Birds in the News

Those Pigeons Wearing Cowboy Hats? They're No Laughing Matter.

While the internet got a kick out of the latest meme, Mariah Hillman rushed to the scene to save the birds from danger or even death.

Update, December 17, 3:38 p.m.: Within 30 minutes of publication, Hillman caught a previously unidentified third pigeon, nicknamed “Billie the Pidge.” She was wearing a red hat, and is injured: She is dehydrated and has stringfoot, a condition caused by string, hair, plastic, or other debris wrapped around a pigeon’s foot. “She’s not in the best shape,” Hillman says. She’s on her way to the rescue.

Las Vegas has been a sea of cowboy hats the past two weeks for the National Finals Rodeo, but not all of them are being worn voluntarily. Last week, a Facebook video captured by resident Bobby Lee that showed a pair of city pigeons "wearing" plastic cowboys hats went viral online and generated widespread media coverage, including by the New York Times. In the choppy video, Lee can be heard exclaiming, “the birds have hats on, bro,” and the internet was generally delighted by the yeehaw pidgies.

But Mariah Hillman, a Las Vegas-based pigeon rescuer who runs Lofty Hopes, was not amused. Where others saw humor, she saw suffering. She quickly messaged Lee, who's her friend and a fellow animal-rights activist, to demand the pigeons' location. She then jumped in her car with her daughter and two grandkids to find them. The pigeons were not at the location of the video, so undeterred, she spent the day driving all over the neighborhood while handing out business cards to anyone she saw sitting near pigeons. “If you see pigeons in hats, we’ll come down and trap them,” she told them.

Hillman is determined to remove those hats and help the pigeons, which she’s certain are in some distress. They are wild animals with hunks of plastic glued to their heads, after all. And while the video may have been an amusing internet meme, the reality of the pigeons’ survival is no laughing matter. Though much of last week's media coverage justified the birds' involuntary outfitting because they appeared to be walking and feeding okay, the wide brims of the plastic hats obstruct their vision while the strong glue used to attach the plastic disturbs their skin and feathers. Both factors put the pigeons in danger of harm and even death.

I first learned of Hillman's efforts on Instagram, and gave her a call first thing Monday morning to hear how things were going. When she picked up the phone, she was sitting behind a dumpster in the parking lot of a condo building where she had spent the past several days on a stake-out. Six days ago she first tracked Cluck Norris, the name that's been given to the male pigeon wearing a bright red hat, to this location. Soon after, the other pigeon, dubbed Coolamity Jane, joined him; she's a female with speckled wings and a faded pink hat. “Neighbors have seen hats on these pigeons for a month,” Hillman says. “If they’ve really been on that long, that’s some serious glue.” She’s also heard reports of a pigeon in a blue hat, and another in a brown one, though neither have been confirmed.

Once she discovered the location, Hillman needed to find a way to trap the birds. As word of her efforts got out, a local cat trapper dropped off a sizable drop trap. On Sunday, she got permission to place the trap on the roof of the flock’s preferred condo. She put food in the trap, and then she waited, unable to leave her post:  After the trap closed, she needed to be on hand to immediately remove the pigeon, lest it injure itself. If she did capture a bird, she planned to bring it to her house—Lofty Hopes HQ—and try to remove the plastic object.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Lofty Hopes - Pigeon Positive (@loftyhopespigeonpositive) on

Hillman has observed the birds trying to remove the hats themselves. Cluck Norris has been scratching at the hat and trying to shake it from his head, she says. “He’s constantly trying to groom himself and get it off.” Coolamity Jane’s hat has loose feathers stuck to it, pulled out or worn off by the glue. Hillman worries that the hats make the birds more vulnerable to predators. “With a hat on their head, they’ll be the last ones to see a hawk coming from above,” she says. The fact that she’s spotted hawks in the area two days this week has only increased her concern. 

The hats may be small, but they have an outsize effect on pigeon vision. The species has 340-degree peripheral vision, says Rita McMahon, director of New York City’s Wild Bird Fund, which treats around 3,000 pigeons every year. “That’s huge, much more than we see,” she says. The birds have “exceedingly sharp” binocular-like focus directly in front of their faces, and throughout the rest of their peripheral vision, they react strongly to movement, which they instinctually investigate. (That’s why waving or moving objects like mylar tape are such an effective pigeon deterrent, McMahon says.)

The small plastic hats likely reduce their vision by half, McMahon suspects, limiting their peripheral vision to 190 degrees and making them sitting doves for a predator from above. The brim probably also impedes a quick escape by pushing off the ground and flying straight up since the birds can’t see where they’re going. Coolamity Jane, who appears to have been wearing her hat for longer, has adapted to the situation somewhat, Hillman says. She relies on her flock; when they fly away, she follows them. “She’s one of the last to fly away, so she’ll be the first to get eaten,” Hillman says. “That makes it dangerous for her.”

Suddenly, Hillman interrupts our phone conversation: “There she is!” Hillman exclaims. “Coolamity is here! She’s sitting on the roof looking at me.” We hung up, and I immediately trained my eyes on the Lofty Hopes Instagram feed, impatiently waiting for updates. It didn’t take long: By Monday afternoon, Cluck Norris had not only also shown up, but he had been successfully captured and brought to Hillman's home.

She's been rescuing pigeons for a little over a year. It started with a friend who needed help caring for a baby pigeon; at the time, Hillman had no knowledge or experience. After receiving training from a local vet on how to crop feed and rear the young bird, her friend brought over two more, and then five more baby pigeons. “They ended up piled up on my table, and then the table got overrun,” Hillman says. “Before I knew it, we had pigeons in every single room.” Now her house is full of donated dog kennels for housing the birds, and four donated aviaries sit in her backyard. She’s rescued several hundred pigeons in the last year. “I knew that animal rescue was what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know it was going to be pigeons,” Hillman says. She adopts the animals out, and has developed relationships with animal sanctuaries outside of the city for rescued birds that have grown too accustomed to humans for wild release.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Lofty Hopes - Pigeon Positive (@loftyhopespigeonpositive) on Neither Hillman or McMahon have ever seen anything like this before. Hillman has taken in pigeons with darts through their heads or that have been burned on purpose—but never with hats. At Wild Bird Fund, McMahon has seen pigeons covered in paint, as well as rabbits or chickens dyed unusual colors for Easter. “It’s hard for the bird to function when something like that happens to them,” McMahon says. “We do question the humanity or the consideration that went in before choosing to attach those hats.” <Can possibly lose this graf if need be.> 

When she got Cluck Norris home, she confirmed that his hat was glued on, and glued on very close to his eye. “We were able to lift the back of his hat and see that underneath looks bald,” she wrote in an Instagram post last night. She’s been using a non-toxic solvent to try and remove it, and this morning dropped him off at the vet. If they can’t find a way to remove the glue, Cluck might have to wait to molt the hat off naturally.

As far as Hillman can tell, these birds have been fed in this location for a long time, and she suspects that whoever is doing the feeding also trapped the birds and glued the plastic objects to their heads. “The rodeo is in town, so they probably thought it would be funny,” she says. “They probably didn’t realize that it could be harmful. A lot of people do things not realizing the outcome.”

And a lot of people probably laughed at the video and photos of the pigeons wearing cowboy hats for the same reason: They just didn't know better. It also probably didn’t help that the birds are pigeons—sometimes considered pests, and certainly considered too numerous and not exotic enough to worry about. To McMahon, that’s the most troubling part of the story: that these “charismatic creatures” with “such personalities” were laughed at so unquestionably.

“If we open our eye to the pigeon and see its great diversity and its ability to adapt, its intelligence, its good parenting, all these noble things it does,” McMahon says, “we will connect better to all of nature.”

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