Lost pigeon puts animal welfare in the spotlight

It was a political storm in a birdcage.

On Boxing Day an exhausted pigeon landed in the birdbath of a Melbourne home. When its leg band showed it was a racing pigeon from America, it was duly dubbed Joe (as in Biden).

The pigeon that landed in Kevin Celli-Bird’s yard was thought to have flown from the US, but was then found to be local. Credit:Justin McManus

Then acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack appeared on television grimly threatening Joe with “consequences” to protect our nation’s biosecurity. Social media, the Animal Justice Party and even Victoria’s Health Minister pleaded for Joe’s life. After all, millions of migratory birds visit every year. Then joy! Joe won a reprieve because his leg band turned out to be fake.

But there was something incongruous about the nation’s top official publicly waging war against … a pigeon. And clearly it pays to check the facts before poking the bear on animal welfare.

This tale is topical because Victoria’s Premier is currently considering a possible duck shooting season for autumn. Opponents have long pointed to the power imbalance between a man with a shotgun and a little airborne duck. Shotguns are designed to stack the odds against the birds: a single blast sprays hundreds of steel pellets skywards so that a wing or body part can easily be struck. (A single-shot rifle would miss a small moving target.)

Premier Dan Andrews is currently considering a possible duck shooting season for autumn.Credit:Jason South

Perhaps Premier Andrews senses the incongruity of this recreation that pits a man against a bird. Former premier Henry Bolte was a proud duck shooter, but you won’t find Dan Andrews down at the swamp. He rarely mentions duck shooting publicly but he never cancels a season – drought, fires and declining duck populations notwithstanding. Perhaps wishing to soften the optics, Andrews has made a practice of appointing women to the ministry that handles duck shooting. Each of the three most recent in the role has been a first-time minister, unlikely to kick over the traces.

It’s a fact that for some men, the annual shoot is a highlight of their year. Former Shooters Party MP Daniel Young described duck season as his “Christmas”. Some say important father-son bonding occurs during their duck season “tradition”. One wonders how fathers and sons are faring interstate, because WA, NSW, Queensland and the ACT banned duck shooting years ago due to community concerns about cruelty.

WA, NSW, Queensland and the ACT banned duck shooting years ago.

This week, country Victoria is getting a birds-eye view of that cruelty. A new television commercial from a group known as Regional Victorians Opposed to Duck Shooting focuses on a stricken duck limping ashore with a broken wing, no longer able to fly. Media images from the season opening usually show dead ducks. But life is hell for the crippled ducks that drown, starve or die slowly from their injuries.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on ducks and their habitat. Breeding has stalled for years. Despite rain, numbers are down almost a quarter (23 per cent) on our previous drought-addled year. Only two in every thousand Victorians shoot ducks. Facts are important when making wildlife decisions. And as Joe’s story reveals, most Australians will side with defenceless little birds rather than tough-talking politicians.

Jo Wilkinson is a freelance writer.

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