Thursday, June 23, 2011

CSI Cazadora: The mystery of the fallen pigeons

I was SO enjoying my hikes at the lake this year, but they just haven't been the same since I saw a rattlesnake slither by just three feet from where I squatted off-trail, watching a sick hen turkey, back in April.

Oh, I've been back to the lake, but being forced to stick to the trails to avoid unplanned encounters with snakes has taken the joy out of it for me. So I've started walking around my neighborhood for exercise.

I actually love walking a neighborhood, because you see stuff that's just a blur when you drive by. I know all the dogs, all the cats, where I'm most likely to see a peacock on a roof (seriously) and where the pigeons ... die.

I made that little discovery when I decided to add a four-block stretch on a really busy street to extend my range a little bit. The very first time I walked it, I found two dead pigeons next to the sidewalk.

Now, don't worry, I'm not going to get all maudlin about it. But I'm actually pretty fond of pigeons. Not only do I like hunting and eating them, but I really enjoy watching them.

As our resident vegan here, Ingrid, has pointed out, pigeons are pretty damned intelligent, and have quite a social structure. I particularly like watching the games they play over their favorite urban intersections: swirling bouts of aerobatic follow-the-leader, and "bump your buddy," where one bird gets up, moves to another spot on a power line, and another bird on that line has to get up, move and displace another pigeon, and so on, until I get a green light and return my attention to the road.

So when I came across two carcasses on the ground, I was a little sad. Such a waste - two birds had died for probably no good reason. I hate the idea of accidental or negligent killing - I think there should be a purpose for taking a life.

But what was it that had killed these birds?

I picked up both of them (because honey badger don't care about germs) to check them out.

Any bands? Nope. Not part of anyone's flock.

Any blood? Nope. Not hit by cars.

Any disease? They looked to be in perfectly good health, except for the unfortunate fact that they were dead.

So, I looked up. High-voltage power line. And it was covered with pigeons.

Had they been electrocuted?

I started emailing back and forth with Ingrid about it. When I found a third bird on the ground under those lines a few days later, his still-living buddies hanging out overhead, I decided to call SMUD, our local power company, to let them know pigeons might be dying on their power lines. The guy I talked to was really nice and he said they'd send someone out. I didn't get my hopes up.

I kept taking my walks, kept walking by the corpses in various states of decay, kept seeing the rest of the flock swirling overhead.

Then one day, I found a fourth bird - so freshly dead that the ants had just found it, and it wasn't even in rigor yet. Hmmmm. Pre-rigor mortis. Fresh! Should I take it home and eat it? I love me some pigeon...

Then I looked up and noticed that there weren't any more pigeons hanging out overhead. Hmmmm. Four dead pigeons. Flock gone. Maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to handle them...

So I asked Ingrid about pigeon diseases. She recommended some local wildlife care folks I could talk to, and they took my report, but said they didn't know of any local disease issues. Then I called the county agriculture department and went through the same process. No known disease issues.

Ingrid got back to me and pointed out that electrocution usually makes birds look fried, and these birds didn't.

Then, freshly inspired by the arrival of my dad's air rifle, it occurred to me that someone could be taking potshots at pigeons on the power lines from their back yard. Air rifles are pretty quiet - no one would know. Pigeons present a large target at short range. And face it, aside from saps like me, most people just don't care if someone offs pigeons for kicks.

Interesting theory, but I really wasn't excited about picking up a bunch of dead birds and plucking them to look for entry wounds.

Meanwhile, I kept walking that route. And I totally stopped seeing live pigeons there. I even took a detour to pass by a nearby big intersection that's a favorite of pigeons', and saw only a few where I'd usually see two dozen. Something was up...

Or was it just my imagination? During my childhood I loved nothing better than seeing slightly out-of-the-ordinary happenings and infusing them with all sorts of mystery.

Maybe the pigeons were getting electrocuted, and after the fourth one went down, his remaining pals decided this was a lousy place to hang out.

I thought back to a conversation Hank and I had had during duck season about how long birds remember where bad things happen. In that context, the question was how long would it take for them to forget where hunters lay in waiting for them?

Three days was the number he'd heard. Perhaps the birds would return?

Sure enough, when I took my walk this Tuesday, I saw one pigeon perched on the power line over that spot. When I took my walk on Wednesday, I saw half a dozen on the line. Either these were new pigeons taking advantage of a seemingly good hangout, or the old flock had returned, deaths forgotten.

I guess the only question now is how long it'll be before another one falls.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Very curious, Holly. I assume you'll keep us posted...

Murphyfish said...

They say "stranger things happen at sea" (don't ask me who 'they' are), but I have to admit that I'm intrigued by this, keep us informed Holly.

The Hunter's Wife said...

I think you should take one home and investigate. Wear rubber gloves.

Mike at The Big Stick said...

My grandparents had a similar problem with Purple Martins at the end of their driveway one year. They found over a dozen dead in short order. Turned out to be the power line (covering had worn through).

Hil said...

Mad props for working the honey badger reference in there.

Richard Mellott said...

There is another possibility: avian flu or Nile Virus. Both kill birds, but they're usually crows in SoCal. You are one tough cookie, though, and would probably survive an encounter with a bear, much less a virus.

Josh said...

You should contact Mosquito and Vector Control to get the birds tested for West Nile Virus - even though pigeons do not as frequently succumb to the virus.

My first bet would be on the power line, and my second bet would be on poisoning. This flock is eating somewhere else, and if they aren't getting fried on the lines, they are most likely getting sick from the same place, and since they are dying at what appears to be a high rate, it looks like poisoning.

Bill T. said...

Very interesting thinking and investigative reporting Holly... it also made for interesting reading... Keep up the good work! Bill

NorCal Cazadora said...

Tovar and Murphyfish: Yes, as soon as I get back from Portland, where Hank and I are headed today for the next stop on his Culinary Mayhem Book Tour.

Hunter's Wife: How about I just take gloves and probe for shotholes right there on the roadside? Not eager about bringing home possible disease.

Mike: That's still my best guess. Ingrid pointed out that they have to touch two live spots at once to get electrocuted, and there are so many criss-crossing wires that it's possible.

Hil: Thank you! I was pretty excited about that too. LOVE that video.

Richard and Josh: Both the wildlife rescue and the county ag department dismissed West Nile as highly unlikely, and I tend to agree - there'd be some corvids on the ground if that were coming through again. I thought about avian influenza too, but they just didn't seem concerned.

Josh: Yep, I thought of poison too, though I would expect to see their carcasses in a bigger area if that's the case. But yeah, I know people can be really liberal with their poisons - grrrr!

Bill T: Thank you. It was a little weird writing a story with an unsatisfying ending, but sometimes ya gotta run with it. (And Lord knows I haven't been hunting lately, so I don't have THAT to write about!)

hodgeman said...

Interesting... high voltage electrocution requires a path to ground, either a ground conductor or the actual ground. Very unlikely that any exposed HV conductor is close enough to a ground conductor for a pigeon to touch both at once. Touching two live ones? Again unlikely and would probably pop the transformer overload causing an outtage.

Also- high voltage electrocution is rather messy, probably obvious without much investigation on your part.

I'd think something else is getting these guys.

Keep us posted!

Simon (QB Doctor) said...

Holly, I've been out of the loop for a few weeks since I posted a commment on gender stereo-typing. I just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed catching up on your thoughts :-)

Some really superb, stimulating writing - thank you.

(Also really pleased to here you got yourself an airgun - here in the UK hunting with airguns is much more accessible than hunting with other kinds of firearm and, I think, requires far superior field craft - and if you're a fan of carcases without lots of holes/shot then it is the way forward)


Simon said...

Having shot a few pigeons with an airgun (and I use .177, not.22) I'm having difficulty imagining that the trauma wouldn't be evident if the bird had been taken cleanly whilst perching on the wires - & if it hadn't been a shot precisely placed in a kill zone (sorry vegans) then the bird wouldn't have fallen below its perch but would have flown away to perhaps die elsewhere. My money is on electrocution.


Simon (QB Doctor) said...

I should add that those pigeons were shot lawfully under UK pest control laws.


NorCal Cazadora said...

Hodgeman: I will probably never find out :-(.

Simon: Welcome back, and thanks! I also figured I'd see damage from a pellet gun, but sometimes I've killed ducks and not seen any sign they were shot until I plucked them, so who knows!

Josh said...

People actually specifically poison pigeons, that's why I mentioned it.

As for West Nile Virus: it's here, and it's prevalent every summer (which is why our unique magpie species is in dire straits). They probably dismissed it because pigeons almost never die from the disease.

NorCal Cazadora said...

We've only recently gotten a strong magpie population back in our neighborhood - they ALL died when West Nile first came through.

On poisoning, what are the odds that so many birds would bite the dust while sitting on that power line? Methinks that would have to be some fast-acting poison...

SimplyOutdoors said...

I'm really curious, and honestly wish the mystery could be solved. I'm very intrigued now, as to what is really causing their deaths.

And it's crazy how the cycle goes; I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before another one falls.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I've been out of town, but I'm going to squeeze in a walk sometime today and see if the body count has grown. :-(

Ingrid said...

On poisoning, what are the odds that so many birds would bite the dust while sitting on that power line? Methinks that would have to be some fast-acting poison...

Pigeons have a strong homing instinct when they find a roost they like. If it's poison, they could be feeding at a regular spot where the poison is being administered, going "home" and either not making it up to the wire to roost, or taking ill a considerable time after returning to their perch. That's if it is a poison. Obviously, no one knows in this case.

Avicides can be slow or fast acting and various metabolic/feeding issues determine how effective they are and how long it takes to kill the bird.

If you see the animals before a poison actually kills them, the signs become more clear. Here, a necropsy might be the only way the only way to know for sure -- unless you find entry wounds, abrasions or injury markings of any kind.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks for chiming in, Ingrid. I can't tell you how much I've appreciated all your help on this one.

HTTrainer said...

I've rarely seen birds or squirrels for that matter zapped by power lines. The air gun sounds most likely.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I walked by yesterday, and while there were no more dead pigeons, I did notice that all of them had fallen next to one particular piece of property. I'm thinking about leaving a note on the door asking them to call me if they shoot more so I can at least eat them instead of letting them go to the ants.