Stool Pigeon Bags Hawk-Killing Pigeon Fanciers

The LA Times has the story on the Southern California indictments of seven men charged with numerous counts of violating the Migratory Bird Act. Their particular crime? Killing hawks. Lots and lots of hawks.

As motivation, they are all pigeon fanciers who had apparently gotten fed up with hawks feeding up on the latest spastic sports they’ve managed to breed. According to the report, a law enforcement agent infiltrated the pigeon groups to find hawk traps have been sold openly at meets, and one prominent pigeon fancier was observed approaching a trapped Cooper’s hawk on his house roof and shooting it with a pellet gun. All told, the raptor deaths attributed to the seven named people sum up over 2,000.

These folks can be fined up to $10,000 and sent to prison for up to six months. I don’t know whether that applies per raptor or in aggregate.

The sheer scope of this raptor-killing is mind-boggling. It seems doubtful that the practice is confined to SoCal, though. It is likely that more education and law enforcement effort are needed generally to get people to stop killing hawks.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

13 thoughts on “Stool Pigeon Bags Hawk-Killing Pigeon Fanciers

  • 2007/05/31 at 11:12 pm
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    The FWS has a history of exaggerating the truth and fabricating it to suit their PR needs. Evidently you take anything from their quarters for face value and are oblivious to the real problem. Please balance your reporting with some investigation into the source. Where did the FWS come up with these numbers? And how, in a world constrained by the laws of physics, do 7 people kill over 2000 hawks? Did you read only every other word in that report, as inflammatory as it was? Please. Do a better job or do not attempt it at all. You do nothing but further perpetuate the image that the FWS has tried to seed in the minds of simple people regarding those who breed this type of pigeon. They are not all responsible simply because a few were accused.

  • 2007/06/01 at 8:39 am
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    Certainly the US FWS has had some hiccups in their history, notably the “Operation Falcon” fiasco in which they persecuted falconers in the early 1980s.

    Yes, I didn’t read the original article quite right:

    The agents blame the clubs that the men belong to for killing 1,000 to 2,000 hawks and falcons in Southern California every year.

    So there apparently are, according to FWS, a bunch of uncharged hawk-killers at large. I’m not sure that helps.

    As for the notion that it is only FWS giving a negative impression, the article includes this bit:

    Ron Simpson, a top breeder of show roller pigeons in Ohio, said fanciers would be upset by the charges.

    They know the killings are technically illegal, but they view the actions as infractions like speeding and not real crimes.

    “They’ll say they got every right to kill the hawks,” Simpson said.

    They are wrong. If that attitude is as pervasive as Simpson implies, there is a big problem here, FWS statements notwithstanding.

  • 2007/06/01 at 10:39 am
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    I think the attitude that Simpson describes is that people feel the right to protect their property, their pets, and in some cases their livelihoods. I am not defending these alleged actions. I do, however, understand his and other pigeon breeder’s frustrations. I have seen too many of my own birds taken my multiple Cooper’s at a time.

    The FWS is quick to blame and inflame but slow or lackadaisical at best to help when asked. To them it is not an issue that a backyard breeder has problems with Cooper’s hawks. They selectively assign skewed and artificial values on the lives of living creatures to suit their needs. If your pet dog Fluffy was being harassed, or taken by a hawk, or better yet, each of the litter of puppies from Fluffy was systematically taken and eaten, wouldn’t you feel some sense of betrayal when the FWS did nothing to help you and instead laughed or ignored you altogether? I’m sure these guys never left their property to commit their alleged violations and instead tried to rescue and protect their birds.

    To further slant their press release, the FWS labels our birds as “defective”. Defective pigeons, in the eyes of the general public are disposable. If we take the FWS’s hypocritical position that any genetic mutation is a defect, then any specialized breed of dog, cat, or cattle is defective and unworthy of protection. For that matter, any hybrid falcon would also be considered defective. It amazes me that an organization with full time biologists and zoologists can make such baseless and incorrect statements.

    I raise rollers and have for a long time. I thoroughly enjoy them and all of my friends do as well. I also admire and respect birds of prey. I was able to hold a Gyr not long ago at the Avian Museum in Saltillo, Mexico, and he was very impressive. If it wasn’t for the pigeons, I would probably be falconer, or at least try to. But I do believe there are problems that go beyond a few guys getting in trouble.

    One more thing, how can you possibly sit and stake out roller hobbyists for 14 months and watch alleged violations and do nothing about it? If they truly value the lives of predators, as they say they do, how can you watch it happen and do nothing? For the sake of a big press release and a pat on the back? For the sake of a promotion in the FWS? So that you can get the extra dollar an hour? I would seriously question the true motivation of this “sting”. Question what the true goal was. Was it to protect and maintain a balance in nature or was it really so that a few FWS agents could get the nod from their higher-ups.

  • 2007/06/01 at 2:16 pm
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    I can sympathize with the urge to protect one’s property and livelihood. That’s not the issue. The issue is the means chosen to do so.

    I’m not certain of what obligation US FWS has in rendering assistance concerning alleged depredations by wildlife. I do know that they are charged with enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects native species of birds, but not introduced species of birds. The “selective assignment” of value is not by US FWS, but by our Congress and Executive branches, which signed off on the treaty back in 1918. US FWS is enforcing it, which is their job.

    Part of the reason for a long investigation and not terminating it at the first sign of a violation would likely be the tendency for wildlife offenses to be treated in the court system exactly as Mr. Simpson stated earlier, as more like a speeding ticket than an actual crime. It could be that US FWS is once again abusing its authority, so it will be good to see whether the various claims stand up in court concerning sale of hawk traps and instruction in their use, use of pigeon-baited traps to catch hawks, and dispatching hawks in the variety of ways mentioned.

    Domesticated animals do tend to have a number of genetic differences that would put them at a relative disadvantage if they were directly competing for resources against the original wild stock. That said, there would seem to be a degree of difference of significant note concerning the “rolling” trait in pigeons. Is there any corresponding genetic trait in other domestic species that causes the individual to 1) emit predator-attracting behavior while 2) being in a state where they do not respond to predator approach? Without that, I think that the analogy claimed is stretched rather thin, and labeling the “roller” trait as a defect makes sense.

    I think that if “Fluffy” whelped and there was a significant chance of raptor predation of puppies, I’d be looking into at least a completely fenced or netted enclosure, not a new trap, shotgun, or rifle.

    I should point out the handy contact information I compiled for getting in touch with US FWS if anyone knows of someone harassing — and that would include killing — hawks.

  • 2007/06/01 at 3:49 pm
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    The claim that rollers have a “predator attracting” behavior would probably be best addressed by the racing pigeon breeders. Their rates of predation are higher than ever as well. There is no rolling involved with racers. If anything they are very strong domestic birds that would probably outrun hawks in flat chases.

    However, predation in flight is rare with Cooper’s hawks. Most rollers are taken from off the roof when they land, or when they are taking off. The same is true for racing homers. I take issue with the rolling being the reason they are predated. Most rollers don’t develop their rolling ability until 6 months into their lives. They are predated because there are too many Cooper’s hawks competing for the same sources of food. Whatever extremes that were taken by the men involved in the allegations, I do not deny are questionable, if not direct violations of the Migratory Act, though all of that is yet to be proven in court. The reason behind it is something that needs to be addressed. By whom, I don’t know. Falconers have much to lose if Cooper’s are thinned. But domestic breeders have already lost a lot. To not acknowledge at least the need for a formal, encompassing study on the effects of conservation would be to turn a blind eye to the impetus for what we are seeing today.

  • 2007/06/02 at 6:47 am
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    I appreciate “Roller Guy”‘s persistence and passion, but there is a problem with this latest installment in his argument.

    We were discussing the labeling of the “roller” trait as a genetic defect. Unless the effect of the “roller” trait on predation is zero, it is unquestionably deleterious. Nor are Cooper’s hawks and other accipiters the only raptors noted as being in the kill list. Nor does delayed timing of the attack rule out the role of rolling in attracting raptors as predators, though it would mitigate the effect of the bird with the trait not responding to predator approach during the rolling.

    I’m curious as to what a formal, encompassing study on the effects of conservation might be hoped to accomplish, by the pigeon fancier community at least? I’m all for better knowledge of conservation, but I am at a loss for imagining an outcome that would have much relevance to the current news item. I don’t think that a study could cause much, if any, change in the relevant regulations in place due to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. US FWS is also the relevant authority when it comes to enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and there’s already a bunch of case law related to what happens when commercial interests in animal husbandry come up against ESA provisions; it is a major reason why the right wing wants to gut ESA.

    Now, about Cooper’s hawk behavior and pigeons… my wife has kept pigeons since about 1995. We didn’t bring pigeons along on our latest move, but we have had them in Galveston, San Diego, and Concord, California. We’ve seen Cooper’s hawks attempt to take our pigeons in the two locales in California. Of all the times I’ve seen Cooper’s hawks going for pigeons, they’ve always been flying to catch the pigeon in flight. I have never seen a Cooper’s hawk attempt to take a sitting pigeon. We did lose a fair proportion of young pigeons learning to fly free to a particularly determined or hungry Cooper’s hawk at our Concord house. The only “shooting” I did of it was to get some pictures with my camera when it perched jauntily on a dead stump in our yard.

  • 2007/06/09 at 11:19 am
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    It’s clear to me from roller guy’s comments that the problem is as much with the roller pigeon / competition community as it is with the guys caught in the FWS sting. I would therefore suggest that the community take some responsibility and punishment for breaking the law (one I support both with my vote and my taxes).

    Therefore I suggest either legislation or a court injunction prohibiting any competitions in Oregon for 18 months, or until the roller pigeon competitive community can demonstrate before a judge that it has guidelines and procedures in place to help prevent lawbreaking by its members and competitors in the future.

    Also, since some of the kill were protected species where my tax dollars were going to rehabilitate the population (something I heartily support), Each guy caught should be levied a fine equal to the monies spent per rehabilitated hawk for each instance of a protected species they killed.

    These suggestions represent my “rule of law” response, something these guys apparently don’t value. My other response would be to kill a bunch of roller pigeons, preferably while their owner watches, but wait a minute, that would be “against the law”, wouldn’t it?

  • 2007/06/11 at 12:33 am
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    Colorful thoughts Steve. Let’s see, you are blaming an entire community for the bad decisions of a few, good for you. Well thought-out and nothing like what an infamous German leader once recommended. Second, you advocate killing pigeons for your own enjoyment and eye-for-an-eye antiquated perception of justice. Sure, kill an innocent third party so that you and the object of your hatred, the pigeon fancier, can have some justice. Where is the justice for the pigeon? This is my exact argument about the FWS’a 14 month operation, watching the killings, in essence sacrificing a third party so that they could score with their bosses a good pat on the back. No justice there. But it would tickle you silly, I’m sure Steve, to see the slaughter of innocent creatures.

    What else would you like Steve, to help you come to terms with this tragedy. Would you like to see all pigeon fanciers systematically investigated and fined for their hobby? I mean, how many times does a thick headed country bumpkin like yourself need to be hit over the head with the facts to make you understand that the problem lay with a few people, not with the tens of thousands of pigeon fanciers in this country? It is probably easy binary logic for you to see punishments doled out in this manner than to actually study the facts of each case individually. That is why we have a system in place in this country to formally and methodically prosecute offenders. So that simple minded folk like you don’t end up in positions where you can actually undo what this country has held dear to it since John Hancock signed that document. Try to think about your views and how they affect law-abiding people before you go off and use that mouth, just because it’s there.

  • 2007/06/11 at 12:57 am
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    Steve, with regard to your brilliant legislation, how can you possibly think that any group can prevent law breaking by it’s members? That is why there are laws on a local, state, and federal level, because groups and individuals cannot enforce laws. In fact, it would be unconstitutional to do so. The only instance where I can see such self-policing work is with Home Owners Associations, simply because any law breaking in their case is done on a visible level, at street elevation, and to buy in such a neighborhood would require you to agree to such terms. And even so, those terms are a civil matter. To ask a group like pigeon hobbyists to police themselves is like asking anyone who uses Farmers Insurance to police drunk driving within their membership. It is absurd to think we can prevent people across the country from doing what they want. If they get busted, then they deal with the consequences, but to find free-willed individuals guilty by association is tantamount to the persecution of people for the religion they follow, or the color of their skin. Is this what you’d like? Shall we all form a line and get a bar code tattooed on our necks for easy categorization? I’m exhausted. Peace.

  • 2007/06/18 at 6:06 pm
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    Thanks, Roller Guy, for your response.

    My understanding is the “few” guys caught in the sting are actually leaders in the roller pigeon community. Perhaps you can clarify on that. Also, you can point me to strident cries on roller pigeon websites denouncing what they did.

    Perhaps you can outline to me how you and/or the roller pigeon community would work to prevent such hawk-killing in the future, other than making the world safe for birds bred to have frequent seizures by killing the predators who, under normal circumstances, would cull such deformities. Will the hawk-killers be allowed to compete again?

    You suggest that it’s unfair to expect the roller pigeon community to police itself, while complaining about FWS efforts. This is disengenous of you, and unworthy of further comment. Your analogy with auto insurance is truly hilarious. I don’t know who insures you while driving (maybe nobody), but I know very well what a DUI will do to my rates.

    As to advocating the killing of roller pigeons in front of their owners, I didn’t, and don’t. I advocate for the rule of law, something you seem to have little use for, at least when it comes to killing hawks.

    I’ll bet you’ve had one or more of your roller pigeons taken by a hawk, and like any typical self-interested person, responded by wanting the hawks “dealt with”, rather than re-evaluating what y’all are actually doing, with is filling the sky with hawk bait. It’s like folks trolling with live goldfish in muskie-infested water and then mourning the goldfish while they chow down on the muskie! Unbelievable!

    Wait, perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps you want the hawk-killers punished in a real way, some prison time, some heavy fines. Do you? Have you done so online somewhere?

    Finally, I would suggest that personal insults are a resort of those with little else to offer to the discussion.

  • 2007/06/25 at 11:34 am
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    There’s another blogger who has weighed in on this issue in what seems to me to be a sensible fashion: BirdChick.

    Check it out.

  • 2007/07/30 at 11:47 pm
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    As I know very little about Raptors, I have a few questions.
    If those that breed, raise, save or whatever other reason for increasing the Hawk/Raptor population, would feed those endengered Hawks/Raptors their correct diet of wild food instead of the introduced non-native Pigeon, then perhaps the Hawks/Raptors would go after their native meals, as there were no Pigeons in the North America’s before the white man came here. It just makes sence to me that you would feed Hawks/Raptors their native food ie: native birds such as morning doves, songbirds and all other native favorites of the Cooper Hawk, Peregrine Falcon etc. Also rabbits, squirrels, mice etc. for the other Raptors that don’t eat birds. If you are using Pigeons to train them to hunt, how are they to know what their native food is? What do you think? Also it seems that the cross-breeding of native Raptors is no different from any other cross-breeding (in-breeding, out-breeding or any other type of mixing breeds.). If after they are released (if they are), compared to the domestic animal that is not wanted, Nature will kill them off. They will breed back to their own kind and/or they will die out. The Raptor/Hawk Breeders don’t want to hear this do they? They love killing in the name of “Nature”, “it’s natural and beautiful,” What is so beautiful about killing?

  • 2007/07/31 at 3:55 am
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    It just makes sence to me that you would feed Hawks/Raptors their native food ie: native birds such as morning doves, songbirds and all other native favorites of the Cooper Hawk, Peregrine Falcon etc.

    It might “make sense”, but you run up against the law, in this case the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Those species are protected under the law, just as the raptors themselves are. Hunting of native bird species is done under specific permitting regulations under the treaty, just as falconry itself is permitted under regulation. In this case, what is not permitted is forbidden. I don’t know of anyone who has a permit for propagation of native songbirds for food; you might have to go to France to get that sort of thing.

    If you are using Pigeons to train them to hunt, how are they to know what their native food is? What do you think?

    The situation may be different in the UK, but I think it is still the case in the USA that most falconry birds are taken as passage birds, that is, a bird in its first year (mostly) that is fledged and flying on its own. Generally, these birds have already learned their preferred prey from their wild parents.

    In the case of various of the falcons, the introduced pigeon is available in many places in enough numbers that it has become a staple prey item of the wild population of raptors. This is pretty well-known in urban-dwelling peregrine falcons. You can’t expect the wild birds to ignore such a resource.

    The Raptor/Hawk Breeders don’t want to hear this do they?

    What, you think you’ve got a poser that will suddenly make everyone breeding raptors go, “D’oh!”? You might need to know more than “very little about raptors” to get to that point, OK?

    They love killing in the name of “Nature”, “it’s natural and beautiful,” What is so beautiful about killing?

    As Webster and Beebe point out in “North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks”, it is precisely because of the predatory drive in raptors that their social behavior is accessible to human interaction. It isn’t the killing itself that makes falconry something that I want to do; rather, it is because I can be close to and interact with a raptor that I chose to give her as many opportunities as I can manage to let her do what she does so well. Even so, she is far more likely to chase and miss than chase and capture a prey item. In Rusty’s case, we often have years where she is able to catch enough rabbits and other of her natural prey that we can store away her “correct diet” for the non-hunting portion of the year. Otherwise, we supplement what she catches with commercially grown whole quail and rodents.

    So far, Rusty has chosen to remain with me over a period of sixteen years. She has had numerous opportunities to end that relationship; every time I fly her free, it comes down to her choice to return or allow me to pick her up. There have been times when she has spent nights out on her own, or in one case, a week out of the house. There was one time that Diane flew her in her native south Texas habitat that it seemed Rusty was choosing between coming back to Diane and joining up with a wild group of Harris’s hawks there; obviously she did eventually decide to return.

    Predation is, despite the squeamish attitude of the Disney “True-Life” nature films, a fact of wildlife biology, and an important element in ecology. In many ecosystems, diversity is often maintained by the activity of a “capstone predator”. Removal of such predators tends to drive systems to unstable points, and disturb whole systems. The re-introduction of wolves in the Yellowstone region, for instance, had the effect of restoring willow growth to bottom lands and river systems. In the absence of predators, elk and other ungulates would spend much time in those settings, eating young willows and otherwise preventing a succession of the plants. With the wolves back in the area, those regions were predation hotspots, and the ungulates had to spend far less time there, restoring the ability of the flora to have its usual succession of growth.

    Predation certainly is not always and everywhere “beautiful”. There is, for me, more beauty in the totality of the relationship I have with my raptors than there is pain associated with the death of prey items. If that changes for me, I will be out of falconry shortly thereafter. I don’t expect everyone else to have the same sort of appreciation of things that I do. I’ve been fortunate in that almost all people who have interacted with me personally when I am out doing falconry have thought that falconry was a pretty cool thing; those with a philosophical disapproval have apparently chosen not to be confrontational about it. I do recognize that there exist that sort of person, and I hope to keep encounters with them to a minimum.

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