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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.

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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