By Linda Laker
It may come as a surprise to some who ride in Canberra in spring that the magpie is a perennial favourite with Australians. In The Guardian’s Australian Bird of the Year Poll, the magpie came in at No. 1 in 2017, No. 4 in 2019 and No. 9 this year.
And in the past, it appears magpies were popular as pets.
In Tim Low’s book, Where Song Began, he points out that in the early nineteenth century, magpies were more popular as pet birds than other songbirds. At that time, author Alfred North wrote of the great demand for young birds reared from the nest. This was because, not only could they learn to speak, but would imitate familiar sounds such as dogs barking. He wrote that when allowed their freedom and the run of a garden, an old male magpie could be a good daytime watch dog, crankily announcing anyone approaching (but also possibly savagely attacking the intruder)! (p293 Tim Low’s Where Song Began). Which leads us to the dark side of this bird’s character – again compellingly set out in Tim’s book:
“… attacks by Australian magpies are accepted as a normal part of suburban life, when by global standards they are exceptional.”…
“Canadian biologist David Bird (yes, really) has nominated the Australian magpie as likely to be, for suburbanites, the most serious avian menace in the world.” (p 3).
Unfortunately, come spring-time, the magpie menace can disrupt the joy of cycling.
Myths and arguments abound when it comes to magpie swooping. This Spring many felt the magpie swooping season commenced earlier; some claimed there were more magpie swoops; others maintained magpies are causing more injuries; and then there are the theories about how to discourage swooping – this year’s defence mechanism, the use of holographic tape.
With the help of the popular Magpie Alert website and its mastermind and developer, Jon Clark, Pedal Power ACT has taken a look at the 2021 spring magpie swooping season in an effort to settle some of these claims.
Jon Clark came to know Australian magpies – after moving from the United Kingdom – when a very aggressive magpie on the bike path along the Sydney M7 forcefully introduced itself. Now, for those of you not familiar with UK magpies, they are a very attractive bird, whose only possible crime would be occasionally stealing pretty and shiny things in mating season.
So you can imagine our Australian magpies came as somewhat of a shock to the newly arrived Jon. Still, Jon’s come to appreciate our magpies’ better qualities, particularly its wonderful song, and used this formative experience to create a Canberran cyclist’s favourite: the Magpie Alert website.
What Jon decided to do was create a crowd-sourced magpie locator where anyone could see where magpies were swooping, and hence avoid them. It’s a deceptively simple concept for such a useful website.
The way it works is that anyone can record where a magpie swoop occurs. And anyone can search their area to find where and when magpie attacks have been recorded. Back in 2013 he built a very basic website and it’s evolved from there – with over 5,000 attacks recorded in 2021.
So, what does Magpie Alert tell us about magpies’ swooping in 2021?
Let’s look firstly at the question of whether there was an early start to the Canberra season this year.
In comparison with previous years (on a six-year average) more attacks were reported occurring earlier in August in 2021. And although the attack count is higher, there’s a multitude of factors at play making it difficult to make judgements about why this is so: more users of Magpie Alert, more people out in nature in our COVID-constrained environment, greater incursions into magpie territories etc.
Secondly, looking at the question of whether there’s been more magpie swoops in the ACT, there have definitely been more recorded on Magpie Alert in 2021. However, this may simply reflect the growing popularity of the website rather than an actual increase in total magpie swoops. Canberra does record more swoops per capita than any other jurisdiction, but it’s hard to judge why.
As to the third suggestion that magpies are causing more injuries – and here the data is for Australia, not just Canberra – this one isn’t supported by Magpie Alert’s data collected over more than six years and now recording about 6,000 entries each year.
And on the final issue of holographic tape, Jon undertook his own ‘test case’. He set out on a 50 km ride with holographic tape on his helmet. But he found he had to remove the tape after about 35 km. The flapping sound was so loud he says he could have been attacked by a magpie but wouldn’t have heard it! Perhaps, he thought, it’s the noise that would keep a magpie away! His conclusion: he would rather face the occasional magpie swoop than the irritating noise of the tape.
Jon continues to build improvements into the Magpie Alert website. Frequent users might have noticed this year’s major improvement to take the user straight into their home location page. His passion for web development means that the site will never be static or finished … but time and funding are the limitations.
In talking to Jon, it’s clear he appreciates magpies are an intelligent and beautiful songbird. Given it is their natural instinct to protect, and only about one in ten males swoop during their nesting season, he’d like to see more of us to keep in mind that magpies, understandably, may see cyclists as a predator moving quickly in their territory and swoop to defend.
So next year, make the most of your spring rides and remember magpies are part of our wonderful ACT environment. If they swoop, don’t take it personally. And log it on Magpie Alert!
And for most of the year, their brilliant black-and-white plumage and beautiful songs remain a welcome backdrop to our bush capital life
.Jon Clark –the man behind Magpie Alert
Jon isn’t a bike collector…but does admit to owning three bikes. In his younger days, he was passionate about mountain biking on his Kona Explosif which has given him a great 20+ year riding life. But these days, he’s become conditioned to road riding on his 2017 Specialised Roubaix Comp – the first model with handlebar suspension – on which he enjoys rides mainly around Windsor in NSW. His old 10-speed is now on his trainer indoors which has come in handy during lockdowns.
In his twenties, he rode in a ten-person group in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco (Cyclo-cross). This remains a highlight in his cycling experiences. Jon then did lots of riding in north Wales, the majority on tracks and trails which fits more with current cyclo-cross riding.
Jon found his way to Australia about a decade ago, being headhunted to drive the early online model for a large retail chain here – getting in on the ground floor here after having been the development and support lead for Sainsbury Online in the UK. He’s been involved in web development since the 1990s – and now involved in anagement and online security – but still keeps his hand in with his hobby of Magpie Alert.