One of Australia’s most contentious scandals, a saga so weighty that acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack called a press conference on the matter, is over: Joe the pigeon will escape the guillotine. Transpacific avian war with the United States has been averted. Peace wins.
Our story starts on Boxing Day when an alleged human man who lives in Melbourne named Kevin Celli-Bird discovered a tired-looking pigeon with a leg band in his backyard. Rather than do what any American I know besides Barry Petchesky would do (say “Huh,” and forget about the bird), he and his pals checked the information on its leg band. The pigeon’s identification matched up with a bird registered in Alabama that had gone missing from a pigeon race in Oregon two months earlier, so naturally, Celli-Bird and his mates named it after the incoming U.S. president.
Unfortunately, things took a dark turn once Celli-Bird alerted local authorities. As an island, Australia has a notoriously fragile ecosystem, and invasive species or even familiar species carrying unfamiliar diseases or bacteria represent a potentially serious threat to Australian wildlife and agriculture (see landmark High Court case Bart v. Australia). Joe could have made the 8,000-mile journey across the Pacific by hitching a ride on a freighter, as birds and other species are known to do from time to time. Australia’s Agriculture Department issued a statement warning that the bird “poses a direct biosecurity risk to Australian bird life and our poultry industry,” and they asked Celli-Bird to “catch” Joe. Once he told them Joe was healthier and uncatchable, they reportedly started the process of hiring a professional bird “catcher.”
McCormack was more direct. “If Joe has come in a way that has not met out strict biosecurity measures, then bad luck, Joe. Either fly home or face the consequences,” he said. Certain liquidation awaited Joe if the authorities got their hands on him. The Australian state has threatened more famous animals with euthanasia before. Joe would have been, briefly, forced to run for his life (not that he knew it, since he is a bird).
But instead, thanks to today’s shocking turn of events, Joe can remain in Celli-Bird’s backyard, where he’s reportedly become friends with a dove.
Investigations by pigeon racing authorities on both sides of the ocean yielded welcome and intriguingly seedy conclusions: Joe’s leg band was counterfeit. A Melbourne pigeon rescue group ID’d the band as false, and the American Union of Racing Pigeons announced that Joe was a different breed of pigeon than the one that went missing in Oregon. The still-missing bird, according to the guy who organized the race, was not worth stealing. “That bird didn’t finish the race series, it didn’t make any money and so its worthless, really,” Lucas Cramer told the Associated Press. Rude, but let’s stay focused on what matters: Joe will live.
Perhaps hinting at why such a thing as a counterfeit band might even exist, the racing pigeon trade can be quite lucrative, with one bird fetching $1.9 million last year. As of 2019, there were between 90,000 and 100,000 pigeon breeders in Beijing alone, and the sport has become increasingly popular among China’s upper classes. (Australian authorities have reported cases of birds hitching rides on Chinese cargo ships, a much shorter journey.)
As for Joe? He seems to have taken to Celli-Bird’s yard. “I think that he just decided that since I’ve given him some food and he’s got a spot to drink, that’s home,” he said. “If he chooses to leave, he can; if it stays, we’ll just keep feeding him.”