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Michael Markarian Headshot

Legislation to Ensure Bird Killers Become Jailbirds

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It was one of the most shocking and sickening scourges of bird-related crime since Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. A 14-month undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's law enforcement division revealed that thousands of peregrine falcons, Cooper's hawks, and red-tailed hawks were deliberately killed in California, Oregon, and Washington. The culprits were members of "roller pigeon clubs" -- enthusiasts of domestic pigeons specially bred for their seizure-like ability to do rapid backward somersaults while flying. To protect their aerial acrobats from any chance encounter with a predator, these callous club members killed the protected birds of prey by shooting, trapping, poisoning, clubbing, baiting birds into glass panels, and even baiting birds with pigeons rigged with fishing hooks.

Peregrine Falcon credit H20 Alchemist/CreativeCommonsSearch
Thousands of birds have been tortured and killed 
in California, Oregon and Washington.

Ted Williams cataloged in Audubon Magazine some of the particularly ghastly and gleeful quotes from roller pigeon club members bragging about killing the birds. One individual told an undercover agent that after he catches hawks, at the rate of about one per week, he "pummels them with a stick" and that it is a "great thing... you'll see, you get a lot of frustration out." Another advised: "Just put some draino liquid on some of your weaker birds and let them take them and bye bye baby. Make sure you rub it on the back of their necks."

Four of the peregrine falcons had hatched from eggs that had been rescued by the Audubon Society of Portland from a bridge under construction. The fledglings were raised with great care until they could be released into the wild on the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. A roller pigeon fan shot them across the street from the refuge, and then recounted the tale: "I laughed and laughed when I heard this story because of all the pain staking measures they took to get these birds to adolescence and than to have someone take them out simply was bliss!!"

Despite the premeditated and rampant nature of these illegal killings, the men involved were sentenced with modest fines, community service, and probation. Unlike the raptors themselves, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act simply has no teeth. Convicted bird killers routinely escape with little more than a slap on the wrist, since the federal penalty for killing a protected bird is only a Class B misdemeanor. You face the same penalty for killing a falcon or hawk as you would for the unauthorized use of the Forest Service's "Woodsy Owl" and "Smokey Bear" characters.

As we have seen with dogfighters and cockfighters, people who intentionally break the law will not be deterred by anemic penalties, which they consider simply the cost of doing business. It's only now that all 50 states have felony penalties for dogfighting, 39 states have felony penalties for cockfighting, and we have a strong national policy making animal fighting a federal felony, that we have begun to see a major dismantling of organized animal fighting rings. (The cockfighters, too, are repeat offenders when it comes to killing migratory birds. They leave fighting roosters tied up outside in yards, and use "catch poles" mounted with steel-jawed leghold traps and baited with meat to kill hawks, eagles, and owls who descend toward the gamefowl.)

In response to this problem, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has introduced H.R. 2062, the Migratory Bird Treaty Penalty and Enforcement Act, which would provide a much-needed upgrade to one of the nation's most important conservation laws. The bill would give federal prosecutors the option of pursuing felony-level penalties for the intentional killing of raptors, and would finally provide a meaningful deterrent of prison time and hefty fines.

"Like the recent horrific practice of dog fighting and the subsequent congressional response, it is time that Congress act to give the federal government expanded authority to prosecute and punish violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects raptors and birds of prey like the peregrine falcon," said DeFazio. "Even the most egregious violations have resulting in nothing more than slaps on the wrist."

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed nearly a century ago, with the goal of protecting the winged creatures in our skies from needless killing. By passing Rep. DeFazio's important conservation and anti-crime legislation, Congress can now make sure the law has teeth--and the bird killers become jailbirds.

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