Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Wing and a Prayer

The New York Times
Published: October 28, 2007

WHEN Eduardo Urbina’s pet pigeon disappeared from his apartment in Spanish Harlem three summers ago, he suspected something nefarious.

Mr. Urbina, a street vendor who sells hats and watches along Third Avenue in the East 80s, recalled having seen a burly man with dreadlocks scooping live pigeons off Third Avenue with a fishing net, then depositing them into the back of his van. Mr. Urbina, who knows that pigeons are not in the habit of wandering off on their own, says he believed that the man with the dreadlocks had taken his bird.

In a town where pigeons have long been relegated to the status of pest, Mr. Urbina is part of a loose cadre of New Yorkers who see the birds as gentle, misunderstood creatures worthy of protection from human cruelty and indifference.

The problem of pigeon netting has continued unabated, and over the summer, organizations like the Wild Bird Fund, a local group, and In Defense of Animals, based in California, offered thousands of dollars in rewards for information leading to the arrest of netters, as the bird-nappers are known. A few months ago, an official of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals met with local pigeon protectors to discuss effective ways to address their complaints.

But Mr. Urbina worked alone.

He had been given this pigeon by a building superintendent when the bird was still tufted in yellow baby fuzz. He raised it to adulthood inside his apartment, feeding it seed through a straw and, later, from a dish, then released the pigeon outdoors — a routine he has followed with other rescued birds. Even so, the pigeon returned every morning through his apartment window for breakfast. One day, it did not.

“I loved that animal,” said Mr. Urbina, a soft-spoken 60-year-old who immigrated to New York 28 years ago from Peru. “So beautiful. So smart.”

He had heard rumors that netters lure the birds with food, then spirit them away to mysterious destinations. Many bird lovers believe that the pigeons become living targets at private gun clubs in Pennsylvania. Others say they end up in voodoo ceremonies, in the hands of pigeon breeders, at live poultry markets where they are sold for human consumption or at restaurants, particularly in Chinatown. And while catching wild birds like pigeons on the street is a violation of state environmental law, one New York police sergeant said that as a practical matter, enforcement is a low priority.

After Mr. Urbina’s pigeon vanished, he set up his own sting operation at Third Avenue and 103rd Street, near his apartment. A bakery on the corner discarded large bags of old bread that attract flocks of birds, and Mr. Urbina suspected that the birds would in turn attract the netter. Every morning for two months, he waited on the corner from 6 until after 7, his camera in hand.

According to Mr. Urbina’s account of what happened next, early one morning in late August, he finally saw his target driving north in a white truck. Along the way, the man would stop to park the truck, climb out and go after his prey with a long-handled net. Mr. Urbina pursued him, snapping photos as he went.

AFTER the netter sped off, Mr. Urbina hailed a taxi and sped north for six blocks, where he saw the netter scooping up more birds. Mr. Urbina leaped from the taxi and took photos of the truck, on the bed of which rested a portable pigeon coop. Turning away from the birds, the netter approached Mr. Urbina from behind, snatched his camera and drove off.

At this point, a police officer named Jon Stueckenschneider entered the case.

“I always refer to this case as my great pigeon caper,” said Sergeant Stueckenschneider, who at the time was an officer with a detective unit at the 23rd Precinct station house on East 102nd Street. He had been assigned to the case to investigate not the netting but the theft of Mr. Urbina’s camera.

The officer’s search for the thief ended the following February, when he got a call from police officers in the Bronx who had found the man in question. Subsequently, according to court records, a man named Dwayne Daley, now 49, pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and was sentenced to the day he had spent in police custody. According to Mr. Daley — who identified himself in a telephone voice message as “the birdman” — the case was dismissed.

“My take on Dwayne Daley is he just wants to do his thing,” Sergeant Stueckenschneider said. “He might have felt Eduardo was invading his space by taking pictures.”

In a telephone interview, Mr. Daley said he had been fascinated by pigeons ever since he was a child trapping them in shoe boxes in Brownsville and East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhoods where he grew up. He now lives in Bushkill, Pa., near the Delaware Water Gap, where he keeps hundreds of birds, but he occasionally visits New York. He uses the birds he nets to interbreed with his own birds, he said, or sell at auction, where some can fetch more than $100.

“It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong with them,” Mr. Daley added. In his opinion, it is the birds’ defenders who do the real harm, by giving the creatures food that is meant for humans and that subsequently attracts rats.

Mr. Urbina never again set eyes on his 6-month-old pigeon, which he had named January, after the month he adopted it. But he did get back his camera, along with copies of the photographs he had taken. Exactly who had made the copies is unclear, but the final image showed Mr. Daley in the driver’s seat of his cab, wearing sunglasses and a half-smile.

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