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Magpie madness

7 October, 2013

With a feathery threat lurking in the trees, Margot McGovern asks: how will you escape swooping season unscathed?

Photo by Richard Jupe

Photo by Richard Jupe

There’s lots to love about spring riding: not freezing your finger tips off, riding home from work through sunlit streets and watching bare branches turn green and leafy around you. But spring also brings a treetop terror that casts a feathery shadow over even the sunniest of rides. I speak of that insidious, swooping bird of prey—the magpie.

Every year, from as early as August, the Ride On inbox fills with letters recounting malicious attacks that leave innocent riders dazed and bloody-eared on the side of the bike path. For riders, these demons of the sky are not to be trifled with. They have personal preferences in their choice of victim. We’re told some will only target unlucky men, women and children on bikes, while others will lock-in on walkers instead.

Some like lone victims, while others prefer the challenge of a pack attack.  So, in the interests of public safety, Ride On has trawled through bike forums and asked the experts: how do you successfully avoid being swooped by these devious dive bombers?

We received some great answers, both varied and contradictory: speed up, slow down, travel in groups, go solo, get off your bike and walk, don’t get off your bike. Some strategies were perfectly sensible: put up a sign or post on your local ‘magpie map’ to warn other walkers and riders that magpies have set up camp in the area and take a detour until nesting season is over (you should be safe by November). Others strategies were, shall we say, a little less conventional. The Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment provides a printable set of ‘swoop eyes’ to cut out and stick on the back of your helmet, the idea being that magpies won’t launch a front attack and sticking eyes on the back of your head will fool them into thinking you are the all-seeing demi-god of shared-use paths.

Our most popular reader tip was the old faithful ‘use cable ties or pipe cleaners on the helmet’ trick. Some believe flashing lights scare them off, while others swear a zany wig over your helmet is the way to go. Other suggestions included throwing sand (the logistics of doing this while riding left us slightly baffled), firing cap-gun, or, our personal favourite, attaching party poppers to your helmet and pulling the string as the maggie swoops—you have to time it just right though.

…your chances of surviving a magpie attack are likely to be as good if you leave the alien antennae and Big Brother eyes at home.

If scare tactics aren’t your forte, you can offer them a piece of meat and they will supposedly leave you alone thereafter, or you could don a Collingwood scarf and let them know you’re on the same team (just think how much Eddie McGuire would love it!).

In our search for answers, we asked if these ideas were so crazy they just might work, or were they just plain bonkers? The bad news is experts say there’s little evidence to suggest any of these tactics consistently yield positive results. The good news, your chances of surviving a magpie attack are likely to be as good if you leave the alien antennae and Big Brother eyes at home.

The best tactic it seems is ‘know your enemy’.  Magpies are smart, extremely territorial and will swoop riders from up to 100m away from their nest. Almost all attacks are made by male birds that see riders and pedestrians as a threat to their young, and, to be fair, if an army of Godzillas were riding bikes past your newborn, you’d be extremely protective too. Despite the jokes, our advice to avoid a beak in the head is to show these birds the respect they deserve and take a detour—at least until they get their young out of the nest.

Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 October, 2013 9:40 pm

    Listen for their call so you know when to expect the swoop. How you react is half the problem – if you are expecting it and avoid flinching then you have less chance of swerving into traffic, a ditch, another rider, etc. Plus it offers passing motorists less entertainment. Only a small number of magpies are so vicious as to warrant complete avoidance.

  2. 8 October, 2013 10:46 pm

    Why not visit and register your attacks to help other cyclists not to fall “foul” of your feathered attackers?

    40 attacks registered this past week!

  3. 9 October, 2013 4:33 pm

    It isn’t true that they don’t attack from the front. On the Wangaratta to Bright rail trail they swoop from everywhere and they are relentless! I got attacked in JUNE! (Usually start around August) The worst area being between Everton and Burgoigee.

    It’s iike the Battle of Britain at it’s worst – they even sit on the ground and attack straight at you.front-on.

    One thing we use is a telescopic inspection mirror (about $6 from Supa Cheap Autos) and the flashing of the metal and the mirror on the end appears to keep them guessing long enough to get by – though not all the time and of course you have to ride holding the silly thing!

    Happy riding!

  4. Katrina permalink
    9 October, 2013 4:36 pm

    My 2 antennae seem to work! They’re a bit of fun as well.

  5. Chris Stock permalink
    9 October, 2013 5:21 pm

    Mt antennae did not work, they just went for my ears. I have found when a magpie swoops stay steady on the road and keep riding strong till you pass the Collingwood bird. I too am annoyed at that team!

  6. Geoffery Xie permalink
    9 October, 2013 6:13 pm

    Well, I had been attacked by magpies quite a few times while riding. One of rhis occasions it also caused a pucture caused by riding over brocken glass bottles while I was busy fending off the angry birds. Cable ties worked for me and I just ignore their attacks these days and keep going.

  7. John Kyatt permalink
    9 October, 2013 6:26 pm

    In the past the cable ties worked on the Canberra maggies. After a couple of seasons they wised up, and instead of flying directly overhead, decided to attack my shoulders instead. So far they haven’t pecked me. Instead of using beaks, they just use ‘bumps’ like the ones that the AFL have recently outlawed.

  8. Ben permalink
    9 October, 2013 6:37 pm

    It should be noted that magpies are protected, so you should’t throw or fire anything that can harm them.

  9. Blues permalink
    9 October, 2013 6:38 pm

    I was attacked this sunday walking and followed and swooped for about 4 streets ! eventually getting pecked on my hat so it actually made my head bleed. I walked with my eyes looking ahead but I wore an orange wind proof jacket. Perhaps they thought I was a postie. I feel for the postie thats for sure. I do barrack for the Blues….do you think they know?🙂

  10. Laurie permalink
    9 October, 2013 8:10 pm

    I prefer to set a steel rabbit trap and cable tie it to the top of my helmet. What happens afterwards is not for family viewing!
    As you may possibly have gathered, I am not big on ‘magpie rights’ when my personal safety and that of my grandchildren is concerned, magpies don’t pay taxes!

  11. Steve permalink
    9 October, 2013 8:30 pm

    I couldn’t do without my cable ties. Not when they pick up martian radio🙂

  12. Mark permalink
    9 October, 2013 9:02 pm

    Had my ear ripped up by a nasty magpie so invested in a BMX helmet that covers my ears(Google TSG Dawn) feel much more confident riding past them now although do get a few strange glances from fellow cycling bretheren about my silly(ish) helmet, but small price to pay to feel confident and safe on the bike. Only other tip is to be aware and keep a look out for them, as soon as you see one launch vertically straight up off the ground as you approach, you know whats coming.

  13. Jennifer permalink
    9 October, 2013 10:03 pm

    Riding to tennis, I would ride one-handed while waving my tennis racquet over my head helicopter style! As per a previous comment -entertaining for passing motorists- but thankfully also effective.

  14. Peter permalink
    9 October, 2013 11:19 pm

    serious just let them swoop, it’s part of their job description!

  15. 10 October, 2013 6:23 am

    I’d recommend the cable ties. It doesn’t necessarily ward off any attack, but it keeps the magies far enough away from your head to avoid any blood letting so you can focus on riding safely.

  16. Ash permalink
    10 October, 2013 7:49 am

    I to have cable ties on my helmet, but only two of them placed outwards above my ears so that the magpies cant attack my ears as has happened in the past. They are the large ones that i have trimmed to about 200mm out from the helmet so its also difficult for the birds to come in for a direct hit to the top as well.
    this system works for me.

  17. 10 October, 2013 11:30 am
    Magpies are like crows , they are extremely intelligent. They learn from each other about threats. If a magpie had a bad experience with humans, they become more distrustful and wary. In suburbs where people are friendly and treat the magpies as pets they do not attack people who have been nice. If trust has broken down it is very difficult to rebuild as the magpies can decide that all humans are a threat. An example is NZ where people shoot magpies and will even lure them with recordings of wounded birds. Magpies seem to be universally despised and conflicts have escalated. I noticed that magpies in NZ are not as friendly or tame as they are in Perth.

  18. Anne Fallon permalink
    11 October, 2013 10:34 am

    During the mating and chick raising phases of a magpie family’s life, the male experiences a 450% increase in his testosterone levels. The poor thing is just a raging, hormonal, superprotective Dad. Each bird has its own idea of who or what is a target. I’ve seen one go nuts on the lycra tribe while ignoring the kids on the BMX bikes. In my street, people walk in perfect safety but dogs are harassed mercilessly. To be fair, my dog is left in peace while he’s in our yard but the minute he steps through the gate, it’s on! As a child, the magpies in the local park hated boys and never bothered girls. This suggests to me that the defensive behaviour is shaped by the experiences of individual birds and it’s possible that ancient grudges may be passed down through the generations of magpies just as they are for humans.
    When riding, I’ve been able to avoid injury by wearing a peaked cap under my helmet with a legionnaires piece that covers the ears and really daggy wide sided sunnies. When under attack, I just keep my head down and ride as steadily as I can. I figure if my eyes and ears are covered, any other pecks won’t be life threatening. I agree with the writer above about the bumps. I’ve had a magpie attack me for several mornings in a row with a whole serious of thumps on my helmet, like a slap across the head. After each swoop, he would sit on the wires just ahead of me on the long uphill and wait for me to come into target position again. We kind of got into a pattern with it and then he left me alone.
    I think the most important thing is to manage your own reaction. There’s no need to be terrified or to lose control of your bike. Australian magpies are just a part of our landscape. A bunch of angry feathers with a sturdy beak is a problem on a scale I can deal with. When I’m out on my bike, I’m much more worried about what the combustion engines are up to.

    • Wendy W permalink
      15 December, 2013 10:30 pm

      I agree with your comments about covering your eyes & ears. I wear sunnies and a head band over my ears and if necessary wave one arm over my head and ride like the clappers!!

  19. Evan permalink
    11 October, 2013 2:45 pm

    There is a magpie that constantly swoops anyone on a bike in my area. He never actually makes contact, but he comes close enough for you to feel his wings flapping – which is off putting, and particularly dangerous since he attacks on a major road.

    Anyhow, the other week as i rode home from work, I saw him coming in for his first swoop, so I lifted my arm and waved in order to scare him off – but accidently hit him. He flew away, and for a fleeting moment I thought I had scared him away. About 10 seconds later he came back, and for the first time ever he made contact, then came back again and again, smashing at my helmet…

    I think I have single handed (pardon the pun), created a monster 😦

  20. 15 October, 2013 5:17 pm

    This is the first year I have not been attacked or bitten by magpies. We’re positive it’s because of the glasses attached to the back of the helmet. I found an old pair in the shed and they’re attached via the cable ties which, incidentally, didn’t work by themselves. I’ve also got a few brightly coloured ties on top so maybe it’s a combination.
    Anyway, I’m intact so far!

  21. Peter Mackenzie permalink
    23 October, 2013 2:57 pm

    I did door to door work back in the 1970s, had a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses, and was swooped but never pecked. But that was walking, not cycling – I liked Anne Fallons idea of the hat underneath helmet, with ear covers.
    I remember there was a child who had an eye pecked out in NSW some years back, so glasses fo some kind are important.

  22. Brian Mier permalink
    25 October, 2013 9:41 am

    I live in leafy Croydon, with hunderds of resident magpies around me. As I walk around the area I talk to them, and find very few fly off. I’ve not been swooped here. I did read last year that magpies get to know your voice and recognise you as a non-threatening person. Perhaps it’s establishing mutual respect. Whatever the case, it works for me including when I’m cycling.

  23. Harry permalink
    26 October, 2013 12:49 pm

    Cable ties and those printable eyes are of no use. I started to use them and did not get swooped and thought they work. Along a different path one very aggressive Magpie attacked me from the side. The best option if possible is to avoid their territory during nesting season.

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