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Secret Agent Man: Inside the High-Stakes World of Undercover Wildlife Agents


Enjoy this tale from the Backpacker archive

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.

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