Although not actually wildlife, lost racing pigeons are the cause of thousands of calls to wildlife rescues each year, so an issue which needs to be covered here. After years of picking up the pieces we are not a fans of the “sport” of racing pigeons. Essentially you are releasing domesticated animals into the wild and taking a gamble on whether they can survive long enough to make it home.
If you wish to read more on our experiences and thoughts on pigeon racing you can do so here, but otherwise read on for advice on what to do if you find a lost one.
When to rescue
If the bird has been caught by a cat or dog
Any bird which has been bitten by a cat, regardless of its age or species, will need rescue and treatment. There are bacteria on cat’s teeth which will pass into the bird’s bloodstream when it is bitten. Without antibiotics within a few hours of the attack the bird may develop fatal septicaemia. Any bird caught by a dog should be properly assessed for injuries.
If the bird is obviously injured
If you can see a wound, or a wing or leg is obviously damaged then the bird needs help. Survival is unlikely with an injury unless the bird received treatment.
A bird has been hit by a car
The bird may just be stunned but it should be checked by a vet or rescue for injuries.
A ringed bird is acting ‘tame’ and not avoiding people
If the bird is in danger or behaving tame, it will need immediate rescue. Often the birds are sufficiently exhausted and/or tame to be captured quite easily.
You can find a wildlife rescue in your area by putting your location into the search facility on our map page.
When to take other action
If the bird is on its own but still flying
If the bird is on its own but still loose and able to fly, it may be that the best you can do is provide food and water for a few days and hope that the bird recovers sufficient strength to continue its journey. If the bird doesn’t fly away, looks unwell or injured or is in danger, then it will need to be rescued. See advice on capturing below.
When to leave alone
A ringed bird which is integrated into a wild flock
If you happen to see a ringed bird as part of a wild flock, and the bird appears fully integrated into the flock, looks in good condition and isn’t injured or unwell, you can leave well enough alone. Some racing pigeons are lucky and sensible enough to join a wild flock and, in this scenario, they learn wild behaviour from the flock and usually go on to have a normal wild life.
If the bird is approachable, you can simply pick it up safely. Using a towel can help ease both the physical and mental stress on the bird. Hold the wings against the body to avoid the bird flapping and to make it feel more secure. Many birds feel more comfortable if their feet are supported when possible.
If the bird is mobile or can still fly you can try to tempt it into a shed, garage or other roofed area to make capture easier. A trail of food may work. You could also try setting a simple trap – see our infographic on the right.
Place the bird in a large, sturdy cardboard box or cat carrier. If using a cardboard box, ensure the lid is secured to prevent escape and make sure to provide air holes. Place the box somewhere warm and quiet and keep children and pets away. Please minimise your contact with the bird as much as possible to avoid stress.
If the bird has been caught by a cat, then you must seek urgent help. The bird will need to be given antibiotics within a few hours of being bitten or it may develop fatal septicaemia. Some wildlife rescues are available 24/7 for this sort of emergency and we try to give some indication of availability on our listings. You could also contact local vets – although they will not have facilities for the long-term care of the bird, they may be willing to provide a one-off dose of antibiotics. Some may even do so free or at a much-reduced price.
Do NOT attempt to feed the bird without first seeking expert advice. Never attempt to force feed water to a bird as it is very easy to drown them and never offer cow’s milk, worms or alcohol. If the bird is wet, shocked or weakened supplementary heat can be very helpful. You can put a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel at one end of the box, either inside, underneath or next to the box, ensuring the bird can get away from the heat if it wants to. If the bird begins to pant, remove the heat source immediately.
NB: this advice is designed to cover the first couple of hours or overnight. If you are not able to get the animal to a wildlife rescue promptly, please at least speak to someone by phone for further advice about care beyond this period. If you want to care for the casualty yourself rather than taking it to a rescue, please read the information here.
If/when the bird is contained your options are as follows
1) Provide the bird with a few days bed and board and then release it to find its way home
We would advise against this not least because there may be a good reason why the bird has failed to find its way home, such as a health issue or simply a lack of fitness which has not been rectified by a short rest. Releasing an unfit bird could be a breach of the Animal Welfare Act. The bird could have a long journey home and will have to evade predators, power lines, poor weather etc en route. Even under ideal circumstances many racing pigeons don’t make it home and these would be far from ideal circumstances, not least because the bird won’t have its flock of loft mates flying alongside as it would in a race.
2) Contact the birds “owner”
You may find that their details are stamped on the underside of the wing. If not, take note of the numbers on the ring on the bird’s leg and you will then be able to report the bird to the relevant pigeon racing group. They usually say they will contact you back within 48 hours, not including weekends, so you’ll need to be prepared to feed and house the bird in the meantime. However, we strongly advise that, on speaking to the owner, you check what will happen to the bird on its return. Our experience is that the usual response from the owner is that they do not want the bird and it will be culled as it has failed so be sure to check this won’t happen. You may be asked to let the bird go after a few days rest to find its own way home. We would advise against this for the reasons given above. We recommend that you insist the owner either pays for a courier or collects the bird in person, both to ensure the bird arrives safely and because this is a good way to ensure the owner really does want the bird back and won’t simply wring its neck.
3) Seek sanctuary for the bird
You may, like us, feel that pigeon racing is a cruel past time and feel reluctant to return the bird to a place where it will again be released to potentially become lost, exhausted or injured again, or perhaps worse. Our article on the ethics of pigeon racing here explains our objections to the sport. Perhaps after being advised that the bird will be culled, you may decide not to return the bird to its owner or gain permission from them to rehome it. You can then either seek permanent sanctuary for the bird with an animal rescue or seek a wildlife rescue that will rehabilitate the bird so that it can join the wild flocks. This takes time – it is not simply a case of releasing them so please do not just let the bird go. But some racing pigeons can regain their wild instincts with expert intervention. Not all wildlife rescues wish to get involved to this degree or have the facilities to do so, so you may need to ring round a bit. Sometimes domestic animal charities, especially those with facilities for pet birds, are the best bet for somewhere which can offer permanent sanctuary.