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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Secret Agent Man

Animals can't talk. But Ed Newcomer can. As an elite U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detective, he goes undercover to protect threatened raptors, bears, even butterflies–and bring poachers and smugglers to court. Inside the agency's latest covert operation.

by: Bruce Barcott

Photos by Dan Winters
Photos by Dan Winters
A Cooper's Hawk talon given to Newcomer by a pigeon fancier
A Cooper's Hawk talon given to Newcomer by a pigeon fancier
The evidence room at the USFWS Office in L.A.
The evidence room at the USFWS Office in L.A.
Agents Erin Dean and Sam Jojola with a seized stuffed bald eagle
Agents Erin Dean and Sam Jojola with a seized stuffed bald eagle

In a suburban backyard in Southern California, Ted Nelson stood among a group of men watching a flock of pigeons soar on a blue-sky Saturday. It was mid-April 2006, and this was Nelson's first "fly," a competition among fanciers of Birmingham roller pigeons. Birmingham rollers possess a genetic disposition to roll in midair–they somersault backward so quickly that the birds resemble a pinwheel of whirling feathers. A top competitive flock will "kit," or fly together like a school of fish, and spin almost as one.

"There they go!" a man hollered as the pigeons began to tumble. "Oh, that's a nice roll."

Ted Nelson was new to the world of roller pigeons. Like a lot of Southern California subcultures, the world of "spinners," as the birds are called, had its own peculiar vernacular, trade secrets, and bitter rivalries. Nelson was a newbie, but he fit right in with his droopy mustache, dirty jeans, and old ball cap. Most of the competitors were blue-collar guys who enjoyed the camaraderie of a shared hobby.

Nelson displayed a newcomer's curiosity. When he saw a wood-and-wire contraption the size of a doghouse, he asked what it was.

"That's a hawk trap," one of the guys told him.

"What do you need that for?" Nelson asked.

Hawks and falcons were a menace to the hobby, the guy said. They preyed on roller pigeons.

"Falcon got one of my birds last week," another fancier told Nelson. "I grabbed my gun and ran into the street. He was there on the pole, but my neighbor was in the yard, and she'd have called me in. So I couldn't take a shot."

Pigeon flies are moveable feasts; competitors drive from house to house to watch the birds spin within their home range. In every backyard he entered, Nelson noticed guns and hawk traps. It seemed like these guys were killing a lot of birds–or at least were armed for it.

"Caught a couple hawks in my trap last week," one man told Nelson. He said he killed the birds with a pump-action pellet gun. "You want to bag them up and throw them in a dumpster a few miles away," he said.

Nelson asked why.

"It's illegal to kill 'em," the man said. "You get caught, that's a $10,000 fine."

In the late morning, the caravan pulled up to Juan Navarro's house. Navarro was president of the National Birmingham Roller Club, the hobby's nationwide association. He lived in Los Angeles in a million-dollar house near the edge of Griffith Park, a 4,200-acre refuge full of wildlife. Coyotes, mountain lions, red foxes, and mule deer roam the park's brushy hillsides, along with humans on 53 miles of hiking trails. The problem for Juan Navarro was the park's red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons. They were killing his pigeons.

Nelson asked Navarro if he found hawk traps to be useful. "The first two years I was here, I caught 40 every year," Navarro said.

Nelson was shocked. "Forty!?" he said.

Later, Nelson asked Navarro what he did with the trapped raptors. Shoot them?

"I don't shoot them," Navarro said. "I get a stick and just pummel them." Then he smiled and told the rookie that eventually he'd understand. "It's a great thing," Navarro said. "You'll see."

But Ted Nelson didn't see. Though his face didn't show it, he was sickened by what he heard.

At the end of the day, Nelson climbed into his car and drove to a nearby McDonald's. He turned off the surveillance equipment hidden under his clothes. He drank a Coke and made notes on what he'd just seen. He called in to the office to let his colleagues know he was safe.

Ted Nelson wasn't just a curious hobbyist. His name wasn't even Ted Nelson. It was Ed Newcomer. He is an undercover wildlife cop. And the men he'd just spent the day with were about to enter a world of trouble.



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READERS COMMENTS

johnny law
Jan 17, 2012

they have enough time to infiltrate groups spy and colelct evidence, whynot get them to change their way of thinking like a real participating member of society? a jedi knight if you will "hey man you got to be kidding me youre doing this... dont you know... im going to spy on you then, if i find out this is true im telling! and i know about so and so selling... you're the head of the damn fan club you have the power to change everyones views" oh wait i know why, theres no bonus pay from the "punishment"

johnny law
Jan 17, 2012

they have enough time to infiltrate groups spy and colelct evidence, whynot get them to change their way of thinking like a real participating member of society? a jedi knight if you will "hey man you got to be kidding me youre doing this... dont you know... im going to spy on you then, if i find out this is true im telling! and i know about so and so selling... you're the head of the damn fan club you have the power to change everyones views" oh wait i know why, theres no bonus pay from the "punishment"

clue-by-four
Jun 14, 2010

Cats and small dogs shouldn't be left along for predators to snatch. They are themselves a nuisance if left to roam, not to mention other dangers out there for them - people are mean, especially to cats. It comes down to personal responsibility. Don't want Fluffy or Fido taken, don't leave them alone outdoors.

I don't think we're here to manage anything. I think we're supposed to respect life and live in harmony with other creatures. YMMV.

Steve Santhuff
Oct 25, 2009

It's really strange that someone can appreciate pigeons so much in their own collection and not appreciate raptors........such that they kill them and in such cruel ways.

I can picture those agents crawling in the field with AR15's, I'm sure they didn't stop in the field. The agents comming after me were stealing my animals (turtles) for several months and asked me to participate in some elaborate undercover purchases to help them that they later spun around on a search warrant. I've got 3 law suits on file against the various agents. I was finally given a trial after 3 years where I was acquitted on 21 charges. I've got my own opinion of Federal USFWS agents, which is that some of them are criminals far worse then the REAL wildlife violators they stalk. Illegal searches, lies to get a search warrant, planted evidence, false charges, false summary of laws to a judge or prosecutor to get search warrants or charges. Lieing in court. But killing raptors is horrible, especially with bleach and ammonia.......but I haven't heard the undercover recording myself, so I'm skeptical knowing what I know about the USFWS!

tou vang
Jul 16, 2009

yup, these men were protecting their birds like how bops are being protected. i know most of em and they're good mens. they are cheaters tho however because all roller fanciers fly rollers and have to face bops attacking their birds but those who shot them have less bops and is easier for them to fly their rollers.

tou vang
Jan 22, 2009

these men were protecting their birds. jus like protecting bop's. bop's should be spreaded in the forests more.

Andrew
Nov 14, 2008

The bible? Give me a break--thinking like that has left us with a withered planet where the only thing that thrives anymore are (some) humans.
We only think we're superior. Actually, some of us are obvioiusly worse than animals. The hawks, after all, are only killing their prey. Navarro and McGhee, with their bleach and stick--what they're doing is torture, absolutely malice. They make me sick.
And all for a bunch of flying rats--go DeFazio indeed.

Phil
Jul 28, 2008

Hey Billy, I have neighbor who hates pigeons and if they land on his barn he shots them no matter if your standing in you yard or not, doesn't matter. My self I shoot lose dogs, even if I know it's yours or not. Where does it end.

Samantha
Jul 16, 2008

I can't believe these negative comments. These guys are heroes! Great article as well, I'd love to see more articles like this in Backpacker.

Billy
Jul 14, 2008

I wonder if people would feel differently if they started losing small dogs and cats to hawks. Would you feel differently if your prized family member was killed by a hawk. It seems one small special interest group dictates the laws the rest have to follow. Kids are abused by family members every day and they get a slap on the wrist. Someone hurts an animal and look out. When did we elevate animals above ourselves. Who decides the value of one animal over another. I'm sure the pigeon fanciers love their animals just as much as everyone else. If a coyote kills a baby lamb nobody has a problem with a farmer killing the coyote. If a mosquito lands on my arm and I kill it some entomologist may have a problem with me. If you have a problem being at the top of the food chain, hide in the closet with your friends and leave the rest of us common sense god-fearing Americans alone. I'm tired of the whining. Before you respond to my comment think about what you ate today, what you're wearing and who that might offend. Hey folks, bottom line we are all offended by something. We were put on this earth to manage the creatures here not be managed by them.

Billy
Jul 14, 2008

I wonder if people would feel differently if they started losing small dogs and cats to hawks. Would you feel differently if your prized family member was killed by a hawk. It seems one small special interest group dictates the laws the rest have to follow. Kids are abused by family members every day and they get a slap on the wrist. Someone hurts an animal and look out. When did we elevate animals above ourselves. Who decides the value of one animal over another. I'm sure the pigeon fanciers love their animals just as much as everyone else. If a coyote kills a baby lamb nobody has a problem with a farmer killing the coyote. If a mosquito lands on my arm and I kill it some entomologist may have a problem with me. If you have a problem being at the top of the food chain, hide in the closet with your friends and leave the rest of us common sense god-fearing Americans alone. I'm tired of the whining. Before you respond to my comment think about what you ate today, what you're wearing and who that might offend. Hey folks, bottom line we are all offended by something. We were put on this earth to manage the creatures here not be managed by them.

Tooch
Jul 03, 2008

Undercover and out of control
http://www.tuccille.com/blog/2008/04/undercover-and-out-of-control.html
"Undercover police work has a long and dishonorable history. Undercover officers have infiltrated peaceful anti-war protests and political organizations and often acted as agents provocateurs -- engaging in or provoking illegal activity to give the authorities an excuse to move in and make arrests. Laws against victimless activities like drug use and prostitution almost require the use of undercover agents to induce people to engage in activities that would otherwise go undetected. Since such "crimes" are consensual, there's no wronged party to file a complaint -- unless a police officer covertly engages in a forbidden transaction.

So there's good reason to be leery of people like Ed Newcomer."

Doug
Jun 24, 2008

Well preliminarly i must say yes we humans are superior Amy.The bible tells us so.
But i sure think these men are wrong and should let nature take its course.

Mike
Jun 18, 2008

Yes, all life should be respected; but, there is a reason pigeons are often referred to as "flying rats", they are the bottom of the food chain for those raptors. Unfortunate those men can't receive a taste of their own medicine--it may be the only way they would ever understand their wrongdoing.

Chris
Jun 17, 2008

Go DeFazio (fourth to last paragraph)!
Thats my Rep!

Amy
Jun 12, 2008

Wow. These bird killing men make me sick. The laws need to be changed. Humans are not superior, we only think we are. The laws should be the same if a man kills/tortures an animal as it is for a human. Life is life and all creatures have feelings. Getting sprayed in the eyes with bleach or stomped to death is cruelty and torture to animals. These men should have been put in jail and their pigeons should have been taken away.

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