First of all this only applies during spring in Australia and New Zealand (magpies were introduced to New Zealand in the 1860's in a misguided attempt at pest control - before they themselves become classed as pests). Australian magpies are only very distantly related to European species and are native to Australia - they were just originally named by Europeans.
Magpies are fiercely territorial and during nesting season will chase away anything they percieve as a threat. It is almost always the males that swoop, however not all attack and some are definitely fiercer than others.
And although others are vulnerable, it is cyclists that seem to be the primary target. Magpies have been known to cause injury but are you are more likely to hear and feel a wing flapping by your head and a beak or feet clipping your helmet. Wearing a helmet is compulsory in Australia and New Zealand with protection from magpies being a side effect - although studies
have shown that the helmets actually attract the magpies in the first place.
There are a number of preventative measures people can take, with varying levels of efficacy. Different people swear by different solutions so the topic can be very subjective - however it is the sense of security (true or not) that is probably the most important factor.
Cable or Zip Ties
Otherwise known as the hedgehog (or porcupine/echindna) look, this involves securing cable ties to your helmet and leaving long protrusions. The jury is out as to whether these work but it seems to be the more ties the better. This doesn't stop the birds swooping but at least they can't get to your helmet - however your most vulnerable parts, eyes, ears and neck are not protected.
Eyes on your helmet
Magpies usually come from the rear, thus taking you by surprise. Looking them straight in the eye is often said to put them off so putting a false pair of eyes from a joke shop onto your helmet is also thought to be a deterent. However anecdotal evidence casts more doubt on this than other solutions - see this hilarious video
from a Mildura radio station.
Magpies are highly intelligent - in fact it is thought that they can recognise faces and go after certain people, even from season to season.
This won't stop them swooping but a scarf or bandana will prevent scratching or biting your ears or neck. Sunglasses are also a good idea as eye injuries have been known to happen.
Ride in a group
From my own experience if you ride in a bunch or fairly close formation with at least one other person, a magpie is less likely to swoop. Before your ride a local or your tour operator should be able to tell you the hotspots so you can be prepared. Perhaps try hanging back to let the ride leader take the heat - however that is no guarantee.
Pedal to the metal
This won't stop swoops or attacks but will minimise the period of vulnerability. The magpie will lose interest once you get a hundred or metres or so from the nest. And although they move faster than you, it is harder for them to make contact. You can also try shaking your head - but stay on the path!
You need to know
- Don’t provoke them or fight back as that will make things worse
- Wearing no helmet has been demonstrated to make a difference but is not recommended - besides I've seen and heard of helmetless swoops too.
- Watch where you’re going, stay in control - that can be the cause of more serious accidents as magpies invariably take you by surprise.
- Australian magpies are a protected species in Australia (although not in New Zealand since 1951).
One of the best things you can do to do is tell or warn people - other riders, the council (they can put up signs) or online (magpiealert.com
). There are plenty of trees in urban areas and magpies are well adapted to cities, so staying away from the countryside is no protection. The safest option that is guaranteed to avoid swooping birds is to stay indoors between mid August and mid October!
However not riding not an option for most of us - spring can be the best time of year for cycling so it is well worth putting up with magpies for a few weeks every year...