Commentary: Why Joe the Pigeon ruffled many Australian feathers

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Writer Warwick McFadyen explains, tongue-in-cheek, how a seemingly harmless flutter nearly became an international incident.

"Joe", a pigeon that reached Australia from the U.S., perches on the roof of a house in M

“Joe”, a pigeon that reached Australia from the U.S., perches on the roof of a house in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: Reuters)

MELBOURNE: It could have very easily been an international incident with Australia’s great ally, the United States.

An American citizen tries to illegally enter Australia, creating a biosecurity risk in a time of global pandemic that ripples all way to the door of the Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

After the Johnny Depp illegal puppy visitor episode a few years back, Australians are, of course, right to be vigilant.

Many pray that this latest incident does not a year make, otherwise 2021 is going down the rabbit hole of surrealism.

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It began on Boxing Day in an unassuming suburb of Melbourne. 
A bird flew onto the property of one Kevin Celli-Bird in Officer.

The bird was thought to be a racing pigeon with a leg band indicating it was from the United States. Kevin called it Joe, after President-elect Joe Biden.

CAUSING IT A FLUTTER

The arrival of the bird makes the news around the globe – the BBC reports its arrival, similarly The New York Times.

After all, the poor winged creature has come more than 15,000km, got lost, is far away from home. Did Joe flap and glide his way or catch a ship over? He doesn’t say. Doesn’t say coo.

A tagged racing pigeon. The American-style racing band around Joe's leg appeared to be a

A tagged racing pigeon. The American-style racing band around Joe’s leg appeared to be a knock-off available online and often used by local owners. (Photo: AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard)

But the heavy hand of bureaucracy had grabbed Joe by the throat. The Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment was working to determine Joe’s authenticity. His life rested on its decision.

“The department has sought to immediately isolate and assess the bird and is seeking the urgent co-operation of the member of the public [his name’s Kevin] who discovered the pigeon. That assessment is essential to confirm the facts of the incident and determine the risks posed to Australian bird life.”

BIOSECURITY THREAT

A biosecurity risk would mean curtains for Joe, though the department did hold out the option of returning Joe to America, if America agreed.

As if America did not have enough on its plate, along comes Joe. Enter the politicians.

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The Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley declared the authorities should show a little compassion towards the bird. Perhaps Mr Foley might like to say that to the state’s ducks.

A pigeon walks past people who wait in a line to undergo coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests at a

FILE PHOTO: A pigeon walks past people who wait in a line to undergo coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests at a coronavirus testing site which is temporarily set up in front of a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Andy Meddick, of the Animal Justice Party, thought Joe should be pardoned. “Take Joe off death row,” he said. “Surely, the deferral government has larger issues to deal with right now than death sentences for pigeons.” Quite.

But not entirely, for then the Acting Prime Minister stepped up to the roost. “If Joe has come in a way that has not met our strict biosecurity measures, then bad luck Joe. Either fly home or face the consequences.”

SPARED THE GALLOWS

Mr Celli-Bird had another option: “Maybe we should have called it Donald and we could have appealed to the president to give it a pardon or diplomatic immunity.”

But surely it was not Joe’s fault. He didn’t know all the other migratory birds to Australia declared their travel plans, and what they are carrying, on entering.

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Then surreal became, well, less surreal. Joe, it turned out, wasn’t American. He was actually Australian.

The Agriculture Department pronounced: “Following an investigation the department has concluded that Joe the Pigeon [their caps] is highly likely to be Australian and does not present a biosecurity risk.”

The leg band was fraudulent. The American Racing Pigeon Union confirmed it.

Australia Trans-Pacific Pigeon

Australia Trans-Pacific Pigeon

As to Mr Celli-Bird, he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t have just quarantined the bird in the first place.

READ: Commentary: Are we inept at handling wild animals that come our way?

He has a point. It’s not as if authorities don’t have some experience in the area.

Warwick McFadyen is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years experience in metropolitan media. This commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter. Read it here.

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