Why Were Pigeons on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17?

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The manifest for Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 reveals that dogs and birds were on board the airplane, which crashed last week after a missile strike, with the cargo including “live pigeons.”

Remains on the ground help to explain some of these non-human travelers.

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Journalist Harriet Salem, reporting for The Guardian, wrote after surveying the crash site:

“It was not just the human passengers that died. An unlikely menagerie of dead pets lay strewn across the scene in the grass, bright blue and yellow macaws, a cockatoo, a random giant St Bernard dog curled peacefully where he fell.”

The St. Bernard was one of two dogs on board the plane. Unnamed “5 live birds” were also mentioned in the manifest, presumably referring to the pet macaws and cockatoo, which must have been someone’s beloved pets.

The numbers, as in “5” here, could have referred to individuals or to their cages, meaning that even more animals might have been on board. The manifest category simply refers to “No. of pieces,” and provides a section for “Gross Weight.”

But what about the “4 live pigeons” also mentioned as being in the cargo section of the aircraft?

There are at least three possibilities. The first is that the pigeons were, like the other birds, kept as pets.

In Malaysia, the destination of the flight, there is a growing trend of keeping pigeons–highly intelligent birds–as pets. Pigeons, like chickens, come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors, with some having beautiful ornamental feathers.

There is even a Malaysian National Pigeon Association, which mentions on its website, “Pigeon Fanciers are like a brotherhood. A brotherhood of simple people with one love. The love for pigeons.”

Some passengers intended to travel on to Australia, where pigeons are also sometimes kept as pets.

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Another possibility is that the person who created the Malaysia Airlines manifest mistakenly labeled more common pet birds as being “pigeons.”

Yet another possibility emerges based on the reason why many of the passengers were traveling to Malaysia.

Journalist Anuradha Raghu, reporting for Reuters, wrote that many Muslims were coming home “for the Eid al-Fitr festival, Islam’s biggest annual celebration, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, on July 28.”

According to the book “Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students” by Lois Sinaiko Webb, a dish called bisteeya “usually made with pigeons, is the grandest meal anyone can be served” during the family holiday where toys and candy are also given to children. Bisteeya is a sweet and savory dish where the meat-based filling is placed between phyllo dough layers and baked until crisp.

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Pigeons are also worldwide symbols of peace and freedom, so perhaps they were planned to be released at a site during the festival.

Unfortunately, only one thing is clear for now. All of the dogs and birds, like the human passengers and crew, died last Thursday over eastern Ukraine.

Photo: Two squatter pigeons. Credit: Aviceda, Wikimedia Commons

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