from swooping them. The idea being that swooping birds will impact the wavy antenna parts instead of successfully removing a human’s eye or a piece of brain. It is a method that does seem to work.
At this time of year, cyclists aren’t the only ones who need to be wary of swooping birds. I’d hope that it is reasonably well known by now that we need to protect our pet birds from birds of prey. It’s a common warning for anyone taking their bird outside or for anyone who participates in a free-flight course. However, what isn’t so well known is that it isn’t just the traditional types of birds of prey that bird owners need to be wary of and it isn’t just free-flying pet birds who need to be protected.
Traditionally people think of birds like kites, hawks, falcons and eagles when they think of birds of prey. There are many frightening stories out there about birds of prey. In fact, I was recently at my cat vet (my cat’s annual vaccination) and the vet was telling me how hysterical his wife was because a kite snatched their precious little cockatiel right in front of her. The cockatiel had been outside in its cage on their verandah when the kite swooped and smashed through the roof of the cage in a split second. The vet was shocked that the kite could do that, but even more shocked that the local bird people that he was telling weren’t surprised. Kites aren’t overly common in the area, but they’re here. The vet had had no idea that his situation wasn’t an isolated freak case but a fairly common occurrence.
A pet bird in a cage outside is vulnerable. A wild bird is going to see it as one of three things. At best, if you live somewhere where your bird is native, a bird of the same species might see your pet as a potential mate that needs to be lured away. At worst, a wild bird might see your bird as an easy meal. The more common picture though is that most wild birds will see your pet as some sort of competition. Your pet is something that they won’t want to compete with for either food or territory and they won’t appreciate a mating rival either. From a wild bird’s perspective, your pet bird may well need to be chased off or eliminated.
It is very easy to think that your bird’s cage will protect your bird from an attacking wild bird, but that isn’t necessarily true. A caged bird is essentially trapped and a wild bird’s beak and claws can get through the bars of the average cage. Puncture wounds, eye injuries, head injuries are all common results. Even if your bird does avoid a swooping wild bird, they can injure themselves as they collide with the contents of their cage in their panic to get away.
We all know to be wary of our own pet birds when they are hormonal. As annoying as hormones can be to deal with, at least they give you a warning that you need to take extra care with your bird outside. When your own sweet bird has suddenly gone nuts and started displaying behaviours that you want to avoid; the wild species of birds that don’t normally strike you as dangerous, are also being driven to that level of madness. They will swoop and guard what they see as their nesting/feeding/breeding territory against any perceived threat and your pet might just be what they see as a threat.
There are a few things that you can do to protect your birds. Most obviously, if at all possible, don’t leave your birds outside unattended. Be close by, as a wild bird will think twice about approaching your pet if you are there. That won’t necessarily work for everyone though, as some people have outdoor aviaries.
Look at the bar spacing and strength of your aviary. A finer mesh can be more difficult for a wild bird to penetrate. I know breeders who use shade cloth for protection and some even double wire their cages to help shield their birds from birds of prey.
Use bird deterrents. You can buy plastic owls from most garden centres. I’ve personally used streamers and flags to keep wild birds away from my cages (the threat wild birds pose to pets is very real here for more reasons than just attacks). Be careful that you don’t use something that will upset your own birds though – I conducted a lot of training around my streamers before I put them up.
Size matters. A wild bird is going to think twice before it attacks a macaw in comparison to a budgie. If you have multiple birds of different sizes in your flock, place your small birds’ cage next to your large birds’ cage for added protection. There is a reason Australian children are taught to hold their arms out and pretend like they’re an aeroplane if they’re walking around swooping magpies. An attacking bird is less likely to target something with a decent wingspan. Likewise noise can help. If you’ve got a bird that screams as a warning, place it in a good lookout position, so that it can alert the flock to danger.
Your number one weapon though is always going to be knowledge. Know your local birds. If there is one thing I’ve learned from working in wildlife rescue it is that birds are creatures of habit. They will show up somewhere at pretty much the same time of day. I know my front yard is a war zone at the moment. I know to expect galahs on my front lawn twice a day and that the magpies will only tolerate them for 10 minutes before they attack. I know that I have a pair of ravens nesting in the gum at the back of my yard and that their eggs just hatched so they’re even crabbier than normal. I know that I have some very aggressive wattle birds visiting, that at least one butcher bird is always hungry and that my macaw is petrified of a pelican that circles my suburb at 11am every day. There are yellow-tailed black cockatoos that turn up at dusk (upsetting the ravens and the magpies simultaneously) and there are sneezing lorikeets passing through at all hours. That’s not even half of my list of visiting birds either. Not surprisingly, my pet birds live in an enclosed bird room and I have no plans to put my birds outside unless I’m right out there with them.
It pays to remember to keep your pet birds safe when they’re outside. I love wild birds but I’m also wary of them. When hormones are at work, no wild bird is entirely friendly. If you have a story about wild birds in your area, or tips on how you keep your birds safe, please share in the comments field below.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.