Friday, 4 January 2013

Pigeons versus peregrines

From time to time, racing pigeon owners call for a cull of birds of prey to "protect" their own birds. Some have even taken matters into their own hands and illegally killed Peregrine Falcons.

Although it may be easy to blame a bird of prey when one of your pigeons fails to return to its loft, it seems that raptors actually account for only a small proportion of lost pigeons. Research cited in a 2000 report by the government-backed UK Raptor Working Group (on which pigeon racing interests were well represented) suggests two main reasons for racing pigeons failing to return to their lofts. It seems that at least 40 per cent of lost birds die through exhaustion or collision (with overhead wires, buildings, road vehicles, etc) and a similar proportion remain alive but either get hopelessly lost or choose to join a feral population. There is even some evidence that increasing numbers of pigeons are going astray because mobile phone towers interfere with their navigation, which depends of the earth’s magnetic field.

Evidence also suggests that most racing pigeons that succumb to raptors are already lost to their owners before they meet their end. One study of pigeon leg-rings retrieved from Peregrine nests concluded that more than 70 per cent of the victims had either gone feral well before being killed or were so far from their race flightpaths that they would never have returned to their owners anyway. 

Pigeon fanciers also tend to blame raptors for the disappearance of birds exercising near their lofts. But the evidence for this is slim. It appears that many pigeons, particularly young ones, simply decide to move on elsewhere. And those that are killed locally are more likely to be victims of the UK’s biggest slayer of birds — the domestic cat. 

Just look at the figures: we have about 7.5 million pet moggies and a further million feral cats. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that cats annually kill around 55 million birds. In contrast, the UK’s latest estimated breeding population of Peregrines is just 1,402 pairs. So, if pigeon fanciers wish to protect their investments, shouldn’t they be calling for a cull of cats rather than of birds of prey?

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