(First published in the Manawatu Standard and other Stuff regional papers, November 13.)
Okay, I admit it. I’m a coward.
As a recreational cyclist, I’m privileged to live in a region blessed with glorious rural landscapes, wide-open skies and quiet, smooth roads.
On fine days, these roads beckon seductively, and never more so than in spring. They sing a siren song as irresistible as that of the Lorelei who lured boatmen to their doom on the Rhine.
There’s just one problem. Magpies.
Magpies will ignore you for nine months of the year, then launch frenzied attacks during the other three, when they’re nesting.
They don't seem to have noticed that human beings are not in the habit of climbing trees to steal their young. This is especially true when the human beings are wearing lycra shorts and bike shoes, which are not conducive to tree-climbing.
Be that as it may, during the nesting season, every human is perceived as a threat. And for some reason, magpies seem to reserve their fiercest aggression for people on bikes.
Before going any further I should declare that I generally like magpies. They’re handsome, smart, fearless and extremely agile on the wing.
I love their song too, which Denis Glover, in his classic poem The Magpies, famously translated as “quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle”.
Staying at our son’s house in the bushy outer suburbs of Canberra years ago, I was entranced by the sound of magpies calling softly – the term is carolling – in the middle of the night. It was magical.
But in spring, magpies torment me. They are the Stukas of the bird world. Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle becomes a declaration of hostile intent.
When I moved to the Wairarapa more than 15 years ago, I found a perfect cycling route that wound through the valleys and hills north of Masterton.
The farmland was pretty, there was a nice mix of hills and flats, and virtually no traffic. Cycling nirvana.
During the many years I had lived in Wellington, I had experienced only a few magpie attacks while riding, and they seemed half-hearted. It was as if the magpies felt obliged for the sake of appearances to go through the motions of dive-bombing cyclists, but their hearts weren’t really in it.
But in the Wairarapa, it was a very different story. Crazed magpies swooped on me every few hundred metres. Some struck my head; others simply harassed me, often attacking repeatedly even when I must have been well out of their territory.
I tried different routes, with much the same result. On one long hill, I found it easier to get off the bike and walk rather than duck the constant attacks. At least when you’re on foot you can turn and face them.
Talking to other cyclists, I learned that some of these birds were legendary. One guy I know had a chunk taken out of his helmet by a notorious bird. Another acquaintance was out riding with his son when a magpie landed on his back and started pecking at his neck.
Shouting and waving your arms does no good whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems only to rark them up.
Reasoning with them is just as futile. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t want to eat their babies. They don’t listen.
Various deterrents have been tried in Australia, where magpie attacks are a serious problem. In one experiment on a suburban street patrolled by a particularly vicious bird, helmets with eyes painted on the back (magpies always attack from behind) and spikes protruding from the top were found to be totally ineffective. Attaching a flag to the bike didn’t work either.
Bizarrely, the only cyclist who wasn’t attacked wore no head protection at all, which suggests magpies have a jaundiced view of helmets. But I’m not prepared to take the risk of proving you’re safer without one.
The long and short of all this is that I’ve almost abandoned cycling on the road during the nesting months. Call me gutless, call me a wimp, but I find magpie attacks distracting and unnerving. They take the pleasure out of cycling.
I tell myself that the helmet protects my head, so what’s the worst that can happen in an attack? And the answer comes back: I could take my eyes off the road and ride under the wheels of an oncoming truck, which would be no fun for the truck driver and probably even less for me.
Fortunately I have a mountain bike, and there’s a network of magpie-free off-road tracks in the area where I live. So I ride my MTB and wait for the danger to pass.
I’m happy to report that I recently cycled along a stretch of road where I’ve been swooped on in the past, and I was left alone. So we’ve reached that time of year when the magpies’ protective hormones are subsiding and it’s safe to ride past their nesting sites without bracing for an attack.
Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle is no longer an announcement of imminent hostilities, and all’s right with the world.