How to stay safe during magpie swooping season

October 01, 2019 4 min read

How to stay safe during magpie swooping season

Spring is here which means magpie swooping season is in full flight! While a swoop from a maggie is a bit of a shock if you are not expecting it, mostly the aggressive birds’ actions are a mild inconvenience rather than a threat. There have been documented instances of injuries which is why you do need to take magpie aggression seriously and do what you can to protect yourself. The season is short enough and areas are isolated enough that we can get through without having to draw blood.

Recently in Sydney the Hills District Council arranged for a swooping magpie to be shot and killed on a popular fitness path (link to post). It seems a bit extreme for a bird to lose its life for protecting its nest against what it considers to be a genuine threat. Most of us have been swooped by a maggie at some point without injury, especially since a bike helmet takes the biggest part of the blow. In those times where there have been injuries from magpies, it usually occurs from people falling off their bike or crashing into someone or something rather than the magpie itself, so stay calm, get off your bike and walk if need be and avoid magpie swoop zones in September and October if you can.

A little common sense can make all the difference so here are tips you can put in place to keep your ride safe for everyone.

Don’t retaliate

Apart from being startled there really isn’t that much harm a magpie can cause, although some very aggressive birds will deliberately swoop from the side, targeting cheeks and ears (and sometimes eyes) as well as launce torpedo like attacks from the ground.

Passing through an aggressive magpie territory should be done calmly, with little reaction and no retaliation.

Most magpies will ignore humans and swoop on actual nest threats, like cats and dogs, however, a small handful (estimated to be around 8-10% of magpies) will swoop people, even then they usually target specific people or modes of transport. These magpies have had a negative experience with people. It could be kids throwing stones, a nest being moved, someone lobbing tree branches or a near miss by a passing cyclist. Whatever the event, at some point something happened to convince this bird that humans are the enemy.

This can start a vicious cycle where people act aggressively towards magpies because they dislike being swooped, further enhancing the idea that humans are a threat. Very few magpies will attack everyone; pedestrians, cyclist and posties, the few cases where magpies attack indiscriminately happen in very high traffic areas where retaliation has occurred widening the magpie's view of possible human threats.

Get off your bike and walk

Because most magpies target specific types of people and movement it is likely that your bike swooping maggie will not see you as a threat if you become a pedestrian. It seems illogical I know, you want to get out of the maggie swoop zone (usually 150 meters worth of bombardment) as quickly as possible, but walking may just do the trick.

The other benefit of walking is you remove the danger of falling or crashing.

Go another way

If possible add an additional block to your ride and steer clear of the trouble spots. Just see it as an opportunity to increase your fitness or see a different part of your neighbourhood. The magpie alert website lets you alert others to magpie hot zones and help you plan a safe route

Cover up

Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and a floppy hat (if not bunch riding) under your helmet to protect your ears and cheeks.

Make eye contact

Magpies usually won't attack if they feel like they are being watched or there is a chance of being caught. Groups of walkers or cyclist that travel close together or individuals looking at them directly can put a maggie off its game. 

Look down and straight if you are on the bike

Trying to twist your head to see where your attacker while you cycle is a real danger. If you were to turn your head just when a bird was coming in from the side, it may leave your face and eyes vulnerable to that sharp beak. Before you make eye contact get off your bike and make sure the magpie is not too close to you. If you want to keep riding through keep your eyes down.

Avoidance techniques

In the past advice has been to paint or glue pictures of eyes to the back of your helmet, the theory being that magpies most often swoop from behind. Magpies are intelligent birds with good eyesight and it doesn’t take long for a bird to learn the difference between real eyes and fake ones. Another common avoidance technique is to attach cable ties to your helmet. This technique won’t deter those birds who look to make deliberate contact with your helmet, although it might convince a more timid bird to pull up a little earlier giving you less of a whack.

One technique that has proven to work is attaching a safety flag to the back of your bike. brightly coloured flag on a long pole to your bike.

Be ready!

Because male magpies are territorial in spring you can usually work out the hot zones for swooping and be on alert. That means you won’t be caught off guard by a sudden whack.

  • Look for swooping shadows

Magpies tend to swoop from behind, usually with the sun behind them so a tell tail shadow might help pre-empt an attack. 

  • Listen for a call

Magpies will often squawk or snap their beak before they launch, giving you a heads-up before a hit. 

  • Near hits

Warning swoops usually come before a magpie will deliberately hit, even if it’s only on day one (yes they can sometimes remember you from day to day). 

Stay calm

Moving quickly or seeming to move in terror (i.e screaming wildly) will only inform the bird that he is doing a fantastic job of keeping you away from his chicks. That you were going to pass by anyway doesn’t occur to him. If you can maintain a steady pace and don’t appear to care about his onslaught he will be less proud of his achievements and less motivated to continue. 

Spring riding without the swooping? That’s freedom!

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