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