(I wrote the following article for the Fairfax magazine Your Weekend. It was published on October 3.)
Ah, the harbingers of spring. The first delicate white blossoms on the fruit trees. The first faint flush of green on the willows. The first frisky lambs. And the first magpie attacks.
The Australian magpie, gymnorhina tibicen, is an aggressively territorial bird. For nine months of the year it will nonchalantly allow humans to pass by unchallenged. It may even charm them with its musical warbling, immortalised in the poet Denis Glover’s famous line: Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle.
But in the nesting season, which can run from July to November, the male magpie’s protective hormones kick in and it terrorises everyone who strays into its territory – no one more than cyclists, whose helmets and lycra seem to whip the birds into a frenzy (as they do some motorists, but that’s another story).
Some parts of the country – possibly those where the concentrations of magpies are greatest, leading to more possessive territorial behaviour – have a higher incidence of attacks than others. But nearly all cyclists have magpie stories.
Banks Peninsula, a popular training ground for Christchurch cyclists, is noted for the ferocity of its magpies. In September 2007, a fed-up cyclist calling himself Old Crank posted on the Internet a video showing a homicidal Banks Peninsula bird repeatedly attacking on the Summit Road. Shot from a rear-facing camera mounted on Old Crank’s cycling helmet, the video showed the magpie swooping and striking his head nine times over a distance of several hundred metres.
That same month, Gareth Holebrook crashed when a magpie hit him on the back of the head while he was cycling between Motukarara and Gebbies Pass. Holebrook broke his collarbone and injured his groin. Only a week earlier, a female cyclist touched off a series of pro-magpie letters to The Press when it was revealed she had paid a pest control specialist $600 to kill troublesome magpies in the same area.
One of the scariest magpie encounters on record occurred in Northland the previous spring, when Otago University Students’ Association president Paul Chong, cycling the length of the country to raise awareness of student debt, crashed and was knocked out.
“I was travelling at about 60km/h, which is about the top speed I can get, when out of nowhere, I felt a sharp pecking,” Chong told the Otago Daily Times. “I thought, ‘What’s that?’ The next thing the bird was scratching at my face. I tried to shake it off but I came off my bike in the process and cracked my helmet on the asphalt. I woke up in the middle of the state highway.”
The pecking started on his back. Then the bird jumped up on his helmet and attacked his face. After regaining consciousness, but still dazed, Chong rolled into the ditch at the side of the highway where he lay until a van carrying locals stopped to help.
In the Wairarapa, where I live, dive-bombing magpies are an annual hazard that local cyclists have learned to live with. On some routes, attacks occur every few hundred metres at the peak of the nesting season.
Some birds earn virtual celebrity status, attacking cyclists in the same spot year after year. There are the Millers Road bird, the Twin Bridges bird and the Riversdale Turnoff bird, to name just a few.
Last year the Riversdale Turnoff magpie took a chunk out of veteran Masterton cyclist Brian Lambert’s helmet. Even more audaciously, the notorious Twin Bridges bird once landed on the back of Masterton doctor Tony Becker, out for a leisurely ride with his son, and began pecking at his helmet. “I got the fright of my life,” Becker says.
The real danger is not the direct threat of injury from the attacking bird. Rather, it’s the risk that the rider will be distracted by the attack and crash, as in Chong’s case, or hit a vehicle.
It may be only a matter of time before a cyclist is killed as the result of a magpie attack. The risk is magnified because the nesting season coincides with the period when more than 10,000 riders, some of them relatively inexperienced, are out on the roads preparing for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge held late in November.
Not all magpies are as pathologically determined as those mentioned above. Some are content to swoop repeatedly without actually making contact. They will often persist even when cyclists have ridden hundreds of metres beyond the birds’ nesting territory.
Some birds whack the cyclist’s helmet with a breast or wing. Some fly close and make a strange snapping sound which I mistook, the first time I heard it, for the distant crackle of a rifle.
The one thing virtually all magpie attacks have in common is that they come from behind. I have read of magpies landing in front of people then rising to attack them head-on, though I know no one who has experienced it.
Often you sense the birds rather than see them. A wingbeat immediately behind your head or an almost imperceptible rush of air will announce the bird’s presence. Some magpies emit an intimidatory squawk as they attack but others are like silent assassins, diving without a sound.
If the sun is in the right place, the bird’s approaching reflection sometimes provides warning and allows you to duck at the critical moment when the magpie’s shadow is about to merge with that of your head.
Cyclists learn to recognise the danger signs, such as the ominous alarm calls from high in roadside pines and macrocarpas as sentinel magpies warn of approaching intruders. Magpies have acute vision and see people coming from a long way off. After a while you instinctively brace for the attack on hearing the birds’ warning calls.
Cyclists also learn when not to worry about an impending assault. In my experience, magpies on the ground or perched on a fence do not pose a threat. It’s the ones in elevated positions, such as treetops and power poles, that have to be watched.
In each family group, one bird seems to have the job of sentinel and defender. It keeps a lookout from a suitable vantage point while the others get on with the humdrum business of foraging for food.
On a recent ride I disturbed a big group of magpies in a roadside paddock. As if following a pre-rehearsed drill, about 10 flew off as I approached, but one detached itself from the group and flew to the top of a power pole beside the road, from where it scrutinised me carefully as I passed. It didn’t attack, but its behaviour left no doubt that it was the guardian of the group.
Once they decide to have a go, there’s not much you can do to deter magpies. Some cyclists vouch for the efficacy of shouting and waving your arms, but I suspect it only winds them up.
One cyclist I know says magpies are cowards and will back off if you turn and face them, but this tactic carries obvious risks, such as losing control and crashing – or even worse, riding into oncoming traffic. I’d prefer to be whacked by a magpie than disappear under the front wheels of a Fonterra milk tanker.
My own response to attack, and that of most cyclists I know, is simply to pull my head in – literally, so that the vulnerable back of the neck isn’t exposed – and pedal faster. This can be difficult if you’re grinding up a steep hill in low gear. The parallel that comes to mind in these situations is that of a heavy, lumbering bomber being attacked by an agile fighter plane.
As a last resort – and I’ve done this once – you can dismount and walk until you’re beyond the danger zone. At least this enables you to turn and face your tormenter.
Protective measures? Well, there’s the helmet, of course, although an authoritative entry in the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia includes the dispiriting information that “bicycle helmets are of little value as birds attack the sides of the head and neck”.
The same entry advises: “Using a basic disguise to fool the magpie as to where a person is looking (such as painting eyes on a hat, or wearing sunglasses on the back of the head) can also prove effective.”
My wife suggested this a couple of years ago, and attached an old pair of cycling sunglasses – with fake eyes painted on the lenses for good measure – to the back of my helmet. Though the swooping and diving continued, the birds seemed less bold with the fake eyes watching them, and I haven’t been hit once since. There is some evidence that a paper face-mask attached to the back of the helmet also works.
A friend has taken to attaching a flag to the back of his bike, flying slightly above head height, and says that too seems to serve as a deterrent, though he admits he feels a bit sheepish using it.
What the heck, I say. Anything for a more peaceful ride.