by Elizabeth Young, founder, Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions
with afterword, How pigeon flying lost the way, by ANIMALS 24-7
Every day hundreds of domesticated pigeons are transported miles from their homes and “released” to try and fly back for human entertainment.
These domestic birds have no survival skills: no ability to find food or water or protect themselves from predators. Many don’t survive the ordeal. They get lost, injured, starved, or killed.
These highly intelligent, deeply emotional, gentle, loyal birds are used as if they are disposable.
“Used as if they are disposable”
The birds who are inevitably hurt and lost are not wanted by the people who use them. They make no effort to help or recover them.
Most of the birds die without ever getting any help. The birds suffer a lot and if they are lotto-winning-lucky enough to get help, it is thanks to the generosity of good Samaritans, shelters, and overwhelmed rescuers, not the owners.
I know because I am the founder and director of Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions. We have assisted thousands of these stray birds since we started rescuing in 2007. Our community is called upon every day to try and rescue these suffering birds. It is heartbreaking to see what they endure and maddening because it should not be happening.
“How is it legal?”
How is it legal? Is it legal? Does it not violate California Penal Code 597s against abandonment?
The law says it is illegal to purposefully abandon an animal. Another statute, Penal Code Section 597.1, criminalizes leaving animals without proper care and attention in any building, enclosure, lot, street, or other public place.
Pigeon racers transport and abandon thousands of pigeons for every event!
On Tuesday, June 13, Pigeon Appreciation Day 2023, I and some of my fellow rescuers, organized by Sindy Harris of SindysPigeonService.com, will be at the California State Capitol to demonstrate for enforcement of the laws against abandonment of these birds and to raise awareness about this cruelty. I am writing to invite your support and participation.
If you agree that domestic pigeons should not be transported miles from home and “released” with no means of survival for human entertainment, please join us in person or online as we demonstrate for pigeon protections in Sacramento on June 13. Please email Elizabeth@PigeonRescue.org or call 415 851-5948 with questions or to RSVP.
California leads the country in animal protection, but this deadly gap needs to be closed.
How pigeon flying lost the way
by ANIMALS 24-7
The propensity of pigeons to find their way back home from practically anywhere has been known to humans for at least 10,000 years, and figures prominently in most versions of the story of Noah:
The raven was sent out to search from land & never returned.
The dove, sent next, returned safely to the ark.
The use of homing pigeons to carry messages may go back at least that far. Though the evidence from pre-literate civilizations is scarce, a plausible case can be made that pigeons have been domesticated both as messengers and as poultry for longer than any other species except dogs: longer even than cats, sheep and goats, cattle and horses.
Pigeon racing probably evolved soon after the use of messenger pigeons. In simplest form, pigeon racing is just a matter of taking the pigeons somewhere and letting them go to do what pigeons naturally do. Training them is just a matter of accustoming them to find their way home over longer distances.
As recently as the mid-20th century, pigeon-flying was still closely related to the use of pigeons in communications, especially in wartime and disaster relief use.
Pigeon flying, though practiced abroad by royalty who wagered heavily on the outcomes, in the U.S. was still, and had always been, primarily a non-competitive working man’s pastime, brought to the U.S. mainly by European immigrants, shared with African-American and Asian immigrants, and practiced chiefly on the poor sides of towns.
Gambling sent ethics out the window
The prevailing ethic among pigeon flyers was rooted in the reality that a pigeon has to reach home safely in order to deliver a critically important message. Anything that exposed a pigeon to harm was accordingly to be avoided.
In recent decades, though, traditional attitudes about pigeon flying have flown out the window. Delivering messages successfully no longer matters; pigeon flying today is all about who gets a handful of pigeons from among a whole flock home first, regardless of what happens to the rest of the birds who are transported and released.
This is worlds different from the use of racing pigeons in World War II, when pigeons were last used primarily for communications.
After all, a B-17 or Lancaster bomber crew did not carry a whole flock of pigeons; it carried one, and if the plane was forced down, the lives of the crew might depend on that one pigeon getting home alive and well.
Pigeon flyers & cockfighters
Unfortunately, the introduction of high-stakes gambling on pigeon races and speculation in breeding stock in recent decades led to the pastime, once dominated by the same sorts of people as ham radio operators, having been largely taken over by animal exploiters not much different from cockfighters and dogfighters.
Cruelty may become involved in pigeon flying and pigeon racing in a variety of ways.
One is if the pigeon flyer becomes bored with pigeons and neglects them, for example by not releasing them daily for exercise flights, or not feeding and watering them properly. Neglect will swiftly ruin a racing flock, though; serious pigeon flyers take good care of their birds, if only to have a better chance of winning in competition.
The evolution of racing
The most common cruelty associated with pigeon flying is releasing the birds too far from home to return in one day, or to fly through bad weather.
Formerly, this sort of thing was almost always accidental. Most pigeon flyers were only casual and occasional competitive racers. No flyer liked to lose pigeons. Some racing events disqualified flyers from the competition if too many of their birds failed to return.
United Press International coverage of a catastrophic 1932 pigeon derby, in which more than 2,000 participants released more than 50,000 pigeons among them to fly home to lofts in England, tells much about the pastime as it then existed.
The race went well until the pigeons hit unexpectedly thick mist over the English Channel.
Pigeons “completely baffled”
“With visibility practically nil, the birds were completely baffled,” UPI recounted, “and their difficulties were increased by strong sunshine on the mist. Of the 50,000, only an infinitesimal few eventually found their way home,” UPI said. “Some fanciers, who had started as many as 30 pigeons, reported ‘not a feather returned.’
“The daily picture of beaches strewn with pitiful little feathered bodies tells the tragic story of how the baffled birds wandered over the English Channel and the North Sea until, despairing and exhausted, they fell into the sea and drowned.”
Headline news then, losing pigeons, even in very high numbers, is now considered just part of the cost of racing successfully.
Instead of competitive pigeon flyers releasing small flocks of around a dozen birds, with 30 being a remarkable number, many now release 60 to 200, incentivized by the prize money to be won legally, the betting money to be won illegally, and the absurdly high prices now paid for winning breeding pigeons.
Hawks prey on pigeons; racers prey on hawks
Some losses in pigeon flying and racing are inevitable, since hawks often prey on pigeons, but heavy losses in the days of working class amateurs flying mostly for the fun of it, not for big money, would at least cost a flyer respect among his peers.
In the old days, and today even more so, the most deliberate cruelty associated with pigeon flying, as opposed to casual indifference to the pigeons’ fate, is not to the pigeons themselves, but rather to suspected pigeon predators.
Members of roller pigeon flying clubs, in particular, have repeatedly been arrested and charged with killing large numbers of legally protected birds of prey, lest the birds of prey kill their pigeons.
(See Don’t know pigeons from bowling balls? Among pigeon rollers, you’ll fit right in.)
Pigeon flyers have also been caught shooting or trapping cats, raccoons, dogs, and any other predators suspected of raiding their coops.
Especially in the big money era, there can also be cruelty if one pigeon flyer tries to sabotage another’s flock, for example by drugging them. This occurs most often when pigeon flying is mixed with gambling, as in high stakes racing.
Pigeon flying & racing boom in China
Pigeon flying and even high-stakes pigeon racing has been in decline in the U.S. for decades, but interest in pigeon flying of all sorts soared in popularity in both Iran and China in the 1990s. Pigeon flying and racing had already been historically popular in both Iran and China, but participation rose perhaps as a consequence of increasing affluence among working people.
In China, though, the increase in pigeon flying soon fell under official suspicion.
Responding to H5N1 avian flu outbreaks, the China State General Administration of Sport in February 2004 suspended all training, races, exchanges, and sales of homing pigeons among China, Thailand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan.
The Beijing Homing Pigeon Association ordered more frequent disinfection and immediate clearance of excrement and feathers. The Shanghai Racing Pigeon Association grounded all 400,000 local homing pigeons owned by club members.. The Beijing association grounded more than a million pigeons.
More than 23,000 households in Beijing and 8,000 in Shanghai reportedly kept racing pigeons.
Nationally, the China Association of Carrier Pigeons claimed more than 300,000 members then, and currently claims more than 400,000, but there are indications that pigeon flying in China, as in the U.S. and Europe, is aging out.
Restrictions on pigeon racing imposed in Europe in response to H5N1 avian flu were meanwhile an economic “disaster,” reported Simon de Bruxelles of The Times of London, for pigeon racing clubs including the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, the British Barcelona Club, and the British International Continental Club.
“Membership [in the Royal Pigeon Racing Association] has been in gentle decline for years,” de Bruxelles said, “but has fallen by 6% per cent this year to 34,500.”
Organized opposition to pigeon flying or pigeon racing in the U.S. appears to have begun with enforcement of a Chicago ban on keeping pigeons as pets, the first in the U.S., now emulated in many other cities.
The ban was adopted in response to complaints from neighbors of the Greater Chicago Combine & Center pigeon racing club about “scattered feathers, excessive cooing and droppings,” according to Chicago Tribune staff reporter Charles Sheehan.
The 70-member club fought the ban, but in December 2005 lost in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
PETA: “Pigeon racing is inherently cruel”
Humane opposition to pigeon flying and racing, if any, was not strongly voiced at either the national or international level until March 2010, when People for Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] objected to an Animal Planet broadcast, Taking on Tyson, in which the former heavyweight boxing champion participated in pigeon racing.
“Pigeon racing is inherently cruel,” said PETA general counsel Jeffrey Kerr in a prepared statement. “The birds often end up lost in storms, being injured or just becoming so exhausted that they’re unable to fly.”
Courtroom win in South Africa
The first courtroom victory against pigeon racing for humane reasons came in South Africa, when the North Gauteng High Court on October 17, 2013 ruled in favor of the National Council of SPCAs against a 600-mile race from Matjiesfontein in Western Cape province to Pretoria, in Gauteng province.
“On October 18, 2013, the National SPCA ensured that the order was complied with and that no pigeons were liberated from Matjiesfontein,” spokesperson Christine Kuch told ANIMALS 24-7.
But the court order against that one particular race scarcely ended pigeon racing in South Africa.
The South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race began on February 3, 2018.
Reported the National SPCA of South Africa on February 8, 2018, “2,627 pigeons were liberated in the early morning in Colesburg and were expected to make their way back to their loft in Sasolburg,” 350 miles away, “but to date, only 1,569 pigeons have returned, which means that 40% are still missing.
“Over a thousand domesticated birds have been forced to fend for themselves in the wild for going on five days. We can only imagine how terrified and exhausted they must be assuming that they have survived this long. We cannot justify this amount of suffering in the name of sport,” said National SPCA inspector Jacques van der Merwe.
Despite that fiasco, the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race continued, albeit with steeply reduced participation.
Queen Elizabeth II
Boosting the race. the late Queen Elizabeth II, then 94, sent eight pigeons to compete in the 2020 edition, from among the royal flock of about 250 pigeons kept at Sandringham Palace.
The Queen and her predecessors had been patrons of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association since 1896.
The Queen’s pigeons died in quarantine soon after arrival in South Africa.
PETA, monitoring the event, found that only 44 of the 373 pigeons who started the 2020 South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race made their way home.
(See “Bloody hell!” Elizabeth II set poor example on hunting, but loved her dogs.)
Beginning of the end in Belgium
Belgium as recently as 2006, was “the center of the pigeon-breeding world, with prices for top racers reaching up to $200,000,” according to The Times of London.
But as of January 2011, reported Raf Casert of Associated Press, “From a quarter million pigeon fanciers half a century ago, there are 30,000 left in Belgium.”
“And they have an average age of about 70, so the decline will continue,” Casert was told by Belgian Pigeon Federation president Pierre De Rijst.
Indeed it did. The federation now has only about 18,000 members.
The beginning of the end for Belgian pigeon racing may have come in early August 2022, when approximately 40 participants reportedly released as many as 20,000 pigeons just ahead of a storm, losing 3,000 to 4,000 pigeons, leading to a messy round of public allegations among the clubs involved.
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing this very informative article with gratitude.
Tom Makowecki says
I can see that your thoughts are rather distorted and you would rather see the “death of an entire breed of pigeons”….so that they cannot be used and enjoyed by the thousands of fanciers who love their pigeons and take care of them better than many of the humans on earth. Yes, some are lost or are killed by predators, humans or bad luck that happens on their way home. The vast majority of wild/free birds meet with the exact same fate. Migrations of thousand of miles by wild birds is a much more dangerous journey than our well prepared athletes might encounter.
I am sure you want to put a stop to football, hockey and all other sports that might result in injury or even death. I am sure that stopping the World Olympics will be on your list in the future….
I would suggest you do something about the roads and highways that kill thousands of humans every year from accidents.
I do not know who made you Judge and Jury to decide what it right and wrong….but I suggest you study Mother Nature and learn from her….rather than attack things that have a place on this earth. Ps – I suspect that you would prefer to stop the slaughter of animals and birds that supply some of us with food. You would rather see them ALL GO EXTINCT, destroyed at one time, because humans can no longer use them as a food source……Lord knows that chickens, turkeys, cattle and sheep are not common choices for PETS…
Merritt Clifton says
Tom Makowecki, above, of TMak Racing Pigeons in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, failed both to identify his own involvement in pigeon racing and to specify whether his comments are directed at guest columnist Elizabeth Young of Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions, or at the ANIMALS 24-7 editorial team, whose historical analysis “How pigeon flying lost the way” followed Young’s column.
Young’s role and perspective and ours differ somewhat, though perhaps not greatly. Several decades ago, before pigeon flying degenerated into the ruthless gambling pursuit it is today, ANIMALS 24-7 unsuccessfully recommended that making acquaintance with inner city pigeon flyers might be one way for the mainstream humane community to restore the once strong links that the humane movement had with the African-American community, before the humane sector ironically but determinedly segregated itself early in the integration era.
Unfortunately, the generations of African-American pigeon flyers we knew and had in mind died out around the same time that boxer and ear-biter Mike Tyson emerged as the most prominent pigeon flyer of the present era.
Meanwhile, had Makowecki done even a cursory investigation of his many inane claims, he would know the fundamental difference between breeds, which are manufactured by human intervention, and species, created by evolution. Makowecki would understand that human athletes compete of their own volition, and that there is no sport, even orienteering, in which ANIMALS 24-7 has participated, in which athletes are dumped hundreds of miles from home in unfamiliar territory to find their own way back.
Makowecki would also know that throughout our more than a century, combined, of nature observation and reporting, we have paid particular attention to roadkill prevention; see 28 ways to avoid hitting animals that may save your life too!, frequently updated and widely distributed by electronic, print, and broadcast media for more than 30 years.
Finally, for what it’s worth, the editors of ANIMALS 24-7 have had chickens, turkeys, cattle and sheep as pets at various times, along with ducks, goats, donkeys, and horses. They have long been among our friends. We do not either eat our friends or abandon them in the boondocks.
My dad had pigeons as a kid, early 20th century, when it was still a normal hobby. I didn’t realize how it had changed. That’s depressing. It seems as if so many animal hobbies, from dog breeding to pigeon racing, have become commercialized into a form where normal (ie, non-hobbyist) people feel uncomfortable with how the animals are treated.
But I distrust the idea that pigeon-keeping/racing needs to be ended. That’s the humane world’s answer to all forms of animal abuse and cruelty – just get rid of the whole thing, end the sport or hobby because it’s become corrupt.
The problem is, I don’t think that ultimately protects animals. It very effectively destroys human/animal relationships by placing the animals beyond human “contamination,” but the cost is too high. People need contact with animals, and companion animals benefit from contact with people.
Apart from the need of humans to be with animals, the animals overall benefit from people *understanding* animals – which is something we don’t do if we have no contact with them.
Look at the people playing Russian roulette with dangerous shelter dogs. At this point, many of them have no idea what normal dogs act like because all they’ve seen are deeply abnormal dogs.
Look at how completely alien horses are to most people now; horses are as exotic as jaguars to most people. It’s likely a factor in the slow inability of the racing situation to fix itself – people know enough to recoil from Eight Belles collapsing to the track, but not enough to know what to demand government do to regulate the industry.
Laurella Desborough says
I find the opinions of this person, Elizabeth Young of Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions, to be plainly disgusting as well as ignorant. As a person who kept and raised pigeons as a teenager, who kept and flew racing pigeons without ever losing ANY of them, I find the comments on this oipinion to be outrageous. I note there wasn’t ONE MENTION of the fact that racing homing pigeons SAVED OUR MILITARY during wartime, both in WWII and in mountainous regions in Asia well after WWII. Racing pigeons are not the same as other pigeons…they are designed to be able to find their way home UNLESS they happen to fly over some nuclear facility (like the one in Colorado where if racing pigeons fly over it their ability to return home is damaged!!!). Most individuals who keep and breed pigeons of any kind HAPPEN TO LIKE THEM or they would not be bothered keeping them and caring for them. Pigeons are wonderful birds and most everyone who keeps them, of whatever breeds, happens to like them a lot. Right now I just learned of a special breed of MINIATURE pigeons…which is remarkable. Those who are so ANTI PIGEON might benefit by reading the huge book, The Pigeon, and learn more about these marvelous birds. As for that Elizabeth person, she is clearly an animal rights ideologue IMO who remains IGNORANT if she thinks racing pigeons are being abandoned. They do return home. I never lost ONE bird even on 500 mile flights. They love flying!!! I like birds and animals. I think it is shameful that ignorant people keep trying to remove birds and animals from humans using ABUSE as the reason. If they want to focus on abuse, there is plenty of that to be found towards human children, towards women, towards people of color, towards people of other sex/genders.
Merritt Clifton says
As is often the case, Laurella, your observations and recollections from 70-odd years ago are completely out of touch with present reality. When you were a pigeon-racing teenager, pigeon racing was still chiefly about communications, but as our afterword “How pigeon flying lost the way” explains, those days are very long gone. World War II ended 78 years ago, & any use of pigeons in communications ended more than 20 years ago with the advent of cell telephones.
Pigeon racing today is dominated by gambling thugs, who visibly don’t care how many birds they lose, so long as one of their birds gets home first. Elizabeth Young, as probably the senior & most experienced pigeon rescuer in the United States, rehabilitates those victims she and others find alive. You are unlikely to find anyone who loves & cares for pigeons more.