It’s springtime Down Under right now – and for many cyclists in Australia, that means a season of fending off unwelcome attacks from less-than-friendly magpies. But now, one rider from Queensland thinks he may have found a solution to deter them from swooping down on him, by using bird scarer tape of the kind that can be bought cheaply from a local hardware store.
Paul Heymans, head of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail Users Association told abc.net.au that he had come across the idea by chance after putting ribbons on his cycle helmet, resulting in fewer attacks.
“It came about because we were doing some work with some ribbons and helmets, just something a little bit fancy for an event,” he explained.
“I happened to notice that the magpies that used to attack me were actually avoiding me.
“I don't know why we didn't think of it before. It does the job and that's what it's designed to do.”
Somerset Regional Council has bought 2,000 metres of the tape, which is usually used by gardeners to protect plants, and is distributing it to riders via local tourist information centres close to the 161-km trail.
“It's not 100 per cent effective,” Mr Heymans said. “I reckon it's about 85 per cent effective, but it does work.
“I tried it out on one of the worst magpies [in the area] — he wasn't very impressed by two strands of tape, and I tried them on four strands and it worked.
“It's a bit like a Medusa effect at the back of your helmet, where you've got these silver things waving.”
Other measures adopted by cyclists – with, it has to be said, varying degrees of success – to try and deter magpies defending their territory include putting stickers on their helmets to create the illusion of eyes, or threading cable ties through to make a spiky surface.
Mr Heymans said: “One of the problems we have with the real psycho magpies that are extremely aggressive towards people is that if they get too bad, then they're very often relocated.
“That's actually quite cruel for the magpie because if they go into another magpie's territory, they are very likely to be attacked and possibly even killed by the other magpies.”
He added that he hoped the availability of the tape would encourage people who are fearful of being attacked to use the trail during magpie season, with visitor numbers typically dropping in the two or three months of the year when the problem is at its worst.
In 2016, we reported how Queensland-based behavioural ecologist Darryl Jones believes that magpies remember their victims.
“If they think you’re a threat, they will follow you and attack you for years," he said.
It is believed that around 9 per cent of the magpie population in Australia becomes aggressive during nesting season, and that cyclists are the target of one in two attacks on people, with the birds typically swooping down on the rider’s head from behind.
“Magpies only attack when there are chicks in the nest, so if there are going to be more chicks, there are going to be more attacks,” Jones said in 2016, when a mild winter meant an unusually early start to the nesting season.
He added: “If you’ve been attacked in the past, you’ll probably get attacked in the future.”
Road.cc's resident Australian passport-holder John Stevenson adds:
From the Northern hemisphere being swooped by a magpie sounds faintly comical, but the Australian magpie Gymnorhina tibicen is quite a bit bigger than the Eurasian magpie Pica pica — the two are only very distantly related — and has a considerably beefier beak. The first you know of being swooped is when you hear a loud cracking noise by your ear. It's startling as all hell, and it's not unusual for the strike to draw blood. I had to change my route to work one year because it felt likely that the magpie that kept swooping me was sooner or later going to make me swerve under a truck. If Paul Heymans has found a way to deter them, it could be the biggest ever improvement in Australian cycling road safety.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.