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Cyclists shudder as magpies swoop again


On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

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Feathered fury ... a cyclist being strafed by a magpie.

Feathered fury ... a cyclist being strafed by a magpie. Photo: Joe Armao

I read a Twitter message last week that made my heart sink like a stone. “First magpie swoop of the year – and it’s only July.”

Yes, it’s that season again, when magpies swoop and cyclists are skittish. Just as it starts to warm up and the mornings aren’t quite as dark comes the ever-present threat of feathered fury from the sky.

Back in 2006, when I embarked on my Mamil career, I had my first and most memorable incident. I was cycling through Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches, dreaming my little dreamy dreams, when THWACK! … a clash of claws and wings against my neck, and the horrible, dry rasp of a beak pecking at my ear.

I was still trying to interpret what had happened – had someone thrown something at me? - when THWACK, another strike. I weaved and bobbed like a loon for a suburban block until I was away from the danger. Or so I thought. THWACK!

I later learned that I was just another victim of the Pine Street Pest, a bird so persistent that it has been featured in the local paper.

Two years ago, an article in Australian Geographic gave some fascinating information from behavioural ecologist Dr Darryl Jones.

Firstly, only 12 per cent of magpies swoop, and 99 per cent of them are male. More curiously, magpies don’t all have the same pet hates. Just over half of them attack pedestrians and leave cyclists alone, 29 per cent will have a go at walkers and cyclists, and 8 per cent of them are exclusive haters of bike riders.

Which raises the question – why are so many of them on my favourite cycling journeys? Magpies tend to nest in the same spots every year, meaning déjà vu attacks for anyone cycling a regular route.

After six swooping seasons, and much gabbing with other cyclists, I’ve compiled this non-exhaustive, entirely unscientific list of magpie coping strategies.

  • Avoid hotspots. You’ll soon learn the location of swooping magpies on your regular routes. If possible, amend your journeys until the danger passes.
  • Study this map. A Google asset that is becoming a useful resource for cyclists.
  • Cable ties. Many cyclists reckon that festooning your helmet with spiky cable ties helps to keep beaks and claws at bay. If so, looking like a pedalling porcupine is a small price to pay.
  • Stick “eyes” on your helmet. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of rearwards-facing fake eyes. But kids love ‘em.
  • Wave your hand in the air. Mr Magpie doesn’t want to get hurt – that’s why he comes at you from behind. Confuse him by flapping a hand behind your head if he is hovering.
  • Ride fast. High speeds through sniper alleys can be effective. There again, I was once pecked by the Spit Bridge Stuka when I was doing 45kmh.
  • Ride carefully. Magpie attacks have caused many cyclists to have accidents. It’s better to be pecked and stay upright than have a stack while trying to take evasive action.
  • Wear a helmet. Nanny-state, near-unique helmet laws have done a lot of harm to utility cycling in Australia – but at least a lid protects parts of your scone from swoops.
  • Quit riding until November. OK, that’s just a joke.

Seriously though, magpie mayhem is just another of the mixed joys of riding on Australian roads. It’ll be over once summer settles in, and before you know it, you’ll be saying, “not again”.

Do you get swooped by magpies? What measures do you employ to minimise attacks?

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter


  • oddest thing i've found is one of my shirts which has a large picture of a winged cyclist on the back. on numerous occasions while wearing that i've heard the flapping and then nothing. of course, the shirt is also the loudest, most gaudy piece of lycra imaginable (and that's saying something) so maybe they're just blinded/offended.

    Date and time
    August 09, 2012, 11:50AM
    • feed them regularly, we do and they dont bomb any passers by.

      Date and time
      August 11, 2012, 5:40PM
  • One option is to live where magpies don't carol due to being out-competed by Ibis or Seagulls or Pigeons or Bats :(. No carolling this Spring, again, in my area.

    Darlington, NSW
    Date and time
    August 09, 2012, 11:56AM
    • Yes. If you don't like it you can move to NZ.

      How come this annual magpie breeding behaviour hits the news every year?

      Mozzies kill and make many more people ill than magpies. But I suppose the photos aren't as action-filled.

      Date and time
      August 09, 2012, 8:35PM
    • Magpies in NZ too.....

      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 2:17PM
    • Actually Doh, they were introduced into NZ in the 1860's and are considered a threat to native birdlife there.


      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 9:46PM
  • Another good measure is is to always wear shades or riding glasses that have some sort of side protection - i find when the inevitable attack does come, i know my eyes are relatively safe, and dont panic so much as the worst that can happen is a scratch or 2, i think the key is not to panic (easier said than done) as this can lead to major prangs.

    Date and time
    August 09, 2012, 12:27PM
    • Some not-quite-formal CSIRO research on your best options for dealing with magpies -

      Date and time
      August 09, 2012, 12:44PM
      • Has anyone else ever been swooped by two magpies at once?

        That happened to me about 10 years ago near Canberra (on the Barton highway about 2/3 of the way towards Yass). First swooping experience, and also the worst!

        These two little monsters were tag-teaming me, getting their claws into my shoulders and beaks denting my helmet. They made me career right across the highway (fortunately no traffic at the time) and try to hide in the trees, cowering behind my bike. They waited for me. While I was cowering, they spotted another bird entering their territory, and the two of them went for it. I watched the three birds tumble out of the sky together, then only two of them got up. And came back to me.

        How can such tiny creatures be so terrifying??

        Date and time
        August 09, 2012, 1:14PM
        • It's a biological emperative actually. It's important for the male Magpie that the female see him 'man up' and attack threats. If he doesn't, the female might consider him not up to the task and dump him. As a mountainbiker, Magpie season becomes like the charge-of-the-light-brigade for me!

          Date and time
          August 09, 2012, 1:59PM

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