I thought that the falcon wars were only being fought in the skies above Tasmania but I’ve learned that in Britain pigeon fanciers and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are locked in a battle of their own.
The wars centre on what I consider the greatest flying creature, the peregrine falcon, and its relentless hunt of prized racing pigeons.
Although peregrine falcons are protected in Tasmania, and are considered to do more good than harm with their pursuit of pest birds like starlings, they still raise the ire of many members of the local pigeon fancier fraternity.
The threat posed to the peregrine is so high in Tasmania that all known peregrine nesting sites are kept a closely guarded secret.
The peregrine falcon – the fastest creature on earth, reputed to reach speeds in excess of 300 km/h in its dive, or stoop – is also protected in Britain but recently a group calling itself the Raptor Alliance has launched a campaign to have the Wildlife Act of 1981 amended to allow for the trapping and relocation of the raptors if they threaten pigeon lofts.
The Raptor Alliance represent more than 42,000 pigeon fanciers in the United Kingdom where, as these numbers suggest, pigeon racing is a major sport.
The group complains that falcon and hawk numbers are increasing rapidly after years of decline and birds of prey are now responsible for “devastating attacks” on racing pigeons and pigeon lofts, killing up to 30 birds a month. The main killer is the peregrine, which sees pigeons as its natural prey.
The RSPB, however, has labelled the push to trap peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks as unscientific and says it flies in the face of conservation efforts.
Peregrine falcon numbers were decimated in Britain shortly after World War Two with the introduction of pesticides like DDT, which resulted in the deaths of not only falcons but hawks at the end of the food chain. Before this raptors suffered at the hands of game keepers, and in this regard they still do.
DDT – now banned in Britain – did not have as great an impact on peregrines in Tasmania as persecution at the hands of man, which is ongoing. At one time a bounty was offered for peregrine carcases.
Falcon expert and wildlife biologist Nick Mooney detailed the historic killing of peregrines in an article in Wildlife Australia magazine two years ago which makes shocking reading. He described how fanciers set steel-jawed traps around a wire cage containing a lure pigeon. They came back days, or weeks later, if ever. These traps also snared Tasmanian devils and quolls.
Mooney, though, was quick to point out not all pigeon fanciers were “ruthless”.
“I have met many who accept peregrines and other raptors are a fact of life despite the frustrations they cause,’’ he wrote. “Some fanciers had tried deterrents, like decoy flights or varying release points and times – anything to break up patterns which falcons take advantage of.”
In Britain, the RSPB also recommends pigeon fanciers be pro-active in positive ways. It suggests the fanciers alter race routes to avoid raptor hunting grounds, and hang up such things as old CDs around pigeon lofts to confuse and frighten off raptors.
As with all wars, the truth tends to be the first casualty. In Tasmania, the pigeon fanciers once spread the world that peregrines were not native to Australia, but released by the Imperial Japanese Army in the Northern Territory during WWII to kill messenger pigeons. This flies in the face of peregrine research in which mummified carcases at a Tasmanian nest site were carbon-dated back to 19,000 years ago – the oldest nest record of a bird anywhere.