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The case against pigeon clubs (or why Tyson’s show is not for the birds)

March 26, 2010
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Word came last week that former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson is going to star in his own reality show on Animal Planet, the subject of which will concern the former pugilist’s apparent love of pigeons and his attempt to breed and race them.  Because of this news, and the celebrity involved, pigeon breeding will likely get its undue share of attention from media outlets and the general public. I think given the potential for an uptick, however slight, in interest in pigeon fancying it’s important for birders especially to realize what we’re dealing with here.  Pigeon clubs, specifically those that breed the genetic misfits known as “Roller Pigeons” but those that specialize in racing pigeons as well, are heavily involved in the systematic killing of several species of raptors to protect their flocks.

In 2007, a highly publicized sting run by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in southern California called Operation High Roller, netted seven hawk-killers in Los Angeles, as well as others in Oregon and Texas.  This was not a bad apple situation either, the individuals directly involved in trapping and killing thousands of what were mostly Cooper’s Hawks and Peregrine Falcons, were leaders in the communities and even presidents of various pigeon clubs.  Juan Navarro, president of the national umbrella group for roller pigeons, a breed specifically selected to have an seizure mid-flight that causes them to plummet, spinning, towards the ground that makes them easy targets for birds of prey, was one of the seven indicted.  This particular gem of humanity had this to say to a FWS agent:

Navarro allegedly told an undercover Fish and Wildlife Service agent that he likes to “pummel” the hawks that he catches with a stick. “You’ll see, it gets the frustration out,” Navarro said, according to a Fish and Wildlife agent’s affidavit.

Brilliant, right?  What’s shocking is that even in the wake of arrests of Navarro and several prominent leaders of the community, the attitude that leads pigeon-breeders to continue hawk-killing persists, but with members now taking a “shoot, shovel, and shut up” approach instead of bragging on message boards and promoting the practice at gatherings.

Some of the most damning testimony from Operation High Roller came from sites where such “enthusiasts” congregate, like roller-pigeon.com.  The more disgusting posts, as noted in an Audubon expose (and you really should read the article) in the wake of the arrests, are long gone.  But the attitude that leads to criminal behavior is still prevalent even if the members are more careful with their words and blatant posts are quickly scrubbed by moderators.  Such forums are home for not only anti-hawk fervor and paranoia, but bizarre Fish & Wildlife Service conspiracy theories involving clandestine breeding and tracking of birds of prey.  Some excerpts:

The only thing that can stop this, is if the feds allow the use of (DDT)ah for the old days.lol JDA – JDA

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Some use shot guns, some use traps. Traps work real good, because they are silent. Put a couple of cocks & a hen in a cage, on the roof of your coop, put a couple of leg traps around the cage tied off. It does not take long to get your hawk. The local Homer club reported 163 confirmed kills 3 years ago. – quality

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I will tell you this…it is not the song birds that are feeding the coopers…its us roller fanciers..we all need to take our heads out of the sand. Of course there is the raise and release programs…and most of those birds are tagged or tracked by some means… – fhtfire

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years ago we didn’t have such a problem. But with all the bleeding hearts out their and the endangered species enforcement. All brought on by us screwing with the circle of life. Not allowing the natural preditors [sic] to do their thing. – Windjammer Loft

Pigeon fanciers will try to make the case that these sorts of attitudes are not indicative of the groups as a whole; that most pigeon flyers like to enjoy their birds legally and deal with birds of prey without resorting to illegal activities.  And that may well be true, but what is also apparent is that the hawk “issue” is one in which the leadership in the pigeon fancier community feels as though needs to be addressed. In response to the arrests in 2007, the newly leaderless National Birmingham Roller Pigeon club released a statement decrying the actions of their former president, but filled with mealy-mouthed excuses for his behavior claiming that loss of their expensive pigeons is “disheartening” and, amazingly, whining about the lack of FWS intervention on their behalf and urging the department to begin culling raptors specifically in the interests of pigeon fanciers.

I repeat, the leadership of the largest pigeon club in the US has urged the FWS to kill raptors for them.

So while some of the club members and pigeon breeders are not hawk-killers, the attitude of the leadership is clearly that such actions are justified despite their obvious illegality.  This in turn leads to the protection and abetting of those involved in hawk-killing within the community as seen leading up to the arrests of club leadership in California and Oregon.  Because if the leadership is involved in perpetuating these heinous and grotesque acts, than its fairly obvious that this sort of thing is well accepted on all levels.  It just so happens that this is an assertion backed up time and time again by the undercover officers employed by the FWS.

The bottom line is this; unless members of the pigeon community start to take action and expose the hawk-killers in their midst, the entire hobby should be considered complicit.  That goes for Mike Tyson and Animal Planet as well.  They’re trying to make a buck, and Tyson is without doubt a colorful character, but so long as they attempt to show the “fun, crazy” side of pigeon keeping and racing without even an acknowledgment of the illegal actions that are ingrained in the culture, they’re complicit too.

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14 Comments
  1. March 27, 2010 3:04 pm

    I was living in California when the sting you mentioned took place, and like you, I was appalled by the cruelty and selfishness of some of those pigeon fanciers. On further reflection, the whole culture of roller pigeon breeding itself is equally disturbing—people deliberately breeding birds to have a debilitating neurological disorder for no reason but their own entertainment. It’s no surprise that people who engage in this “hobby” would have so little regard for the lives of other birds.

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 27, 2010 4:06 pm

    @Felicia – I couldn’t agree more. I’m dismayed that in the wake of those high profile arrests the attitude hasn’t appeared to change any, with more anti-raptor attitudes being pushed underground more than anything. I think the MBTA should be amended so that actions like these are punished more harshly, a couple years in jail may be more of a discouragement than the current fines.

    In any case, I think Animal Planet’s decision to glorify this “sport”, without apparent acknowledgment of the darker side of it, is incredibly frustrating. And that PETA is the only group raising concerns about the show, and ridiculous ones at that, is annoying more than anything.

  3. March 30, 2010 8:58 am

    Hey Nate. Sounds like ‘pigeon fanciers’ and ‘parrot breeders’ are cut from the same ‘Oh poor us, everyone’s out to get us’ type of threadbare cloth. Maybe they should get together, bleat at each other for a few days, get bored listening to each other’s whining, and hopefully then they’s understand how weak their impoverished arguments sound to the rest of us. And, yes, in case anyone asks I’d love to say this to Mike Tyson’s face: I actually think I’d be more likely to be able to have a decent discussion with him than true savages like Navarro.

  4. Nate permalink*
    March 30, 2010 9:08 am

    @Charlie – I think you nailed it right on the head. The Audubon expose in the wake of Operation High Roller is particularly disgusting and shows how pervasive hawk-killing is among the community. And when even their admonitions of the acts sound like attempted justification. Well, I frankly don’t have any compunction about asking that anyone involved have to explain themselves right off the bat.

  5. harry ashcraft permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:57 pm

    OK !..please dont come to us for pigeons to take to war[signal corps]..or spot vessels lost at sea or fly blood from one hospital to another in minutes, By cab over an hour..A bird that can hear ultrsonic sounds ,,see ultrasonic light,,can fly around world to home,,This is just a few things for you JUDGES to consider,,,,,before you answer this,,DO your homework, and you will be amazed at what you DONT KNOW !..HARRY

    • Nate permalink*
      February 17, 2011 7:23 pm

      Don’t worry, I won’t. That’s what we have sat phones, satellites, and helicopters for, after all.

  6. Marschall Brooks permalink
    October 18, 2011 4:27 pm

    I live in the city and never had a real problem with hawks until 10 years ago. All the neighbors love to feed the birds in their backyards. Now the hawks are so thick you can’t let a pigeon out. Five years ago I quit flying my rollers because hawks and falcons killed 64 young birds I had raised in just 6 weeks time. I rarely lose an old homer to hawks, just the young ones learning the ropes. Now that the cost of feeding song birds has risen and the neighbors are tired of seeing hawks eat the songbirs many have stopped feeding birds. I have noticed a shortage of hawks in the area. I will try flying again this next season. These falcons were stocked to kill pigeons in town. BIG FAILURE— They ended up poisioning the pigeons and lord knows how many other birds besides screwing up everthing for pigeon fanciers. Bringing hawks to the city is not the solution. Liberal whiners blaming the pigeon fanciers as a whole is as stupid as branding every man that has ever had sex as a rapist. I have raised pigeons for 45 years and have yet to kill a hawk. As for you whiners worried about bird flu (Avian Flu) pigeons are immune and couldn’t be killed with 10,000 times the lethal dose and are now being studied for antigens as a cure for Avian Flu. So, all you whiners put your name on a list so that you can be last to get the cure that pigeons are going to provide. I do not condone what these guys dead, however, I do empathise with their plight, it is very disheartening to see everything you have worked for destroyed by hawks. All your whining would be better put use finding a solution that is suitable to both fanciers and birds of pray.

    • Nate permalink*
      November 28, 2011 10:17 pm

      Whining, Mr Brooks? Please. It’s not often I’ve heard taking the legal and ethically responsible stance as “whining”, but whatever.

      Falcons were not “stocked to kill pigeons”, that’s just a side benefit. If your birds look too much like mentally challenged versions of the feral winged rats that populate urban areas than that’s just too bad. Take off your tin hat, stop trafficking silly conspiracy theories, and deal with it in ways that don’t break the law.

      30 years ago, many raptors were in a world of hurt due to continued use of pesticides. Their numbers have slowly been recovering and many raptors are returning to places they could be found historically. It’s one of the nation’s most inspiring conservation success stories.

      So anyone who claims to empathise [sic] with the “plight” of serial raptor killers and felons is not worth consideration. I guess I appreciate your honesty, too many pigeoners try to hide their true sympathies because it, well, suggests support for illegal activities, but it’s that kind of attitude that aids and abets felony raptor-killers, which is the gist of what I’m saying here. So long as pigeon “fanciers” fail to see the moral bankruptcy of their position on raptors, then I don’t feel bad about lumping you all together.

      I hope for a massive flight of Cooper’s Hawks in your future.

      • Marschall Brooks permalink
        November 29, 2011 9:00 am

        There you go, lumping people into groups. You had over six weeks to come up with a viable solution and all you could do was victimize pigeon fanciers.NARROW MINDED!! I’ve only had two hawks in my yard this year, one redtail and one cooper. A lot of neighbors have stopped feeding the song birds because the cost has skyrocketed. Here’s a solution that works, I know from experience. Years ago I had a Cooper that was harrassing my birds dailey, running up and down the front of the loft scaring my birds to death literaly. I trapped it in a ground pen used for greening the pigeons in. I hosed him down and water logged him were he couldn’t fly twice that day, then I made a band out of sheet aluminum, put it around his leg and painted it blaze pink and set him free. He never came back here. Sometimes all it takes is a bad experience to run a hawk off. Instead of lumping every pigeon owner into your hated “Raptor Decimating Criminal Club” you should consider enlisting their aid in catching, banding and tracking these birds and along the way some will learn to stay away from lofts. I love all the birds, each and every one has it’s place in the environment. Yes, I empathise with the plight of the west coast pigeon fanciers, but by no means do I agree with their solution. No conspiracy theory, just fact. Some mental giant biologist thought he had solution without doing his homework. “Hey guys, we can reintroduce falcons to the city and they can feed on pigeons it’s a win win for everybody”. WRONG they said the same thing about alligators eating beavers now we have more beavers than ever and a yearly alligator hunt. Maybe you should focus more on what natural food source in the wild is in shortage forcing the raptors to come feed in the city. In the spring the primary food for Coopers is Robins, they time there nesting to the Robins and then feed baby Robins to their young as well as any adults that they catch. They rob nests of a variety of song birds to feed their young. With the demise of the fur trade there is an abundance of coyotes nation wide, and a decline in ground nesting birds and rodents. No conspiracy, just fact. In the wild everything has it’s high’s and low’s, some are caused by weather changes most are by man’s invasion or poor managemnet of resources. Coyote fur coats come back in style there will be more food in the wild for the raptor’s. You could blame a portion on Hollywood whiners destroying the fur trade. Some animals do need to be controlled to properly manage resources. Nate, if you choose to respond, please have a vialble solution, and the decency not to lump everybody in the same boat, your starting to sound like some of them haters that can only live in peace with people of the same color.

  7. Nate permalink*
    November 29, 2011 3:21 pm

    @Marshall- So you’re going to come to my blog and suggest that opposition to, and disgust with, illegal raptor killing makes me akin to a racist? Your arguments are as reasonable as your understanding of ecology is sound.

    I mean, really. Robins? The “primary food” for Cooper’s in spring is Robins?

    You’re damn right I’m narrow-minded. I generally have a bias against illegal activities. If it makes me unreasonable to stand against the unnecessary harassment and illegal killing of raptors, then perhaps it’s you that needs to re-evaluate their priorities.

    You need to accept that it’s attitudes like yours that provide cover for raptor baiting and hawk killing. Sure, some species need to be managed, but not hawks and not for pigeon fanciers, who are generally idiots with too much time and money on their hands busy raising brain-dead feather bombs and invariably whining when their precious winged Guinea Pigs (rats are too smart to compare to roller pigeons) are subject to natural selection.

    You want a “viable solution”? Here’s one. How bout you accept the inherent biological problems with your hobby. You don’t want to deal with hawks? How bout you stop raising and releasing expensive hawk food.

    There you go. You’re welcome. Come again any time, but if you accuse me of racism because I think killing hawks is for cowards then you’re gonna get banned.

    It’s my blog after all.

    • Marschall Brooks permalink
      November 29, 2011 10:51 pm

      Study ecology, I know dang good and well what Coopers feed on in the spring and in Arkansas their primary food source is Robins naturally they will eat any thing they can catch. I fly my birds I take the risk and I don’t kill hawks. Yes, your viable solution is only viable to you, how selfish. My solution works and it benefits raptor research. West coast they may have a different primary food source during breeding season. They certainly have an imbalance in wild life available for prey. It’s obvious by the number of coyote in the urban area reports, which have become a problem nation wide. Check the bird counts at Cornell University, some decline some increase. A shortage of rodents, rabbits and birds leads to hawks preying in the city. Does not take a mental giant to figure that one out. A friend of mine has an old cotton gin that barn owls use for a nesting area Game and Fish band and study the owls, years that are low on rodensts are low on successful nests. It’s all about food. At no point do I or have I condoned killing hawks nor did the NBRC. You go off like a half cocked PETA Nazi without a clue. Don’t worry I won’t be back, I have no intention of lowering myself to your level of deciet and mis-information. I’ve noticed over my many years of existence that ignorant people can’t be beat, they’re too stupid to know it.
      Good bye Dip Stick.

      • Nate permalink*
        November 29, 2011 11:12 pm

        Brother, you lost the high ground with that “same color” BS.

        And raptor preference for roller pigeons has nothing to do with a shortage of other prey, it has to do with the fact that roller pigeons are easy to catch because they don’t fly right. A predator is always going to go after injured looking prey, and a roller pigeon flopping around in a mid-air epileptic fit is easy to catch. Why would a bird waste energy on a wild bird when that’s available? No amount of study or banding or anything is needed to know that.

        Besides, if Operation High Roller proved anything, it’s that pigeon enthusiasts can’t be trusted around raptors, high-minded scientific principles or not.

        Raptor killers should be fined heavily and jailed if they don’t get their acts together. Mealy-mouthed backpeddlers like the NBRC refused to acknowledge there was a problem until they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar by the FWS. Refusal to denounce illegal acts is the same as condoning them in my book. Sorry, but the “I don’t kill hawks” argument isn’t good enough. The whole hobby is rotten to the core.

  8. Sam permalink
    February 5, 2012 11:55 pm

    Frase valleyI drive every day to work 1 mile from my house .train track stop with about 300 pigeon on the wires and ground (i counted) Doesn’t seem’s hawks lowering their numbre were i hade 18 racing pigeon 5 month ago i’m down to to 6.
    May be free open hole will be the sollution .

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