Feral Pigeon Columba livia (domest.), close up in flight, The Wirral, UK

Racing pigeons and birds of prey

Predation by birds of prey accounts for only a small proportion of losses of racing pigeons.

Racing pigeons and birds of prey

Some pigeon fanciers are concerned that the increase in the numbers of birds of prey, particularly peregrines and sparrowhawks, is posing a significant threat to their hobby.

Peregrines and sparrowhawks will kill racing pigeons and can cause injury or disruption to flocks.

However, three independent studies into the reasons why racing pigeons fail to return to lofts concluded that, while the proportion of pigeons lost to birds of prey can vary according to region, the numbers are small compared to other causes. An estimated 86 per cent of the pigeons lost each year fail to return for reasons other than predation by birds of prey.

Pigeons fail to return to their lofts for a variety of reasons. A UK wide study by the Government's UK Raptor Working Group found:

  • Straying and exhaustion accounted for 36 per cent of losses.
  • Collisions with solid objects like buildings and windows – 19 per cent of losses. 
  • Collisions with overhead wires – 15 per cent of losses.
  • Predation by birds of prey – 14 per cent of losses.
  • Shooting, entanglement in netting, poisoning and oiling – 8 per cent of losses.
  • Predation by mammals, including domestic cats – 8 per cent of losses.

An average loft in the UK houses 73 racing pigeons – the research indicates that a typical owner will lose 38 pigeons each year. Of these, just over five would be killed by sparrowhawks and peregrines while 14 will have strayed, gone feral or died of starvation and exhaustion, seven will have died in a collision, six will have hit overhead wires, three will have been shot, poisoned or oiled and three will have been eaten by a mammal.

Straying accounts for the highest losses in racing pigeons and more needs to be done to understand the causes for this. Of those pigeons that were taken by birds of prey, a significant number of them had already strayed from their lofts and become feral before they were killed.

As predation by birds of prey accounts for only a small proportion of losses of racing pigeons, killing them would have little impact on the numbers of pigeons lost overall but could threaten populations of peregrines and sparrowhawks.

Conservation groups and the government are concerned because illegal killing of some birds of prey limits their population and distribution. In some parts of the UK, there is strong evidence that peregrines are routinely poisoned and their nests destroyed.

The UK Raptor Working Group recommended that greater effort should go into seeking ways to reduce straying and to reduce the vulnerability of pigeons to predators. Significant benefits could be gained if pigeon fanciers considered some moderate changes to the timing of the racing season and the time they train their birds (to avoid the start of the peregrines' breeding season).

Various deterrents are also available for use around lofts in order to reduce bird of prey predation. There have been few trials on the effect of these and their use should be investigated further with the results disseminated widely amongst the pigeon racing community. These approaches are likely to be much more effective at reducing racing pigeon losses than the killing of birds of prey.