Pigeon racers all aflutter about poultry ban lift

Last week, the Ohio Department of Agriculture lifted its temporary ban on poultry and bird exhibits – much to the delight of the state's 300 or so pigeon racers.

Homing pigeon enthusiasts were caught up in the ban that was aimed at preventing the spread of HPAI avian influenza into the state. 

Migrating waterfowl, especially Canada geese, carried the virus eastward from the Pacific Northwest about a year ago. Those wild animals didn't get sick. But laying hens and farm-raised turkeys were highly susceptible to the virus and died by the millions in Iowa, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Humans are not affected by the strain.

Although no cases of HPAI ever turned up in Ohio, they did in surrounding states. ODA officials saw  the threat posed to the state's bustling egg and poultry farms – home to about 50 million birds. 

Poultry shows at last summer's county and independent fairs, as well as the 2015 Ohio State Fair, were cancelled as a result of the ban. That drew considerable squawking from 4-H and FFA club members, as well as professional breeders, who were forced to keep their prized birds at home.

But the ban also meant enthusiasts who breed and race homing pigeons could not "co-mingle" birds or transport them out of state for long-distance competitions.

Members of Ohio's 26 recognized racing pigeon clubs were relegated to training their birds individually and in-state only, according to Madison County resident Steve Pronai, a member of the Buckeye Invitational club.

Pronai is a life-long pigeon racer. He said the sweeping ODA ban unfairly discriminated against homing pigeon hobbyists.

Karen Clifton, executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union, agreed. She argued pigeon metabolism is so rapid and body temperature so high, the birds cannot transmit or shed the deadly HPAI virus.

The union hired an expert to argue that assertion to Dr. Tony Forshey, Ohio's state veterinarian. Forshey apparently listened and agreed to lift the ban four months before it was due to expire in April. 

Pronai said Ohio was among the last states to lift a ban. And ODA's decision came just as the 2016 pigeon breeding season approached.

Although the World Organization for Animal Health declared the United States free of avian influenza in November, there's always a chance the disease will reappear once waterfowl migration begins in the spring.

That would mean re-instatement (and possible extension) of the ban and bad news for the homing pigeon clubs as they begin racing 1-year-old birds in May.

Ohio's homing pigeons pose a special problem because their spring and fall racing seasons coincide with North America's waterfowl migration periods, Hawkins observed.

Pronai explained racing procedures of Buckeye Invitational and its associated Ohio pigeon clubs. 

Birds that are at least one-year-old race in May and June; those younger than age one race in September and October, he said.

The spring season includes 10 races that range from 100 to 600 miles in length, with the average being 300 miles. Ohio owners transport birds to a designated starting point – generally in Kentucky, Tennessee or Georgia. 

Once freed from their starter cages, pigeons head for home coops where electronic "gates" precisely time their arrivals. The bird with the best flying time wins the race.

Categories: OhiBlogs, Ohio – Jane Beathard

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