The pigeons, used in shows such as Cinderella’s Surprise Celebration at the Magic Kingdom and Beauty and the Beast at Disney-MGM Studios, became sitting ducks when red-tailed hawks figured out they could count on an easy meal at the same time every day.
But disturbed by the thought of sending the birds to almost certain death, Disney this week stopped releasing the homing pigeons – ending a tradition that began about 30 years ago.
During the shows, the birds soared over the parks before returning to nearby roosts. It was during these flights that the defenseless birds were grabbed by the hawks’ sharp talons, Disney spokeswoman Diane Ledder said.
It was only recently that the savvy hawks began snatching the birds, Ledder said. No visitors complained about seeing the midair attacks, she added.
Red-tailed hawks, with their wingspread of about 50 inches, thrive in the undisturbed wilderness around the Disney parks, said Geri Hylander, education and volunteer program coordinator at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland.
Hylander said the hawks aren’t especially aggressive, but “they’re opportunistic.”
“When you release a group of birds like that,” she said of Disney’s pigeons, “it’s an invitation to a meal.”
Facing an enemy that large and determined, the comparatively frail pigeons, with their wingspreads of about 15 inches, didn’t stand a chance. Disney wouldn’t say how many birds were killed.
Red-tailed hawks, the largest found in Central Florida, are a protected species, meaning it’s illegal to disturb them without the permission of state wildlife officials.
Disney didn’t consider trying to move the hawks, Ledder said. “If you looked at trapping and relocating them, they’d probably be back.”
So, this week, Disney officials decided “it wasn’t fair to the pigeons to keep releasing them,” Ledder said.
Disney is now trying to find homes for about 200 surviving pigeons. Ledder said it will reassign the five employees who had been in charge of the birds.
Red-tailed hawks typically eat smaller birds, snakes and rodents. No word on whether Mickey is in any danger.