Well, once again Australia is about to pass into our most frightful season—and no, I'm not talking about Halloween—for some reason and despite repeatedly lobbying of parliament by Freddy Krueger, the Brain Mogwai from GREMLINS 2, Michael Myers and myself, Halloween continues not to be celebrated here (sympathetic Trick or Treaters can send me candy care of my email address—no apples and/or razor blades please).
Yes, its that time of year when ordinary Australians start to chop down our taller eucalyptus trees with even more fervour than the woodchipping industry does, develop nervous facial tics at the site of pet store seed-bells, and begin watching the skies nervously like either extras in a John Carpenter film or people walking past buildings at the stock exchange with open windows during a market slump.
Indeed, we Aussies are about to enter a frightening region of our calendar—the 40 or so rectangular boxes of feathered terror between September 20 and Halloween that mark… Magpie Season.
-The Australian Magpie is a handsome piebald corvid about the size of an American Crow (or, for our tea-drinking and crumpet chewing friends, a Rook). For most of the year, it's a genial songbird, happy to hop around on our front lawns trilling melodious songs whilst eating worms and snails—they can even be hand-fed small edible scraps, and many become so accustomed to being fed by home-owners that often Aussie gardens have so many diminutive black and white critters jumping all over and squaking that it resembles an industrial accident at an Oreo factory, or some sort of Hollywood feud between the Baldwins and the Wayans.
That all changes come late September however, when these sweet-tempered little songbirds are blessed with newly hatched chicks—and suddenly view anything that comes within 30 feet of their tree-top nests—including us people—as being as welcome around their offspring as Thalidomide, SIDS or Gary Glitter. One minute you're in JONATHAN LIVINGSTONE SEAGULL, the next you've accidentally wandered onto the set of THE BIRDS.
– All over the country, it's quite common around this time to see people innocently approaching a gum tree—for some shade, a picnic, or just to get mail out of their letterbox—only to suddenly swear very loudly, clap their hands over their eyes and run for safety whilst shrieking like banshees (much like what happens to audience members during your average AMERICAN IDOL taping). People are routinely hospitalized during Magpie season—the magpies themselves don't do much damage—even if they perform a successful “Swoop the Human Interloper” gambit, they usually only take a beakful of your hair back to their nest with them (typical Aussie animal behaviour—not only do they scalp you, they decorate their children's bedrooms with part of your body!); but several people each year are swooped and run screaming out into traffic, or into a wall, or they get swooped on their bike and fall off. Occasionally your stroppier magpie isn't content with a tuft of hair and a tonsure of scalp and performs an emergency beakectomy on your favourite eyeball, whilst you're still using it.
The trick to avoiding being swooped by these avian answers to the Concerned Women of America ("Won't someone please think of the children?!") is that Magpies won't swoop you if you're looking at them, because they don't like eye contact that doesn't involve them ripping your eyes out of your head with their beaks and feeding it to their hungry chicks.
Many tourists have therefore been bemused at the sight in late September of Australian people turning our sunglasses around so that they face the back of our heads, painting eyeballs on bicycle helmets, or wearing plastic ice cream containers and traffic cones as hats. Then you try to explain to them that we haven't gone crazy, we just can't go near trees for fear that the birds will get us and then suddenly the people in white coats show up and take away our Blu-Ray Hitchcock box sets.
This September… Fear has wings!