Pigeons are ordinary Joes, common five-eights, the hoi polloi of the heavens.
Falcons are blue-bloods, grandees, aristocrats of the ether. This is the perspective in which to see the contretemps between the pigeon fanciers of the North and fans of the falcon.
Conservationist groups — so admirable in other matters— are determined to uphold the “endangered” status of the falcon — giving the raptors carte blanche to inflict more mayhem on the imperilled pigeon population.
One local newspaper reported on Monday that the carnage in Derry skies has reached such proportions that the gullies of St Eugene’s Cathedral spire have become choked with the discarded remnants of the pigeon dead, causing overflows which funnel into the pipes of the church’s magnificent organ.
The falcon is, in its way, impressive. The most common, the peregrine, found everywhere apart from Antarctica, is relatively small — about the size of a crow — but is the animal kingdom’s most ruthless killer.
The falcon is the swiftest of all animals, capable of diving with deadly accuracy, its wings folded aerodynamically back, at speeds up to 250 mph. Its hooked beak and dagger talons make formidable weapons. It can rip a pigeon’s back open or slice off its head before bearing the carcass back to its lair. A fluffy clump of pigeon feathers frequently indicates a peregrine prowling nearby.
It may look noble on the leathered arm of an Arab sheikh, but the falcon is not a nice bird.
Neither is it endangered. A few decades ago, there was genuine concern about the falcon’s future. Overuse of pesticides, especially DDT, had infected the birds and small mammals falcons fed on. As the poison built up in the predator’s system, its egg-shells became thin and brittle. Fewer and fewer survived. But a ban on DDT and the energetic implementation of conservation laws eliminated the danger. The falcon is now thriving. And pigeons are paying the price.
Flocks of homers flapping to their lofts present a beak-watering prospect. The east coast of Ireland is a popular racing course. Birds liberated in, for example, Wexford, make their mysterious, unerring way back towards Loughview, Ballymoney, Belfast, Derry. Except that many never reach their home coops.
On crags and cliffs along the coast, killer falcons wait to take off and soar into the skies as the oblivious pigeon masses approach, then plunge and plunge again, killing and scattering the panicked birds, many of whom, utterly disorientated, flee in terror before flustering down to their deaths in disarray. Thousands are lost every year.
We are so used to the swirl of pigeons around us it’s difficult to imagine them endangered. But the fate of the passenger holds out a warning. Once, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant fowl in the firmament.
The Scottish-American radical poet and pioneering ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, estimated one flock he observed in 1811 at over two billion. In 1871, a single breeding US colony contained at least a hundred million. Yet, the last passenger had perished by 1914. We shouldn’t take pigeons for granted.
Famous pigeon fanciers have included: Roy Rogers; Queen Elizabeth II; Elvis Presley; Mike Tyson (specialised in Flights Rollers and Clean Leg Tumblers); Yul Bryner (mainly Oriental Rollers); Charles Darwin (showed that all pigeons are descended from the Columba livia); Walt Disney (family lofts still hold a number of Belgian Pletinckx); former German Chancellor Willi Brandt; Marvellous Marvin Hagler; Michael Landon (intriguingly, produced and starred in the Where Pigeons Go to Die); celebrity stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (favoured Fantails); Lee Marvin; Monet; Picasso (named his daughter Paloma — Spanish for pigeon); Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; Jimmy Smits (opened the National Pigeon Association convention last year); The Sultan of Jahore; Alexander Alexandrovich Romanova III; Samuel Pepys; and Suliman the Magnificent ... We could go on and on.
Fictional pigeon people include Terry Molloy (Brando’s character in On The Waterfront), Andy Capp, Jack Duckworth and Noah.
Hundreds of thousands of pigeons served in the Confidential Pigeon Service during World War Two. Thirty-two won medals. The Nazis had squadrons of falcons stationed on the French coast to thwart them. A Black Check cock called Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre in the First World War. The Paris communards communicated with the outside world by pigeon post.
Pigeon racing is the oldest sport in the world — mentioned in Chinese scripts circa 3,000 BC. Last year, the Royal Society for the Protection of (elite) Birds held talks with the Ulster Federation of Racing Pigeons. The pigeon people proved entirely reasonable. Which availed them not at all. The killing continues. It is difficult to disagree with the veteran Foyle Road fancier who told the Telegraph on Tuesday that, “Sooner or later it will come to a cull”. What reason can there be for the protection of falcons as they slaughter pigeons at will — and even threaten the rich musical heritage of a Catholic cathedral? What reason other that the status of the species and of the sorts who esteem them?
The relevant regulations are set out in the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which gives the Department of Environment power to remove protection from birds which don’t need it.
What we deal with here is class struggle in the skies. Hard to predict what way Sammy Wilson will lurch. But the question, as always in such matters, remains — which side are we on? Cull a falcon and save a thousand homers.