It sounded like a Hitchcock movie when an Australian reader wrote me last week to ask if I have ever been dive-bombed by a Magpie while riding. I have to admit that I didn’t think much about it after that day, my mind moving on to other things, like my weekend ride plan, football watching and such.
That is, until I received the following email just days later from Clive Greenhill, who lives in Perth, in Western Australia:
Spring is upon us and a few of our feathered friends, black and white birds called Magpies, are now starting to target cyclists and walkers who pass through their territories. Do cyclists and walkers in the States have similar problems?
OK, Aussies, you now have my attention!
Clive emailed a newspaper story with a still shot taken by a cyclist wearing a helmet cam of a close encounter with a Magpie. And a quick Google search on my end found this story from 3 News in New Zealand, complete with video of yet another cyclist being attacked by a Magpie.
I’ve heard of just about every possible way to be harassed on a bike – and I’ve personally experienced quite a few of them over the years, culminating with being shot with a pellet gun while riding early this summer.
But I have not, I’m glad to say, ever been dive-bombed by a Magpie. (That quick Google search also told me this offending species is indigenous to Australia and Eurasia, so hopefully I never will!)
But this seems to be quite a serious problem during the 6-week springtime nesting period in Australia – as Magpie’s apparently are fiercely protective of their nesting grounds. It seems not that unusual for cyclists who pass unsuspectingly by an area where a Magpie is raising a group of nestlings to be targeted for a special kind of bombing run.
The video referenced above makes it clear that the poor cyclist is literally under attack, being struck repeatedly by the angry bird. It seems that the birds are quite expert, swooping in from behind with the sun at their back.
So while this is a strange-sounding novelty to most of us in North America – where we’re just entering what many of us consider the best time of year to ride, and the only thing you have to worry about from above is a stray leaf or two falling on you – following are some tips to help our Australian cousins in cycling deal with this real springtime menace.
Yes, there really is a wikihow.com page devoted to this topic! I’m not making this up. Here’s what they suggest (I’m keeping it strictly to tips for cyclists, not walkers, etc.):
Apparently, Magpies like to nest in gum trees, which can be found just as readily in urban areas as in the countryside. So keep an eye out for Magpies that may be nesting near you riding routes, and try to steer clear.
The wiki article suggests alerting the local government so that they can post signs, etc. Now, I don’t know if government Down Under is as ineffectual as it is in the States, but that sounds like a pipe dream to me! At the very least, use your local cycling email lists, social media and word of mouth to get the word out to fellow cyclists.
Don’t Harass the Birds. If you try to harm the birds or the nest, apparently you’ll create a REALLY angry Magpie. And they live in groups of 20-30; you really don’t want that Hitchcock film to become reality! So literally steer clear of anything dumb like throwing stones at the birds, trying to hit them with a hand-held object, etc.
According to the wiki article, “Bicycles irritate magpies the most…” Aren’t we lucky, cyclists! The suggestion is to dismount, and walk the bike away from the area, while trying to maintain eye contact with the bird. Doing so makes it less likely to swoop, as it prefers to do so from behind. On the plus side, wearing a helmet gives you protection against head strikes.
And this goes without saying, but resist the temptation to swerve or otherwise vary your line while you’re at speed. You’re much more likely to be seriously hurt in a crash trying to dodge the bird than you are by the bird swooping you, even if it strikes you.
These birds are said to have great memories and will attack the same people over and over. They’re also said to be pretty darn good time-keepers. So if you are attacked once, if at all possible, find another route. Or, at the very least, vary your schedule so you’re not riding by at exactly the same time each day. And you might want to avoid wearing the same kit as your buddy who was attacked in a specific spot!
If there is no way to avoid “bombing alley,” there are at least of couple of things you can try. First, find some stick-on eyes – or maybe one of those “wacky eyes in glasses” get-ups (perfect time of year; it’s almost Halloween! Buy them online from the States!). Stick the eyes to the back of your helmet, or “wear the glasses” in the back of your helmet.
You could also mount a bunch of zip ties or pipe cleaners to your helmet, leaving them sticking up in the air so that you create an “array” around your head that will confuse and consternate the Magpie if it gets too close or touches one of them.
Sure, to humans you may look like a complete idiot. (And we all know that, to some fellow travelers, we roadies already do look like complete idiots! So who cares?) But to the Magpie, it will seem that the fake eyes are staring it down, and it will be less likely to swoop, or the bird might touch your “array” and get flustered.
If our Australian readers have any personal tips for dealing with Magpies, please share them on our Community Comments page. And be careful down there!
--- John Marsh