Monday, July 6, 2009

Hawks and pigeons

When we trap in the fall, one of the irresistible lures for hawks and falcons is the pigeon. Don't get me wrong, I like pigeons. They are cool little birds. I have some homers in my loft out back. We just had two more hatch the other day. (I have pigeons coming out my ears, but those darn Harris' can't figure out the process).

I was reading and writing about Harris' hawks being used for bird abatement, and then there was a post by Falconer on the Edge that linked me here.

THIS year has been one of the worst on record for the persecution of peregrine falcons, conservationists said yesterday.
The RSPB called on the government to add peregrines to the list of species being prioritised in efforts to tackle wildlife crime, after dozens of reports of the birds being poisoned, trapped and shot, and chicks being taken from nests.

The people blamed for these crimes are egg collectors (A hobby I completely don't understand), as well as pigeon fanciers. They also mention falconer's. I don't know about how falconer's in the U.K. feel about the illegal seizing of raptors, but I tend to discount falconers as possible subjects, just because I know how we feel here in the states.

But pigeon fanciers?

There is some history here. Human's have been killing their competition since time began. The first settlers to our country set about killing every wolf, coyote, and bear that they could find leading to the eventual virtual extermination of many of these species. We did it in an effort to preserve our food supply.

If there were no wolves (or fox, or weasel, etc.) our chickens, our sheep, our newly birthed cattle, would be safe. It made sense to people back then. Even now, I admit to trapping raccoons that otherwise circumvent my defense systems and get into the chickens.

But, I don't breed chickens with a defective gene that makes them seize when they run. I also keep my chickens penned against predators. Pigeon fanciers, especially the roller pigeon owners, breed their birds for defect. They want their birds to seize in the air. It is probably pretty cool to watch.

As a falconer, I understand that every time I let my bird fly, there is the possibility of disaster. Just like I know, that when I get in my car, there is the possibility of an accident. You do what you can to minimize that risk, with the birds and in the car. What I don't do is kill anything that could possibly hurt my hawks. I also don't go out and shoot any motorist that could possibly run into my car. That would be crazy.

But in the past, pigeon fanciers have done the equivalent.

One article tells us about how an under cover agent met and befriended pigeon fanciers who were killing hawks as a matter of course.

Some of his new friends were millionaires, others bore gang tattoos. They all had a passion for roller pigeons, birds specially bred for a genetic disorder that causes them to have seizures and somersault backwards uncontrollably as they fly. Hobbyists compete to see who can make their flocks roll in unison most effectively.

What the pigeon men also had in common was a hatred for hawks and falcons, birds for whom the tumbling pigeons make attractive prey. So protective were these men of their pet pigeons, that Mr. Newcomer saw some of them trap and shoot birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Mr. Newcomer listened to tales of pigeon lovers spraying hawks’ eyes and beaks with a mixture of bleach and ammonia, creating a lethal gas. Another claimed he beat hawks to death with sticks. Another bragged about a five-gallon bucket full of talons he collected as trophies from his kills.
Now don't get me wrong. There have been some inadvertent kills made by my hawks, but I try to minimize those. I remember one year when I had a red tail that caught a bat. I quickly got it away from him and released it. I don't know if the bat made it, but I did my best to for the little mammel.

Last season, Gonzo was struck out of a tree by a bald eagle (there is a whole different saga). The eagle could have easily killed my hawk. Should I go out and kill all of the resident bald eagles? Obviously not.

But these fanciers in several western states thought that killing the predators was the solution. Birder's world reports:

An undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has revealed that a pigeon breeder's club in California, Oregon, and other states has been killing thousands of hawks and falcons a year in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act -- and bragging about it.

Members of the group, called the National Birmingham Roller Club, keep a specially bred pigeon that they believe deserves protection because it is easy prey for hawks and falcons. According to the club, the roller "distinguishes itself by its ability to 'roll,' or summersault backwards in rapid, tight rotations" in flight. The action makes the pigeon appear sick or weak.

Club members trap birds of prey in large box-like structures with walls of wire mesh. Then they shoot or torture them to death.

So where am I going with all this? I guess it comes down to assumption of risk, and minimizing that risk. Falconers use telemetry to keep track of their birds. We don't fly near dangerous power lines, or highways. We fly birds that are strong and healthy, and we avoid eagles as much as possible. But we realize that there are risks in what we do. Just like the terrierman knows that skunks and snakes can kill, and the beagle hunter knows that coyotes are out there, pigeon people need to know that there are dangers. Flying a bird includes the assumption that something may happen to it.

Bnet writes in 2007:

Federal authorities charged seven Southern California men associated with "roller pigeon clubs on charges related to the fatal beatings and shootings of federally protected raptors.

The seven cases in Southern California, along with charges filed against defendants in Oregon and Texas, are part of a 14-month investigation by special agents with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In California, a special agent infiltrated several roller pigeon clubs and learned about members' efforts to trap and kill raptors, specifically Cooper's hawks, red-tailed hawks and Peregrine falcons, according to court documents.

Killing the predators is not the answer.


PBurns said...

You have got it: expected and predictable risk.

I wrote a bit about this here >>


steveo_uk said...

pigeon racing in the UK is a very big thing. Lots of money for birds, prizes so they think its worth the risk. I used to live next door to one and he spent thousands on it. Doesnt excuse killing hawks as they are more likly to loose there birds to bad storms or sick ness than anything else.

Doug said...

I've been reading up on pigeon keeping, and I can see how it can be just as addictive as raising falcons, or koi. I hope I haven't painted pigeon keepers with too broad a brush, but it seems that the prevailing wisdom is that falcons are nothing more than vermin, murderers, that need to be culled.

Whenever you let an animal free into the wild there are inherent risks. If you are not willing to accept that risk, keep the animal at home.

Thanks for the comment Steve.