A New River Gorge Murder Mystery

It was a shocking scene under the New River Gorge Bridge.

There I was, 850 feet up in the air.  I was walking on the tiny catwalk under the massive bridge, training to become a Bridge Walk tour guide.

Then, all of a sudden, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon!

It was perched in the middle of the bridge, right on the catwalk.  These birds are amazing, and you rarely get a chance to see them this close. I thought it was going to fly over and pluck out my eye.

Virtually exterminated from eastern North America by pesticide poisoning in the mid-twentieth century, restoration efforts have made the Peregrine a regular, if still uncommon sight in many large cities. The New River Gorge is currently an active restoration site.

The word Peregrine means “wander,” and they have one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird.  They range in height from 14 to 19 inches tall (this one was towards the high end) with wingspans of 39 to 43 inches.  They weigh 18 to 56 ounces. But what’s really cool … unbelievable, actually … is that Peregrine Falcons can dive up to 200 mph!

We slowly approached it, taking a few photos as we got closer and closer.  We got to within 100 yards before it screamed in defiance and leaped off the catwalk, folding its wing, and plummeting out of sight.  My heart was racing.

When we got to where the falcon had been perched, we noticed a lot of feathers lying around.  We probably interrupted lunch.  As we looked around we noticed all kinds of different colored feathers and bird parts.   It was carnage – dozens of victims.  What a great ambush point it must be for the falcons.  Under the bridge they are protected from the elements, and they have a clear view up and down the gorge.  You can see for miles.  A flicker of movement and the birds launch off the bridge and rain death from above.  Their victims, er, prey don’t have a chance.

So while we were trying to identify what the falcons were feeding on (golden finches, pigeons, etc.) I noticed a clump of light brown … something.  It looked like fine, dry mud?  I then noticed something else that was blue, barely showing through.  I got in close and picked it out.

It was a bird band!  How the heck did it get there?  Surely a falcon couldn’t swallow something that big.  I was stumped.  So I put the bird band in my pocket and got back to enjoying my adventure under the bridge.  The mystery would have to wait.

BTW, if you read any of my earlier blogs about how scared I was being that high up under the bridge, that’s over now.  They’ve installed the overhead cables that we hook our harnesses into.  It makes a big difference.  I’m proud to say I wasn’t scared at all. Much.

After I got back from my tour I raced upstairs and jumped on the computer to find out what I could learn about the bird band I had found.  As a part-time historian and researcher I love a good mystery.  But I searched site after site with little success.

The problem was that there was too much information. It seems banding birds is a big deal, and they all have these special codes and colors you have to try and decipher – I was a little overwhelmed.  I spent hours cross-referencing these long lists of bird band codes with no success.

All right, maybe I do need a life.  But this was forensic evidence of a murder.  I had to find the out who the victim was and then track down the killer!

Finally, I found a thread on the web that lead me to a blog that lead me to a government web site that was suppose to be the ultimate database of bird bands (the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, or PWRC).  The site has a native search engine that you just enter the color and codes and it searches all the databases (the ones I was having so much trouble with) for you.

Now I’m cooking.  I entered all the data, waited, and then … nothing!  It wasn’t in the database. But the site did give me an email address that I could forward the information to.  This sucks; they said it could take weeks.  Disappointed, I sent the information and waited.

But within the week(!) I got a response back.  They told me that I had to call the International Federation of American Homing Pigeons (IF).

A pigeon!  All this effort for a pigeon!  I’m sorry, nothing against pigeons, but I was hoping for some exotic South American bird caught on its annual migration through the gorge or a secret government experiment that went wrong.  I wanted a real story.

Well, I figured I had to tell the relatives of “Pete the Pigeon” why he won’t be coming home; they were probably pretty concerned.  I get to the site and I realize that this isn’t just any pigeon. Pete is a racer!  Now I’m intrigued.

After a few unsuccessful leads I finally find a code page.  I find Pete’s specific code, listing the owners’ information and how to contact him.  So I give him a call.  A pleasant man answered the phone.

Now, I have to tell you that there is apparently a lot of controversy surrounding “Pigeon Fanciers.”  There are several animal activist groups that frown on the idea of racing pigeons.  So I must protect the identities of those involved and I won’t take sides.  I only follow the evidence and let others have their own opinions.  But with a little research I did find out that homing pigeons played a critical role in our history.

Long before texting and phones, pigeons were used to send messages.  During the wars they played a pivotal role in getting important information back from behind enemy lines.  There is a lot more to pigeons than you think.

We had a long conversation.  I enjoyed his insight into what the racing pigeon world was all about and the stories he told were fascinating.   But, I’ll skip all that and tell you the facts, as I know them.

Pete was a young racer from a long line of successful racers.  He hatched with his siblings this year.  He is from the Valley Forge area of Pennsylvania – over 400 miles away!  He came in 7th place in his first race – a race of 150 miles.  That’s a long race and he had a bright future.  His second race, a 300-mile race, took place on October 30th of this year.  Pete never made it home.  Two weeks later, on November 13th, I found the bird band under the bridge.

What happened to Pete?  Did he get off track, or was he trying to escape and came all the way down here only to fall victim to a Peregrine Falcon?  Did a Coopers Hawk catch him way up there during the race and then fly all the way down here to hide the evidence?  We may never know.  There are still a lot of mysteries to this story.

Sad to say, but unless there’s someone out there who can shed new light on this case, it’s closed for now.  But every time I go under the bridge, I will try and search for new evidence.  The hunt is still afoot!

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