MELBOURNE, Australia — The racing pigeon seemed to have traveled far, from Oregon, when it showed up weak and hungry in a backyard in a Melbourne suburb.
Someone decided to name it Joe, after President-elect Joe Biden.
But Australian officials, fearing the spread of germs from a foreign bird, would not bend the rules: The bird must die.
The tale of the bird that supposedly traveled more than 8,000 miles only to end up on Australia’s death row caused a stir on the internet.
It began when a building inspector named Kevin Celli-Bird (no relation) said he found Joe on Dec. 26 after it flew into his backyard in Officer, a quiet suburb in Melbourne’s southeast, with a band dangling around one leg.
“When it landed, it was very weak and in an emaciated state,” Celli-Bird said in an interview Friday. He fed the pigeon to bring it back to health.
Driven by curiosity about its origins, he searched online for the numbers on the bird’s leg band. He said they matched those of a bird from an Oregon pigeon race that began Oct. 29. He discovered that a male bird had gone missing.
Celli-Bird said he inquired with the American Racing Pigeon Union, which said the bird was registered to someone in Alabama. With this information in hand, he and some friends thought it made sense to name the pigeon after a notable American figure.
“We were sitting around, having a laugh, throwing around names,” he said. “We thought, ‘Well, Joe’s the incoming president; we’ll give him that name.’”
They did consider “Donald,” Celli-Bird said, but “we thought it might not be politically correct with what’s going on.”
International news outlets picked up the strange tale of a bird named Joe, and the internet marveled at its apparent journey. The authorities said they believed it had most likely hitched a ride on a cargo ship.
Brad Turner, secretary of the Australian National Pigeon Association, told The Associated Press that he had heard of cases of Chinese racing pigeons reaching the Australian west coast aboard cargo ships, a relatively shorter trip.
Celli-Bird thought it was all a bit of good fun, but the Australian authorities had a different view. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said Joe “posed a direct biosecurity risk to Australian bird life and our poultry industry.” It intended to euthanize him, local media reported Thursday.
Australia has notoriously strict biosecurity laws. In 2015, Barnaby Joyce, then agricultural minister, threatened to euthanize actor Johnny Depp’s two Yorkshire terriers, Pistol and Boo, because they had not been declared to customs when they arrived in Queensland aboard a private jet. Luckily, arrangements were made for the two dogs to be flown back to the United States. Amber Heard, then Depp’s wife, later pleaded guilty in a Queensland court to providing false information on her passenger card after she and the dogs landed on the Gold Coast to visit the actor. The couple offered an apology.
Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack showed no mercy earlier Friday about the pigeon matter at a news conference, saying: “If Joe has come in a way that has not met out strict biosecurity measures, then bad luck, Joe. Either fly home or face the consequences.”
Facing the prospect of Joe’s demise, Celli-Bird had second thoughts about the name he had given the bird. “Last night I thought maybe we should have called him Donald,” he said. “Maybe we could have gotten a presidential pardon or diplomatic immunity.”
But on Friday, information suddenly emerged that seemed to give the bird a reprieve: Joe may not be an American pigeon after all.
A local pigeon rescue group said on Facebook that it had seen plenty of local birds wearing the same type of band found on Joe’s leg. “We believe he is not an American pigeon at all — rather an Australian pigeon wearing a knockoff American ring that anyone could buy off eBay,” the organization said.
A spokesperson for the American Racing Pigeon Union also said that Joe’s band was probably a counterfeit and that he was in all likelihood an Australian pigeon, according to The Associated Press.
The agriculture department said it was “investigating the authenticity of the U.S. identification tag.”
Celli-Bird said he was keen to find out the true origins of the bird “for everyone’s peace of mind.” He stressed that he had no intention of misleading anyone.
In the face of growing evidence, on Friday evening, the department of agriculture announced in a statement that it had “concluded that Joe the Pigeon is highly likely to be Australian.” The department said it was “satisfied that the bird’s leg band is a fraudulent copy of a legitimate leg band.”
In other words, the bird was deemed not to be an American intruder. As such, it was free to continue living in Celli-Bird’s backyard.
Mysteries remain, such as why someone had faked the pigeon’s racing band. The sport is highly competitive, and counterfeit bands may signify desirable origins. Last year, a Chinese fan bought a Belgian racing pigeon for $1.9 million.
It is also unclear if the bird will get to keep its new name and whether it will make its way home. Earlier on Friday, Celli-Bird said, “If it chooses to leave, it can; if it stays, we’ll just keep feeding it.”