TAVERNIER -- The race appears to be over for a small flock of homing pigeons that have turned up at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center.
The racing birds have come from Mexico, Cuba and Florida, according to center personnel.
Generally, pigeon racing enthusiasts band their birds on the leg with an identification bracelet as well as insert a chip into the birds to track windspeed during the winter racing season. At the beginning of a race, the birds are driven a couple hundred miles away from their home pens and released.
While pigeon racing is a lawful pastime, it has been frowned upon by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Though bird racing clubs are allowed to offer prize money to race winners, gambling on races is illegal, and there are pending criminal cases in Florida regarding that practice.
The dozen or so birds that arrived in the Upper Keys are being housed in a cage, out of public view, and separated from the wild birds.
Attempts to find the owners by using the tracking band has been unsuccessful.
"We have had no luck," said Assistant Wildlife Rehabilitator Erin Ulrey. "We get to a language barrier."
The American Racing Pigeon Union recommends that the owner's of lost birds be contacted through the band on the pigeon's leg. Even if the owner doesn't respond, the pigeon association says it will arrange for the bird to be picked up.
Wildlife Rehabilitator Amanda Margraves said she would like to release the caged birds, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission considers that a violation of law. Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the FWC, said the birds are domestic and cannot be released into the wild.
A pigeon that recently died at the bird center was labeled FCC 2010 033899, which indicated that the bird's owner was a member of a Cuban pigeon racing federation.
Jim Hale, a Key West man who breeds racing pigeons, said he often runs into similar bands, but that contacting Cuba given the current political climate is simply not possible.
Hale says he gives the birds the option of leaving.
"I provide a place here if they don't want to leave," Hale said. "Ninety percent of the time, I never see the bird again."
While Keys Kritters is helping the Tavernier center by providing food for the pigeons, the birds are tying up a coop that could be used to promote the mission of the center, which is to rescue, rehabilitate and release wild birds.
As a practice, the Marathon Wild Bird Center, which has also experienced a recent increase in racing pigeons, sends its birds to Hale.
"They never really hang around," said Director Kelly Grinter.