Pigeon Extremists

I originally decided to keep mum on a story that broke in late May about a handful of roller pigeon enthusiasts in Oregon and California who were charged with killing raptors (including Cooper's hawks, goshawks, red-tailed hawks, and peregrine falcons) to protect their hobby. I figured it was a case of a couple of bad apples spoiling it for the rest of the club. You have extremists in anything and the area of birds is no exception. We recently had a debate on the Minnesota birding listservs about whether or not playing recordings of bird songs to find a species is harmful. Some felt ANY kind of disturbance to get birds to pop up is wrong--even pishing! That's a little extreme in my book.

I didn't want to bring attention to the roller pigeon issue, because I figured most of the members and the national organization would want to distance themselves from a few extremists who broke the law and not be that bothered by raptors...then I read the press release put out by the National Birmingham Roller Club. Though they are distancing themselves from the members who knowingly broke the law, the release reads as though they are in support of some kind of raptor control for their clubs. The press release starts:

" The National Birmingham Roller Club's position has always been one of not condoning or promoting the harassment, capture, or killing of birds of prey for any reason. The NBRC in no way endorses or supports any activity that would cause stress, injury, or death to any bird of prey."

That looks good, however, reading further down...

" Many of our Club members have pleaded with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for intervention or assistance to relocate Cooper's Hawks, in compliance with laws protecting livestock predated by endangered species. So far, our pleas have gone unanswered. Our government regularly assists ranchers when their livestock are predated by wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears. However, when thousands of our valuable pet pigeons are killed by Cooper's Hawks whose current numbers far exceed any previous hawk population estimates, our pleas for assistance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are met with silence."

Hmmmm, here is where I have trouble getting on board with the situation. I understand that a roller pigeon can have a value of over $100, but that is hard to equate that with livestock--these birds are pets, not a food supply for a nation. This particular breed of pigeon is not native to North America, the hawks are. This would be like having a pet starling or house sparrow and asking for protection from raptors.

If you are going to have prey for a pet (no matter how expensive), you are going to have to accept the fact that native wild creatures are going to want to eat it. I understand that--Cinnamon, my beloved pet rabbit is prey, she has a body built for food. And much like the roller pigeon, she has a "unique genetic trait" that makes her fur irresistibly soft to the touch--and rabbits can be expensive pets. She can run like the dickens, and can be incredibly fast and make hair pin turns and dodges. I would love nothing more than to release her in the park or in the field next to where we keep our bees and just watch her go--really see her go fast and far, but I won't do that because of the risk of a red-tailed hawk, Cooper's hawk, bald eagle, etc grabbing and killing her is just too great. Even in my urban neighborhood in busy parks, I've seen raptors take a look at Cinnamon when she's out on the leash. They don't come for her because I stay near when I spot them, they won't come in with a human so close.

So, the idea that pigeon fanciers are releasing birds out to fly in the wild, far from humans and then some get upset that predators are flying in for them baffles me. I would imagine that decades ago, raptors weren't so much of a risk with racing pigeons and roller pigeons--the hawk, falcon, and eagle populations were unnaturally low because of pesticide use. Now that those populations have recovered, the playing field has changed and you probably can't fly pigeons like you used to. The club does acknowledge this further down in the press release:

" However frustrating it may be, we understand and work with the hawk problem by not exposing our birds routinely to hawks when they are present and also by not flying at all during the seasons of the year when hawks are most prevalent, typically fall and winter in North America. This is the only method the NBRC recommends and endorses."

Falconers release their birds in the wild and that is a risk for them too. A smaller raptor can be killed by a larger one, battles can happen if you fly your bird in the territory of the same species, or another raptor could try to fight your bird to steal the prey it just captured. Of all the falconers I know and articles I've read, they take total responsibility for that. If their bird gets killed while out, they feel it was their for fault for not being aware of the habitat, for flying the bird at the wrong time of day, for not paying attention. And while the NBRC acknowledges that they are trying to not fly their pigeons when there is potential danger, the press release still reads that the overall situation is not their fault, it's the Cooper's hawk that has the unfair advantage in the current situation. I would have more sympathy if they weren't tossing prey into the air that is naturally going to stimulate a Cooper's hawk's hunting and survival instincts.

And for the record, I'm not anti pigeon, anti pigeon racing, or anti pigeon rolling. I think they sound like fun sports and I could see myself with a flock of homing pigeons some day. And I give a benefit of the doubt to a majority of pigeon fanciers--that they are not killing hawks. The press release gives me cause for concern--if we start allowing the removal of raptors for hobbies, that is a slippery slope. What about people who don't want hawks around the bird feeder?

I am against removing native wildlife because a pet owner wants to let their non native prey animal loose and not get eaten. If you're going to play with fire, you have a good chance of getting burned. I don't think wildlife should be removed for a hobby and that includes pigeons, bird feeding, beekeeping, etc. You have to learn to live with wildlife and work with wildlife, we are running out of room and just can't afford removal for hobbies.

Maybe rolling pigeon and racing pigeon enthusiasts could hook up with knowledgeable birders and falconers? Maybe working with experts on the raptor species could help them come up with methods of flying pigeons with the hawks? If US Fish and Wildlife is ignoring them, they should try for other organizations or people to help them learn more about the raptors. Maybe this is an opportunity for some birder or raptor specialist out there to reach out and help? Who knows, they talk about the value of the birds, perhaps they'd be willing to pay for raptor consultations? Anyone want to give it a go? Try it out as a graduate project?