The image of pigeon flying takes a tumble

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2007:
PORTLAND, Oregon–Portland U.S. District
Judge Ancer Haggerty on October 11, 2007
sentenced pigeon flyers Peter Kaufman and Ivan
Hanchett to each pay a $2,000 fine plus $2,000
more to the Endangered Species Justice Fund at
the Oregon Zoo, for illegally killing an unknown
number of birds of prey.
Kaufman and Hanchett were also barred
from any involvement with the roller pigeon
fancy, hunting, and fishing during a year on
probation, during which they must each do 120
hours of community service.
The sentences were far lighter than the
fines of $10,000 apiece sought by the
prosecution, and less even than the $7,500 fine
proposed by one of the defense attornies,
objected Audubon Society of Portland conservation
director Bob Salinger. Salinger, Portland mayor
Tom Potter, and Portland Metro Council president
David Bragdon had all called for the stiffest
possible penalties.

“Sallinger is talking with Oregon’s
congressional delegation about amending the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act so that intentional,
wanton killing of protected birds could be
treated as felonies,” wrote Michael Milstein of
The Oregonian
A third defendant, Mitchell Reed of
Mount Angel, Oregon, also pleaded guilty, but
has yet to be sentenced. Two other Oregon men
face related charges.
“Kaufman and Hanchett were leaders of the
Northwest Roller Jockeys,” reported Milstein.
“Roller pigeons carry a genetic trait that causes
them to suddenly stop flying and tumble through
the air before righting themselves. That
attracts hawks and other raptors to prey on the
“Undercover agents investigating the men
and visiting their homes saw traps designed to
catch and kill hawks and other migratory birds,”
Milstein continued. “When Hanchett introduced
Kaufman to the agents, he said Kaufman had
killed 30 hawks within 45 days, according to
court documents.”
The 14-month investigation that led to
the arrest of the five men began after an
anonymous web poster claiming to be a pigeon
flyer said he “laughed and laughed” after someone
shot several peregrine falcons who had been
rehabilitated and returned to the wild by the
Audubon Society of Portland.
“Seven Californians and a Texan have also
been charged in the case,” Milstein reported
earlier. The Californians are believed to have
killed 1,000 to 2,000 hawks and falcons per year,
Milstein said.
The Oregon men, Milstein added, “held
positions in a national group called the National
Birmingham Roller Club, according to court
A lengthy statement posted at the
National Birmingham Roller Club web site on May
28, 2007 asserted that the club “in no way
endorses or supports any activity that would
cause stress, injury, or death to any bird of
prey. If it should eventually be proven that any
members of the NBRC have been found to have
engaged in such activity,” the site continued,
“we state emphatically that such behavior was not
with the consent, knowledge, or approval of the
The statement went on to attack comments
about the case by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
spokespersons; denied that roller pigeons have a
genetic defect, without mentioning what purpose
their rolling behavior might have evolved to
serve; and complained that the Fish & Wildlife
Service has not helped roller pigeon fanciers to
respond to predation by Cooper’s hawks and
red-tailed hawks.
“Our government regularly assists
ranchers when their livestock are predated by
wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears,” the NBRC
said. “HoweverĊ our pleas for assistance are met
with silence.”
The Oregon case is only one of many
incidents which threaten to transform the once
benign image of pigeon flying.
“In Northern Ireland last year,”
Independent Ireland correspondent David
McKittrick recalled in August 2007, “a ‘hit man’
with a sniper’s rifle shot dozens of peregrine
falcons in the Mourne Mountains of County Down.
His motivation was said to be to kill falcons
preying on valuable racing pigeons as they flew
through the Mournes.”
“Pigeon trainers say that an increasing
number of altercations over captured birds,
incidents of coop robbing– and even a rumored
murder over a pigeon–have given their hobby a
bad name,” wrote New York Times correspondent
Hassan M. Fattah from Amman, Jordan, in May
“There is a growing number of
troublemakers getting involved in this sport,”
pigeon store owner Wahib Abdelaziz Mahdi told
Fattah, after more than 50 years of involvement
in pigeon flying. “It used to be that the rules
were clean and that people of all economic
abilities were involved,” Mahdi insisted, “but
a few have begun to spoil it.”
Recreational pigeon flying appears to
have started centuries before homing pigeons were
used to deliver messages, at a time when pigeons
were kept mainly for meat–but flyers spared
their best and most colorful pigeons, at times
attracting ridicule for their interest in the
The rules and customs of modern
competitive pigeon flying developed parallel to
the rise of pigeons as a communication medium so
reliable that pigeon couriers enabled the rise of
the Reuters news syndicate.
Telegraphy, telephones, radio, and
eventually online communications gradually
replaced working pigeons, though the armies of
Switzerland, India, and several other nations
kept signal corps pigeons until well into the
online era.
As “geeks” in the computer-using sense of
the term moved from pigeon-flying into electronic
communication, “geeks” in the earlier sense of
the word, meaning someone who shows off by
killing animals, appear to have become more
aggressively involved.
Unclear, however, is whether pigeon
flying has actually become more violent and less
ethical in recent years, or whether societal
attitudes have simply changed. Gambling on
pigeon races and trying to lure away other
flyers’ birds have always been ubiquitous, with
potential for starting disputes.
Killing birds of prey, until recent
decades, when rare species gained legal
protection, was often praised for helping to
protect barnyard poultry. But since birds of
prey were routinely killed by farmers and
gamekeepers, and were depleted by food chain
build-ups of the insecticide DDT, pigeon flyers
may not have felt as threatened by predators.
U.S. pigeon flying literature from the
mid-20th century indicates that bird-shooting
hunters rather than birds of prey were seen as
the chief menace to racing flocks, before
limited shooting seasons enabled flyers to
schedule events at times when there was no legal
bird shooting.

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