ESPN doesn't cover it, thank God, so you may not even know it exists here, but pigeon racing is a deadly "sporting" pastime. PETA recently released the findings of our undercover investigations in both the U.S. and the U.K., where our investigators documented massive mortality rates for birds before, during and after races and dirty little practices like "widowhood," which exploits the loving and faithful nature of these gentle birds. More on that in a minute.
It may surprise you to learn that hundreds of thousands of pigeons are tossed into the air even when storms are predicted along their flight paths and racers know full well that they are sending lots of them to their deaths. The birds, many of whom are mothers, distraught to have left their mates, eggs or chicks behind, must fly vast distances to return to their nests and loved ones. In many cases, they simply don't make it back. Pigeons perish in storms and from exhaustion, disorientation, predation, collisions with power lines and drowning as they try, against all odds, to make it back home.
The death toll in these races is grim. Out of nearly 2,300 baby birds shipped to the Phoenix area (from across the U.S. and abroad) for training for the 2011 American Racing Pigeon Union Convention Race, only 827 survived to race day. Of those, only 487 birds had completed the 325-mile race by nightfall. During one race in Queens, only four out of 213 birds ever returned.
Countless others simply starve. Raised in cages, birds can't just fly off to join wild flocks. They don't know how to cope outside the coop. They are ill equipped to find alien food sources or to evade predators.
The Bronx is home to the largest pigeon racing organization in the U.S., and the carnage is considerable. In two documented races, a mere 45 out of a combined total of 982 birds returned to their lofts while 937 did not, a survival rate of only 5 percent.
Make no mistake: This club does not comprise half a dozen retirees with rooftop coops. They are organized and connected. A long-time executive vice president of the American Racing Pigeon Union is a retired New York City police detective, who feels confident in waving aside real evidence of wrongdoing.
Races revolve around illegal gambling: entry fees, betting pools, and "loft" auctions. The Oklahoma City district attorney has just charged three race organizers there -- including the executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union -- with felony commercial gambling and conspiracy to violate the state's anti-commercial gambling act.
Pigeons are smart and personable birds. Harvard psychologists determined that pigeons can identify people not only by how they look but also how they behave, and Brown University researchers found that pigeons can quite easily learn to recognize each of the 26 letters of the English alphabet.
Pigeons are also models of fidelity. They mate for life, and both parents are devoted to and take turns in caring for their young. The "widowhood" technique that I mentioned earlier exploits pigeons' nurturing qualities by separating birds from their mates, eggs and nestlings so that they will race back to their family with every ounce of strength they can muster.
PETA's investigators found thousands of pigeons crammed into filthy cages and documented rampant killing ("culling") of unwanted racing pigeons at the end of the season. One racer told PETA's investigators that the first thing you have to learn in pigeon racing is how to kill pigeons. Here's how it's done: These gentle birds are commonly killed by drowning them in a bucket, pulling their heads off or squeezing their breasts so tightly that they suffocate. PETA's undercover video shows one man clumsily killing a pigeon with his bare hands. He leaves the bird, her wings still flapping, to die slowly, bleeding and suffocating. A pigeon's natural lifespan is 20 years, but in pigeon racing only a very few make it to the age of 4.
Sitting on a park bench and watching pigeons coo and strut is one of life's simple pleasures. These lovely birds deserve respect and to be left in peace. Pigeon racing is a low and dirty -- and, I believe, often criminal -- "sport."