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Jan 21, 2024

8-Year-Old’s Math Project Goes Viral With 30,000 Responses To "Why Australian Magpies Swoop"

An eight-year-old has broken new ground in two questions most Australians have pondered at some time: why do magpies swoop, and how do they pick their targets? What started out as a modest school project went viral and received tens of thousands of responses. While some of the survey’s associated questions might not be what an experienced scientist would ask, Emma Glenfield may have produced some significant advances in understanding the issue.

In Australia, the rest of the world is convinced, everything wants to kill you – even the trees. In reality, deaths from snake or spider bites, let alone lethal leaves, are exceptionally rare. For many, the greatest wildlife fear comes from magpies in springtime.

Barely related to the northern hemisphere birds of the same name, Australian magpies are extremely intelligent, playful, and promiscuous. They also have razer-sharp beaks, and every spring a small proportion of the males take to swooping humans who pass through their territory, sometimes deploying beak to head in the process. Possibly in cahoots with the car lobby, swoopers are particularly aggressive towards bike riders, which can lead to nasty accidents as panicked cyclists take their eyes off the road. The Australian Academy of Science even provides guidance on what to do.

Blue Mountains Grammar School has a magpie on site whose name, Mr Swoopsalot, tells the story. Emma, then in Grade 3, wondered at Mr Swoopsalot’s motivation. She also noticed his targets were not random. "He's been coming to school for a long time and he's been swooping all the dads," she told the ABC.

After Emma posed some questions about the topic, her teacher encouraged her to turn it into a project in mathematics, her favorite subject. 

With help from her mother, Kirsty, Emma created a survey and used flyers with a QR code to encourage fellow students and strangers to fill it in. The survey went viral, attracting 31,432 responses, a far larger sample size than any research done on the topic by professional scientists. It became so popular a third of the submissions came from outside Australia. Kirsty Glenfield told IFLScience that while she largely let Emma run the project, she contributed by removing all submissions from foreign URLs, given the likelihood they referred to unrelated magpies of the corvid family.

Kirsty took to Reddit to report the results last year. 

The key finding was that baldness is a risk factor. “Men who are “bald on top” are twice as likely (30%) to have been swooped in the preceding twelve months than people with other hairstyles (15%),” Kirsty reported.

Other danger factors include height, with those over 183 centimeters (6 feet) also twice as likely to have been swooped in the previous year as those under 160 centimeters (5 feet 3 inches). Unsurprisingly, given these factors, men were more likely to have been swooped recently than women, but Emma did not test the effect of gender when height and hair were controlled for.

Tall and bald being an unusual combination in primary school, only one of Emma’s fellow students reported being swooped, she told IFLScience. However, this didn’t stop many of them from being frightened of their local bird, having seen fathers and teachers alike fall victim.

Magpies are also apparently somewhat fatphobic, with high BMI posing a modestly increased risk.

More people had been swooped while walking than riding, but allowing for how frequently each is practiced in Australia, it is clear cyclists are at the greatest risk.

Emma had never used Excel – when asked, she told her mother she thought it was a size for pants – and Kirsty opted not to teach her. Instead, Emma produced bar graphs out of Lego. Kirsty noted to IFLScience that this turned out to offer advantages Microsoft might want to consider in future releases. “Physically handling and construction is very helpful for children,” Kirsty said. “They really get a sense of how much more red than blue there is on a question.”

In a statement, Emma said: “It’s been really fun doing this survey. I’ve been amazed that so many people wanted to talk about magpies and get involved. I hope my project helps people understand magpies better, and that people will understand that magpie dads are just looking after their babies. If you take time to make friends with magpies before swooping season, they will learn that you are not dangerous but are their friend. Thank you for your help.”

After being put in touch with behavioral ecologist Professor Darryl Jones of Griffith University, Emma is working on a paper for submission to scientific publication. Both Jones and Kirsty Glenfield stress that, while they are helping on such matters as showing Emma how to do a literature review, decisions on which questions to ask and prioritize for analysis are all Emma’s. 

Jones is co-author of a seminal paper on the topic rebutting the belief testosterone makes magpies swoop. A broader review may include the less rigorous study that concluded red hair is the most effective swooping deterrent.

Emma’s leadership showed up in a question of how much people like magpies, which, as Kirsty noted to IFLScience, few professional scientists would have asked. Nevertheless, the results were revealing. Overwhelmingly, Australians love magpies. It won the bird of the year contest the first time it was imported from New Zealand, and its song recently gained recognition as the nation’s favorite animal sound. Most respondents to Emma’s survey rated them 10 out of 10 on a scale of hate to love. Nevertheless, 14 percent of the recently swooped reported hating them, compared to just 4 percent of those who had never been swooped.

Emma is considering potential topics for follow-up studies if her work achieves publication, but when IFLScience asked if she wished to become a professional scientist when older she responded: “Maybe an inventor.” Either way, we have high hopes.

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