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One of the things that can make a hike of camping trip really special is being out in the open countryside and observing birds of prey circling high in the sky or watching them hovering against the breeze before diving earthwards hoping to catch some lunch. Some eighteen months ago we published an interview with John Loder about the RSPB Birds of Prey Campaign. This on-going campaign is highlight the threat to bird of prey populations caused illegal persecution, pollution and habitat loss. Many people are outraged by the situation and over 200,000 signed a petition calling upon the government to take action.

Birds of Prey versus Racing Pigeons

One group of people who are not so keen to conserve birds of prey are pigeon racers. One comment posted following our interview referred to a Daily Mirror article about a report by the Royal Racing Pigeons Association. The report suggested that 270,000 pigeons and songbirds were killed by birds of prey. The RSPB responded, referring to a report by the Government’s UK Raptor Working Group, which states that only 14% of pigeons fail to return to their lofts due to predation by birds of prey. This was disputed in a comment by pigeon racer Michael Penn and also in a new comment by Adam Gatt. Since Adam has written a fairly detailed response we have decided to publish it as a new blog post, please see below.

Essentially, Adam suggests that although many of the racing pigeons do not get caught by birds or prey, many of them are chased by birds of prey. He goes on to explain how the stress of the chase causes the pigeon to fail to return to the loft for other reasons that are listed in the UK Raptor Working Group report. Indeed, the report does state that research into the causes of racing pigeon-straying should be carried out. It also suggests research into using deterrents around lofts and on pigeons, as well as timing and selecting racing routes that would minimise predation between birds of prey and pigeons. We have contacted the RSPB to find out if any research into pigeon straying has been carried out since the report was published in 2000. They have referred us to their report entitled Racing Pigeons and Birds of Prey. This document includes a discussion about routing races away from areas where Peregrine Falcons are prevalent and training pigeons away from wooded areas to reduce the possibility of attacks by Sparrowhawks. It also mentions that more research needs to be done into determining the effectiveness of various methods that detract Sparrowhawks from attacking pigeons around their lofts.

Birds of Prey versus other Prey Species

Adam is also concerned that Bird of Prey breeding programs may be adversely affecting the ratio of predators to prey, leading to a domino effect where prey are wiped out, followed by predator. He suggests that if the birds of prey were not eating racing pigeons then they would be eating other wildlife.

The UK Raptor Group reported that there is no scientific evidence that birds of prey have affected population levels of British songbirds and that the effect of modern agriculture is more likely to have been the major cause of songbird declines in the UK. They have recommended continued monitoring of the situation.

A Possible Solution to Racing Pigeon Predation?

On the subject of conserving predator species, BBC Nature Editor Matt Walker has recently reported on the conservation success of India’s Gir Lion. The key to this success story has been is the increase in numbers of their prey animals that the Gir Lion eats. This has led to reduced predation of livestock and therefore reduced conflict between predators and farmers. The parallel that can be drawn here is that the pigeon racing community could well benefit from participating in conservation of species that birds of prey eat as a means to reduce predation of racing pigeons.

Comment on Birds of Prey and Racing Pigeons by Adam Gatt

I’m a pigeon flier from Australia. I’d just like to comment that those figures ‘may’ be accurate for the UK (I doubt it), but unfortunately it isn’t the case in the land down under.

What this study fails to consider is that even though raptors may not actually catch and eat a pigeon, it does not exclude them from being the cause of their death.

* straying and exhaustion accounted for 36% of losses

Birds, just like humans become increasingly exhausted the more exercise they do, and the longer they go without food. Being chased by a bird of prey puts a tremendous amount of stress on a pigeon. Ask any pigeon fancier how their birds react after being singled out by a falcon whilst loft training – I’m sure plenty will tell you that:

a) The pigeon went berserk and fled the scene at enormous speeds, not returning home until many hours later, sometimes not until the day after. Flying at high speeds, under high stress levels, in the wrong direction from home usually leads to a pigeon not having enough daylight to make it home from a race once they’ve calmed down and got back on track considering this happens whilst loft flying.

b) They’ve landed somewhere for cover and won’t move for hours, sometimes until the next morning because of how scared/stressed they are. Sitting in a tree somewhere for hours under extreme stress levels can take more out of a pigeon than flying for those said amount of hours.

These are the reasons why pigeons ‘usually’ stray into other lofts. Obviously some do it due to incompetence, but that is only a small minority. If unimpeded, a pigeon will find its way home.

The actual encounter with a bird of prey is what leads pigeons to straying into other lofts. Scared out of their wits, they don’t have enough hours of light left to make it home after they’ve stopped for hours or flew in panic in the wrong direction. This leads to them getting desperate and straying somewhere for feed and shelter, or ‘sleeping out’ which produces:

* predation by mammals, including domestic cats ­ 8%

Whilst flying, a pigeon isn’t vulnerable to mammals or cats. They only are as a result of landing or sleeping outside of their loft, usually due to the result of an encounter with a bird of prey (as explained above). There is also the minute chance that the fancier hasn’t correctly built their loft to stop cats and mammals getting into the loft, however I’d say this would be a very, very slim contributor to this 8%.

The next points of the study:

* collisions with solid objects like buildings and windows ­ 19%
* collisions with overhead wires ­ 15%

When pigeons loft fly or race, excusing the first two or so minutes until they gain altitude, none of these are really vulnerabilities. They only become vulnerabilities when a pigeon is flying for it’s life to escape a predator. Pigeons commonly fly straight into trees, bushes, buildings, etc to escape knowing that a falcon most likely won’t risk flying and manoeuvring at the speeds they do in open air. Once again, ask any pigeon fancier what their birds commonly do to escape from falcons. If the pigeon isn’t able to get the upper hand and gain altitude, they’ll head straight for cover.

Many fanciers birds will perish from wounds or injuries gained while trying to escape a falcon. It could be due to the severity of the wound itself, or because the injury has left them in a state which they cannot continue to fly to return home. Getting injured and being unable to fly properly or at all makes them vulnerable to mammals and cats (as above). Whether these injuries are from collisions with buildings, wires, or actual injuries sustained from the bird of preys talons – even though the bird of prey doesn’t actually catch and eat the pigeon – it is still responsible for the death of it.

So, I am just wondering, how did the UK Raptor Working Group exactly perform these calculations and under what conditions? Realistically, the only way I see their results being accurate are from a 600+ mile race where only the best of the best pigeons will usually make it home before dark.

If they want a true representation of the causes of racing pigeon losses, they need to consider what I have pointed out above, and perform their research over an entire racing season (including all race distances, even the short ones!).

Again, being from Australia I don’t know how it was over there in the UK, but in the 70s, 80s and early 90s before the intensive protection, breeding and rehabilitation programs for birds of prey (ESPECIALLY the Peregrine Falcon in Australia), racing bird losses were minimal. No matter the weather, the distance, the route – the majority of birds would return home. I am talking about going through seasons starting with 100 birds, and finishing off with 75+ all the while loosing about 10 to falcons loft flying.

The tables have turned in the last decade though; return results are getting worse and worse as time goes by. The Australian landscape hasn’t changed. Pigeon genetics and homing instincts could not have evolved so much in such a short time span to make a significant difference. There is only one changing factor – and that is the number of birds of prey. It can’t just be pure co-incidence can it?

The government body in Australia that is concerned with the welfare and sustainability of Australian wildlife is the RSPCA. It is understood here in Australia by the RSPCA and animal lovers, that pigeon racing should be shut down as it is seen in their eyes as animal cruelty.

The only reason the RSPCA still lets us race in Australia though, is because our birds are the only answer to minimise the effect birds of prey are having on Australia natural wildlife. With racing pigeons off the menu, avian wildlife populations would be wiped out all across Australia. It is already happening already in the state of NSW even though some birds of prey are making sustainable diets on racing pigeons alone. What would these birds of prey resort to if there were no racing pigeons to eat? Wildlife.

This whole issue needs to be looked at from a broad approach, in a general way. Not as pigeon vs bird of prey. But as predator vs prey. If a predator has no predators of his own, he will run riot provided there is always something to prey on.

The number of predators is increasing each and every year. This in turn has its effect on the numbers of prey, causing it to decline.

What this all boils down to is, do we wait and continue protecting these ‘precious’ birds of prey, eventually loosing every single species that they prey on. Or, do we do something to control their numbers now to ensure that they AND all of the species they prey on have a long and sustainable future. The first option will only lead into loosing both the birds of prey and their prey, as they will eventually have eaten their way into not having anything left to prey on. Adam Gatt.

RSPCA Australia

We have contacted the Australian RSPCA who have replied to say that they are an animal welfare charity and not a government body.

Their position on racing pigeons includes advocating regulation of racing pigeon competitions to prevent races from being held over excessive distances, in adverse weather conditions or over unsuitable terrain.

They have suggested contacting the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities: http://www.environment.gov.au/index.html for information about wildlife, conservation and the environment. We have done this, but as yet we have not received a reply.

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