What Aussies don't tell foreigners: the brutal truth in black and white

Australia Post postman John Kanard found that the best defence against swooping magpies was a muesli bar. Picture: Karleen Minney
Australia Post postman John Kanard found that the best defence against swooping magpies was a muesli bar. Picture: Karleen Minney

Why did nobody say anything?

I knew about snakes. Of course, I did. Everyone outside Australia knows snakes are a big danger.

And, sure enough, since I arrived three years ago, there have been snake stories galore.

They inevitably start with the Australian acquaintance saying that snakes are nothing to worry about, but then following up with the precise reason you need to worry.

"No problem with snakes here," they say, with a pause, "unless a timber lorry goes through town and a tiger snake drops out of the logs."

It's the reassurance and then the sucker punch which hurts.

Every Australian has a snake story. A woman I met in Bowral the other day said one of her her alpacas had died from a bite by a brown snake.

How did she know the type of snake? Because the victim was dead within 40 minutes. If it had been a red-bellied black, it would have taken a lot longer.


And sharks, of course. Nothing to worry about at all, I was told on the beach in Sydney. So why, I wondered, was there a shark net across the mouth of Shark Bay?

And crocodiles. Before moving to Australia, I got an interview for a job with the ABC. It didn't go well. It was three o'clock in the morning my time and just after lunch in Perth.

"Had I," the grumpy editor wondered, "had crocodile awareness training?"

It seemed to be a bit of an essential, but I had to confess that I hadn't had crocodile awareness training. The only crocodiles (or snakes or sharks) I knew in London were of the human kind who would eat you for their power breakfast.

And now magpies. Magpies! Who knew they were such a danger?

When I leave my flat, two of them dive-bomb me from the tree outside. They don't quite connect, but they do brush my hat and that's unnerving.

But not as unnerving as when they fly full-pelt into my window.

I thought at first they must have been attracted by the heat I keep ramped up because of the Canberra cold.

And that's another thing: who knew that Australia was cold? That's not the deal. And I still don't understand why some Australians wear thongs, as they are weirdly called, in the deep coldness of winter. Everyone except an Australian knows that thongs are what some men and women wear like dental floss between their lower cheeks.

But back to the magpies. It turns out they bang the window because they see their own reflection and view it as a threat (much as they view my head).

I grew up with British magpies which, far from being a threat, are bringers of luck.

It's true it can be good luck or bad luck, but either way they are viewed with some affection. A friend of mine was brought up to say "Hello, Mr Jones" every time she sees a magpie. Some people say "Good day Mr Magpie, how's your wife?"


I was brought up to say a rhyme depending on how many magpies I spot: "One for sorrow. Two for joy. Three for a wedding. Four for a boy. Five for silver. Six for gold. Seven for a secret that's never been told. Eight's a wish. Nine's a kiss. Ten is a bird you must not miss."

British magpies, it seems to me, don't move in crowds, so it's usually "one for sorrow" and occasionally "two for joy". So two magpies really do lift the spirits.

I don't know whether all the superstitions about magpies came out with the First Fleet and the subsequent transportations of European ways, but they don't seem to have.

The Australian magpie, of course, is a different bird from the British one, though it looks very similar.

It is not loved as the British variety is. It is, I now know, feared.

Cyclists wear spiky helmets. There's a website - Magpie Alert - to report attacks.

The latest was reported by JS of Canberra on October 13: "As I was passing the retirement village, still on Carruthers Street, a Maggie came from behind, pulled up in flight less than a metre from my right shoulder, snapped its beak, then flew to a tree beside the retirement village. It was just a single swoop, and a bit half-hearted really."

There is hope. Apparently, they can be tamed - or at least persuaded for a moment not to be aggressive.

Three attack seasons ago, Canberra postman John Kanard befriended his attacker by offering it a muesli bar.

Not only are magpies violent, but they've learnt how to blackmail - blackmail in black and white.

  • Steve Evans is a Canberra Times reporter.
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