Local humane society says nothing
ESSEX, Ontario––Why has the Harrow Fair, the official fair of Essex County, Ontario, elected to become internationally notorious for promoting so-called “parlor pigeons” as “the bowling balls of the avian world?”
Why has the county allowed it?
Why did the Windsor/Essex County Humane Society say and do nothing about it for seven years?
Only after the “pigeon bowling” became an international cause celebré did executive director Melanie Coulter tell CBC interviewer Sanjay Maru that while it is not illegal, she would discourage anyone from engaging in the activity because it’s “not the kindest way to treat animals.”
The confusion of live pigeons with bowling balls and use of “pigeon bowling” to attract Harrow Fair crowds appears to have originated with fair president Luke Korcok.
An otherwise obscure steelworker, Korcok on September 1, 2019 admitted to CTV News staff writer Alexandra Mae Jones that he raises many of the pigeons used as “bowling balls” annually at the fair at least since 2012.
Reported Jones, “Animal rights advocate Jolene Bulmer posted a video to Facebook after attending the annual Harrow Fair. In the video, competitors — holding a pigeon in one hand — crouch slightly, as if preparing for a round of lawn bowling, and roll the pigeon on the grass, wings flopping all over, until it comes to a stop and rights itself. The pigeon is then scooped up and the distance is recorded.”
Would he fly or roll from a good swift kick?
Said Korcok, “They don’t fly, they roll. Nobody trains them that way. They are hatched that way.”
The pigeons involved “are referred to sometimes as Parlor Tumblers, the website says, and ‘make their way through life…by somersaulting on the ground,’” Jones continued.
Bulmer called the event “absolutely horrific. Blatant disrespect and cruelty for animals. Traditions get outdated,” Bulmer said. They do. I just believe that there are more sports or competitions they can do with actual non-living beings.”
The British-based Independent news media chain took the story global.
“Winding up & throwing the pigeons”
Contest participants “were winding up their arms and throwing the pigeons to roll,” Blue told Independent reporter Colin Drury. “If you actually look at my video, you can see they’re using force to roll the pigeons as far as they can. It’s not who has the best bird that rolls the furthest; it’s what child is able to roll the roller pigeon as far as possible.”
Settled since 1749, located just 20 miles east of Detroit, Michigan, Essex County, Ontario could take pride in quite a lot, but apparently does not, if––as appears to be the case––it accepts ‘pigeon bowling’ as emblematic of community values.
Windsor, the Essex County seat, is the Canadian community longest settled by European immigrants west of Montreal.
Essex County was also among the hubs of the Underground Railroad, that helped thousands of slaves to escape from the U.S. South.
Fugitive slaves built or helped to build at least ten communities within the county, including much of Windsor itself. Founded in 1854, the Harrow Fair is among the oldest in Canada, founded three years before the town of Harrow, where the fair is held.
Local humane society stuck up for a pigeon in 2013
The Windsor/Essex County Humane Society did stick up for a pigeon once, in March 2013. Having done so, the Windsor/Essex County Humane Society may be favorably compared to the many humane societies in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Minnesota, among other states, which have said and done practically nothing in response to pigeon shoots held almost in their own back yards.
The Windsor/Essex County Humane Society charged Ted Foreman, owner of Bob’s Animal Removal, with “causing distress to an animal” for allegedly using a pigeon with broken wings and legs as live bait in an attempt to trap an owl.
A year earlier Foreman reportedly used a pigeon as live bait to trap a hawk at the University of Windsor.
“While we are disappointed that these charges were withdrawn by the Crown,” the Windsor/Essex County Humane Society announced a week after the case was filed, “it is positive that they were only withdrawn on the condition that Mr. Foreman provide an undertaking (a promise to the court) that the method of trapping used should not have been used, and that he will never use that method again.”
But humane society has not said much since
Since 2013, unfortunately, the Windsor/Essex County Humane Society appears to have drifted from advocacy on behalf of all animals into single-minded opposition to the 2005 Ontario pit bull ban, which has meanwhile reduced pit bull attacks in the province by more than 90%.
The only humane society which has ever addressed “pigeon bowling” before the Harrow Fair episode made news appears to be the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare of Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, England, founded in 1926.
Posted the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare in 2011, “The roller and tumbler breeds of pigeon have been selected for tumbling behavior in flight, to the extent that some tumblers can no longer fly but, instead, tumble as soon as they intend to take wing. The consequences to the birds are difficult to assess, but are clearly adverse when they lead to injuries due to hitting the ground or tumbling over it.
“Usually the birds regain control within a few seconds,” the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare said, “and continue to fly on in a normal manner. However, sometimes during the somersaulting they will collide with the ground or with trees or buildings, causing traumatic injuries which may be severe or fatal. This is known to owners as a rolldown.
“Exploited in competitions”
“A more extreme form of this somersaulting abnormality is characteristic of the parlor tumbler breed,” the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare continued.
“In this breed, selection for tumbling has resulted in strains that can no longer fly, but which tumble as soon as they intend to take wing. When attempting to fly they, instead, somersault backwards across the ground until exhausted or they cease their attempt to fly. This abnormal behavior is exploited in competitions in which owners of these pigeons compete to find whose bird covers the most ground by tumbling over it.
“Flight is an inherent behavior for pigeons,” the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare concluded, “something that they are born with a motivation to do, and so an inability to fly normally is likely to have adverse welfare consequences. Flight is a normal response to fear. Inability to escape in this way when startled may cause fear-related stress and distress.
“Seizure-like somersaulting on the ground may cause severe disorientation and distress. Injuries from this totally unnatural method of movement, of rolling over the ground, are also likely.”
“The English actually had roller bowling”
“A hundred years ago or more, the English actually had roller bowling and used the birds instead of a ball,” alleged Tacoma, Washington flight attendant and pigeon fancier Keith Chadd in November 2015 to Larry LaRue of the Tacoma News Tribune.
Chadd mentioned that in 2001 a parlor pigeon set a “world record” by continuously backflipping for 662 feet, three inches, a record comparable to clocking the duration of seizures for an epileptic.
Indeed, offered the Adelaide Register in 1876, as a fad for “pigeon bowling” swept Australia, “The ‘tumble’ of the tumbler pigeon is supposed to be a mild form of epilepsy perpetuated artificially by selection. It has been produced in an ordinary pigeon by pricking the base of the brain and giving hydrochloric acid and strychnine.”
Darwin cited tumbling pigeons as example of extreme inbreeding
Charles Darwin in 1859 cited tumbling pigeons as an extreme outcome of selective inbreeding to create a defect, exactly the opposite of natural evolution.
“No one would ever have thought of teaching, or probably could have taught, the tumbler-pigeon to tumble––an action which, as I have witnessed, is performed by young birds that have never seen a pigeon tumble,” Darwin wrote. “We may believe that one pigeon showed a slight tendency to this strange habit, and that long-continued selection of the best individuals in successive generations made tumblers what they now are. Near Glasgow (Scotland) there are house-tumblers, as I hear,” Darwin reported, “which cannot fly eighteen inches high without going head over heels.”
Darwin eventually learned that, “The origin of this queer defect can be traced back to the year 1599, when a monarch of India, named Akber Khan, a famous breeder of fancy pigeons, noticed that some of his birds cut capers in the air. They were small pigeons and scientists have guessed that this was their way of escaping birds of prey by sudden dodging.
“Dead Blue Roller”
“Akber Khan proceeded to breed them, and as he never moved his court without taking at least 20,000 pigeons with him, he had plenty of opportunity. He developed the Lotan, which if shaken would tumble head over heels backward for several minutes. Another, the Kalmi Lotan, would begin to tumble if touched lightly on the neck. Some of the birds became self-hypnotized and would continue turning back somersaults without food or rest, until they died of exhaustion.
“The Persians followed the fancy, and now there are several breeds of tumblers who breed true to form,” Darwin wrote.
Some pigeon fanciers have alleged that the painting “Dead Blue Roller,” by Albrecht Durer circa 1500-1512, shows an earlier origin for the roller pigeon fancy.
However, the bird in “Dead Blue Roller” is not a roller pigeon, but rather an entirely unrelated European songbird called a roller for the rolling behavior of flocks on the wing.
Operation High Roller
Throughout the 20th century, the roller, tumbler, and “parlor pigeon” fancies persisted in isolation and obscurity at the fringes of hobby pigeon flying, which centers on healthy racing pigeons. Among the few identifiable clusters of interest in rollers, tumblers, and “parlor pigeons” were some Australian gamblers and several 4H clubs clustered in Kansas and Nebraska.
In the early 21st century, however, inbreeding to produce deliberately crippled quasi-epileptic pigeons burst into visibility through Operation High Roller, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigation of the Northwest Roller Jockeys pigeon club.
The 14-month undercover operation eventually brought the convictions of at least 20 roller pigeon owners, seven in California, 11 in Oregon, and one each in Texas and Washington, for killing as many as 2,000 hawks and falcons per year to protect their flocks in flight.
Wrote Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Levi Pulkkinen, “Among the species killed were Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, all of which are protected by international treaty. One club member told undercover agents he had filled a 5-gallon bucket with talons cut from killed birds, according to a Department of Justice statement. Another told investigators he sprayed trapped hawks with a mixture of bleach and ammonia, creating a poisonous chlorine gas to kill the birds.
Pleaded to misdemeanors
“Northwest Roller Jockeys member Ivan Hanchett of Hillsboro, Oregon, told undercover agents he preferred to trap falcons, then suffocate them in garbage bags, according to court documents. Another club member, Portland resident Peter Kaufman, bragged to agents that he’d killed 30 hawks in little more than a month.
“Hanchett, Kaufman and eight others pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges,” Pulkkinen added. “All were fined or sentenced to community service.”
Portland U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty on October 11, 2007 fined Hanchett and Kaufman $2,000 apiece, ordered them each to pay $2,000 more to the Endangered Species Justice Fund, and barred them from any involvement with the roller pigeon fancy, hunting, and fishing during a year on probation, during which they were each to 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 attorneys, objected Audubon Society of Portland conservation director Bob Salinger.
National Birmingham Roller Club
Both Hanchett and Kaufman also “held positions in a national group called the National Birmingham Roller Club, according to court documents,” reported Michael Milstein of the Portland Oregonian.
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 NBRC.”
But four days before the statement went up, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced related criminal charges against additional defendants including National Birmingham Roller Club president Juan Navarro, then 44, of Los Angeles; Inner City Roller Club president Keith London, then 42, also of Los Angeles; and California Performance Roller Club past president Brian McCormick, then 40, of Norco, California.
Navarro was eventually fined $25,000. The other defendants, including Timothy Decker, then 60, of Mira Loma, were fined lesser amounts and assigned to do community service. Decker, despite the conviction, was in 2012 elected to the National Birmingham Roller Club Hall of Fame.
Roller pigeon fanciers, for example northern California blogger Jack Chambers, complain online to this day about “entrapment” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, allegedly on behalf of “radical conservation groups,” and about “winged demons” making it “more and more difficult to manage a successful breeding program” to perpetuate genetic defects which render the pigeons completely incapable of surviving in any natural setting.
The evolutionary role of hawks and falcons, like the role of any wild predator, includes culling prey species who might otherwise pass along such severely maladaptive traits.
This was a point that Charles Darwin himself could have explained.