Does anyone love Spring more than a bike rider?
It’s the end of cycling through rain, muck and cold. No more swaddling yourself in eighty layers of Lycra just to get out of the house. No more mud and sludge destroying your bottom bracket and shredding your suspension seals.
But the promise of warm weather also brings a dark side.
It’s magpie swooping season.
One minute you’re wheeling along, being one with nature, the next thing a furious, sharp-beaked missile has connected with your head.
It can be terrifying, especially if you’ve never experienced it before and have no idea what’s happening.
But how can you stop it occurring in the first place?
To answer all magpie-related cycling questions, we were lucky enough to be able to pick the brains of long-term friend (and BMCR customer) Dr Nigel Willoughby. Nige is an ecologist, and is well-versed in the area of birds and bird behaviour.
With his help, we’re exploring:
Magpies, despite their ... shall we say 'lively'?... reputation, are actually a fascinating bird.
They're playful, can recognise at least 100 different people (this will be relevant later), and have also been known to introduce their offspring to humans they have befriended.
Their hearing is extremely keen, to the point where they can detect worms moving under the soil.
They can mimic other bird species, as well as dogs, horses, car alarms, and even human speech.
However, once a year, all their fun-loving behaviour seems to go out the window -- at least for some of them.
To understand how to avoid getting beaked during swooping season, let’s get to know what's making your local Gymnorhina tibicen (i.e. Australian magpie) behave this way.
A swoop is where a magpie dive-bombs you, often repeatedly, and sometimes with physical contact.
It can include beak clapping or snapping. (That’s that weird ‘tak-tak!’ noise you may recall, possibly with terrifying clarity.)
You'll often also hear a rustle of wings unnervingly close to your ears.
Swooping is usually done from behind, making it quite startling if you've had no pre-warning. Some magpies have learnt to target people from the side, but most stick to the rear, making the attack hard to anticipate. (Unless you're fortuitous enough to ride at the right time -- e.g. Norton's on a sunny afternoon -- when you can see the incoming shadow in advance.)
Instinct, and family loyalty.
Magpies don’t hate you. They just think you’re a potential threat to their eggs and nestlings (which the correct term for chicks still in the nest – thanks, Nige!). When you ride into a magpie’s territory – and this can run from 3 to 20 hectares – the bird sees you as something that they have to defend their babies against.
This is why swooping is mostly limited to the breeding season, when magpies have young ones.
Once the nestlings fledge (leave the nest… wait, do fledglings fledge?), Nige says, “the swooping should stop.”
(Nice ‘should’ modifier, Nige.)
In 99% of cases, swooping is done by male birds; female magpies are usually sitting on the eggs or looking after nestlings at the time.
It’s important to note, however, that while nearly all swooping birds are male, not all male birds swoop.
“There seems to be plenty of male magpies that do not see humans as a threat,” says Nige.
In other words, just like people, some magpies are easy-going while others are testosterone-filled rage machines.
If you’re eyeing off a magpie and wondering if it’s going to go for you, check out its colouring. Male magpies are black and white, but female magpies and young birds have various patterns of grey, particularly on the back of their neck.
That being said, if you’re being swooped, you’re probably going to spend more time protecting your eyeballs than trying to determine the bird’s gender.
Currently, there’s no definitive answer for this, but the most likely suggestion is that it's related to speed.
As bike riders usually move faster than walkers or runners, the magpie may interpret this accelerated movement as a bigger threat, thus spurring a greater number of attacks.
You can always experiment with this by choosing a different form of locomation. Try crawling through an attack zone and seeing what happens. Email us your findings.
The bad news: magpie swooping isn’t restricted to a particular time of day, so sticking to an afternoon routine isn’t going to help much, unfortunately.
The good news is that they do seem to be far less likely to swoop in the dark. Time to recharge your bike lights!
There are documented cases of magpies causing injuries to cyclists, primarily through a sharp beak connecting with tender flesh. (Note: do not do a Google image search on this topic.)
“The greater risk to cyclists comes from their response to the situation,” says Nige. "It can be hard to stay calm when being swooped.”
Startling at the best of times, a magpie swoop can veer into terror if there’s contact – some people have likened it to having a rock thrown at their head.
Once you’re under attack, try to remember the golden rule: don’t panic.
This goes double for when you’re cycling at speed, especially in high traffic areas.
Possibly, but only if you freak out and crash or fall under a car. And, unfortunately, there are documented cases of this happening.
So don’t freak out.
The most sensible idea is to avoid the area. The swooping season usually lasts around 8 weeks, so if you can ride in other, less-bird-attack-prone areas, this is the best solution by far.
However! We don’t always have alternate routes or other places to ride, especially if you’re in a remote spot. If your only option is to keep riding through the swoop zone, you’re going to have to learn to live with some cranky maggies, unfortunately.
As a backup, check the Magpie Alert website to see if there are any recorded attacks in the area you’re planning to ride in. Not every incident gets recorded, however, so don't assume that no listings on the site = no swooping maggies.
Or you could try a deterrent.
To foil magpie attacks, many people have tried sticking various things to their helmets, including (but not limited to):
The bad news is that none of these options have been conclusively proven to work.
The closest contender, says Nige, is silver tape. Silver tape is not only showing some promise but is also being experimented with by a council in Queensland, who were no doubt sick of getting magpie-related complaints.
Why not try the tape out? It’s a relatively cheap experiment, and you can also pretend you’re doing a tribute to Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Firstly, remember that the magpie is acting under instinct to protect his family. (Imagine that a stranger decided to wander through your house; you’d probably get a bit defensive, too.)
Once the swooping has begun, you’ve got two choices:
If you’re a confident bike handler and want to ride on through, wrapping an arm around your face will give you a bit more protection if you’ve got a feathery dude trying to smack you in the cheek. But only do this if you’ve got the skills to ride one-handed, obviously.
As a back-up, try to ride with some friends – magpies are less likely to attack groups, as single riders are easier to target.
Some people advise waving your arm while you ride to try to ward off a swoop, but this can have a counterproductive effect, says Nige – you want to make sure not to do anything that could make you seem more threatening to a magpie.
That means no waving your arms, no yelling and definitely no throwing things.
Magpies also have a remarkable tendency to recall human faces. If you tick one off by being aggressive, it’s very likely that it will remember you next time, and will go straight for you, pointy end first.
Overall, avoid antagonising your feathery sky missile.
On almost every social media post/bike forum discussing swoops, there will be someone suggesting taking food with you. If a magpie starts swooping -- this sage person advises -- just throw it a snack and it will then decide you’re OK and leave you alone.
Nige, however, doesn’t believe this is actually the case.
“It seems unlikely that a magpie intent on protecting their children would suddenly pivot to chasing – or even recognising as food – something thrown by the ‘threat’. Feeding wild animals,” he adds, “also comes with its own set of issues.”
But let’s play devil’s advocate. What if a magpie defied logic and decided you were a source of food rather than a threat?
Then you may have inadvertently created a bigger problem.
Nige: “Magpies are pretty smart. They may target you individually for food. Maybe even outside nesting season. Maybe even outside the nesting area.”
Great, so not only have you got a bird still attacking you, you now might have one that follows you home.
Overall, when it comes to feeding as a deterrent, don't bother.
While magpies are known to be able to form friendships with humans (and even play games with them), a jersey pocket full of mince isn't going to be much help during a swoop attack.
As a side note on the topic of bird food, many people who feed magpies give them bread, mince or other raw meat. Please don’t do this; it’s very bad for their long-term health. If you're a feeder, here are some much better suggestions on what to give your feathery friends.
To sum up:
It's really only once a year that magpies are a problem for bike riders. The rest of the time, they're a playful, intelligent bunch, with a wide vocabulary of songs and social behaviour.
Besides, if they like you, they may even bring the kids over to visit.
Once they've fledged, of course.
Need to ride faster through a swoop zone? We can help with that.