Australia: hope for condemned pigeon after leg band deemed fake

Bird was to be destroyed as biosecurity risk because of tag identifying it as American

A racing pigeon sits on a rooftop Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Melbourne, Australia, The racing pigeon, first spotted in late Dec. 2020, appears to have made an extraordinary 13,000-kilometer (8,000-mile) Pacific Ocean crossing from the United States to Australia. Experts suspect the pigeon named Joe, after the U.S. president-elect, hitched a ride on a cargo ship to cross the Pacific. (Kevin Celli-Bird via AP)

A pigeon that Australia declared a biosecurity risk may get a reprieve after a US bird organisation declared its identifying leg band is fake.

The band suggested the bird found in a Melbourne backyard on December 26 was a racing pigeon that had left the US state of Oregon, 3,000 kilometres away, two months earlier.

On that basis, Australian authorities on Thursday said they considered the bird a disease risk and planned to kill it.

But Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the Oklahoma-based American Racing Pigeon Union, said the band was fake.

The band number belongs to a blue bar pigeon in the United States and that is not the bird pictured in Australia, she said.

“The bird band in Australia is counterfeit and not traceable,” Ms Roberts said. “It definitely has a home in Australia and not the US.

“Somebody needs to look at that band and then understand that the bird is not from the US. They do not need to kill him.”

A tag is seen on the leg of "Joe", a pigeon that reached Australia from the U.S., in Melbourne, Australia, January 15, 2021, in this still image taken from video. A Melbourne resident Kevin Celli-Bird found the emaciated pigeon in his garden on Boxing Day and discovered that it was registered to an owner in Alabama state in the United States, by tracing the tag on its leg. Nine Network/via REUTERS TV   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. AUSTRALIA OUT. NEW ZEALAND OUT. PAPUA NEW GUINEA OUT. NO USE AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND, PAPUA NEW GUINEA-BASED INTERNET SITES, MOBILE PLATFORMS OR SITES OF MEDIA ORGANISATIONS BASED IN THOSE COUNTRIES, NVO CLIENTS/ SMH.COM.AU/NEWS.COM.AU

Counterfeit bird bands are “happening more and more”, Ms Roberts said. “People coming into the hobby unknowingly buy that.”

Pigeon racing is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and some birds have become quite valuable. A Chinese pigeon racing fan paid a record €1.6 million ($1.9m) in November for a Belgian-bred pigeon.

Acting Australian Prime Minister Michael McCormack said he did not know what the fate of the bird, named Joe after the US president-elect, would be. But there would no mercy if the pigeon were from the United States.

"If Joe has come in a way that has not met our strict biosecurity measures, then bad luck Joe, either fly home or face the consequences," Mr McCormack said.

Melbourne resident Kevin Celli-Bird, who found the emaciated bird in his backyard, was surprised by the development and pleased that the bird he had named Joe might not be destroyed.

"Yeah, I'm happy about that," he said, referring to news that Joe is probably not a biosecurity threat.

Mr Celli-Bird had contacted the American Racing Pigeon Union to find the bird's owner based on the number on the leg band. The bands have a number and a symbol, but Mr Celli-Bird did not remember the symbol and said he could no longer catch the bird since it had recovered from its initial weakness.

The bird with the genuine leg band disappeared from a 560-kilometre race in Oregon on October 29, Crooked River Challenge owner Lucan Cramer said.

That bird did not have a racing record that would make it valuable enough to steal its identity, he said.

“That bird didn’t finish the race series, it didn’t make any money and so it's worthless, really,” Mr Cramer said.

He said it was possible a pigeon could cross the Pacific on a ship from Oregon to Australia.

“It does happen. We get birds in the United States that come from Japan,” Mr Cramer said. “In reality, it could potentially happen, but this isn’t the same pigeon. It’s not even a racing pigeon.”

The bird spends every day in Mr Celli-Bird's backyard, sometimes with a native dove on a pergola. He has been feeding it pigeon food since a few days of its arrival. “I think that he just decided that since I’ve given him some food and he’s got a spot to drink, that’s home,” he said.

Lars Scott, a carer at Pigeon Rescue Melbourne, a bird welfare group, said pigeons with American leg bans were not uncommon around the city. A number of Melbourne breeders bought them online and used them for their own record-keeping, Mr Scott said.

Australian quarantine authorities are notoriously strict. In 2015, the government threatened to euthanise two Yorkshire terriers, Pistol and Boo, after they were smuggled into the country by Hollywood star Johnny Depp and his wife at the time, Amber Heard.

Faced with a 50-hour deadline to leave Australia, the dogs made it out on a chartered jet.