A spate of eye injuries caused by swooping magpies raises concern

The fear is real.

Any Australian who grew up with territorial swooping magpies on their route walking or cycling to school has every reason to fear the black and white bombers.

It’s been a particularly long and fraught magpie swooping season in Australia, with emergency departments seeing a recent spike in penetrative eye injuries caused by the birds.

Male magpies only swoop during mating season when they become protective dads. The mating season is generally between late August to late October.

The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital deemed the issue so bad that it issued a media release last week which warned people to protect their eyes from swooping birds following on from several presentations to the hospital’s emergency department. Eye and Ear Emergency Department Director Dr Carmel Crock said that the warning comes after a notable increase in the number of presentations of eye injuries from birds over the past few days (in the lead up to October 18) including one penetrating eye injury requiring surgery.

“Being swooped by a bird is not just an unpleasant experience – they can cause real harm if they strike your eyes,” Dr Crock said.

The hospital’s warning was reflected on the social media website Magpie Alert. The site, in which citizens report magpie attacks, aims to track and identify magpie swooping hotspots around the country.

For example, a cyclist reported an attack on October 17, on Union Street, off Melbourne's St Kilda Road: “I was waiting at the top of the traffic lights ready to turn right on the road when the magpie swooped and got my left eye - it scratched my cornea and I had to get medical treatment. This was the second attack.”

This year attacks reported on the website peaked mid-to-late September and 68 per cent of attacks were reported by cyclists. Of the 3,372 attacks reported this season, 16 per cent resulted in injury.

Get immediate medical attention for your eyes

A revealing paper[i] presented by researchers at Mater Misericordiae Hospital, highlights the importance of seeking medical attention quickly after a magpie attack even if there are no immediately obvious eye injuries. The 1992 study followed a series of six patients with ocular injuries resulting from magpie attacks. Five cases involved children. In two cases the penetration was overlooked initially and in one case the inflammation of the cornea (keratitis) was caused by a nasty and fast-acting bacterium, which can potentially cause blindness.

[i] Horsburgh BJ, Stark DJ, Harrison JD. Ocular injuries caused by magpies. Med J

Aust. 1992 Dec 7-21;157(11-12):756-9. PubMed PMID: 1454001.

How to help prevent being attacked by magpies

The ACT Parks and Conservation service has produced this excellent video about how to protect yourself in magpie swooping hotspots:

Tips include:

  • Wear a hat
  • Wear sunglasses
  • Wear a helmet
  • Walk your bike
  • Don’t run
  • Use an umbrella
  • Watch the magpie (they are less likely to swoop if you are keeping an eye on them)
  • Keep your dog on a leash
  • If possible, take a different route.

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