Jailbirds: pigeons in the criminal underworld

Pigeons get a bad rap. They are universally known as “flying rats”, pecking pests that will not only shit bomb your brand-new Toyota with toxic droppings but also carry out Top Gun style flybys when you’re running for the 6.15 to Paddington. Much like the Vietcong, their audacity and fearlessness know no bounds and so, like Colonel Kurtz´s ragtag army, the local London boroughs root them out and look in to a systematic program of search and destroy.


In 2015, British councils attempted to pass a law against feeding pigeons in public spaces, as a way of segregating the urban bird and human populations. Why was this?  A belief that pigeons can coerce humans into doing their bidding by using behavioural patterns and audial signals to affect their brain chemistry? What if there was something more to these so-called rats with wings? Forget wings, what if pigeons are in fact ´rats´ in the mafia sense? The all-seeing beady-eyed overseers of the human world. Stick with me here.


Pigeons’ intelligence has been promoted by the eminent Bath-based expert Doctor Jean Hansell who penned the book “The Pigeon in the Wider World,” a sort of pigeon fancier´s version of The Joy of Sex. They are one of the few winged creatures that can identify themselves in the mirror, and can even differentiate letters in the alphabet, as well as recognising photographs of their human masters. In 1995 Japanese researchers trained them to become art critics, to tell the difference between Monet and Picasso, and between cubism and impressionism. However, interspecies discrimination clearly looms large in the London art world, as we are yet to see significant pigeons attendances at Sotheby’s, and therefore must suspect some entrenched anti-avian bias.


Pigeons are, on the other hand, entering the murky world of organised international crime with some gusto. Rogue ‘gangs’ of the feathery felons have been known to smuggle drugs and mobile phones into prisons in Brazil and Argentina in return for maize grains, mineral water, and safe mating grounds. There have been reports from Iraq of pigeons acting as intermediary communication officers for the Kurdish YPG. There are, furthermore, rumours that the birds regularly deliver ransom notes for kidnap gangs working in and around the area.


Government agencies believe their ability to adapt successfully to criminal life stems from genetic conditioning; thousands of years of navigating urban jungles twinned with the savviness required to survive a world of electrified ledges and rooftop glue traps. And that’s not even to mention the countryside, in which they are hunted by hawks and humans alike. It’s pure Darwinism. A species honed by life in the inhospitable cities and farmlands tends to fare well in the criminal underworld.


All this, however, is to omit some of the more outlandish pigeon pursuits. For which we might look to Birmingham, for starters, where the “Birmingham Rollers” make a living racing and performing in underground show circuits, exhibiting acrobatics and death-defying stunts. Some of them have gone further afield and joined up with an organisation collectively known as “The Persian Highflying Tumblers”. There, the pigeons take part in endurance and aerobatic somersaulting displays in Iran, the circuit lucrative but often deadly. From here (if we assume it is the same flight-hardened pigeon aces) the more talented racing pigeons graduate to racing in Chinese leagues, taking part in the famous “Chinese Cup” and “Iron Eagle Four”, tournaments in which the birds take on a 350 Mile gruelling free flight endurance race across China. So popular are these races that in 2014 a native businessman paid $300,000 for a competitor. However, the races are not without risk, and in scenes reminiscent of the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Running Man, many of the birds get lost in the smog screen of Beijing and are never seen again or else are caught, marinated and deep fried in the city of Peking duck.


From the world of racing, some select birds will graduate into espionage and ´pigeon-for-hire´ contracting. In 2007 Chinese scientists began experiments on willing pigeons, flying them out to GPS coordinates with tiny cameras implanted into their chests. The birds avoid the kind of detection that Satellites or drones would incur, and therefore find themselves in high demand. In 2015 a pigeon was arrested in India, and accused of spying for Pakistani intelligence agencies when indecipherable Urdu markings were discovered on its wings.


And if a pigeon survives into their twilight years? Then then Russian millionaire Viktor Kharlashin, along with a team of highly trained ornithologists, runs a retirement home where they can live out their years in relative luxury, doted on by the millionaire. 5000 pigeons are currently residents of the facility, it is, however, unclear if Viktor Kharlashin keeps the birds out of pleasure or has been clandestinely coerced into doing so by the pigeons themselves.

Author: Anthony Bain

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