In an atmosphere compounded of equal parts of delight (shotgunners) and horror (humane societies), a sports craze has rolled up from Mexico into Texas: live pigeon shooting. Expert skeet and trap gunners call it the most fascinating, difficult test of wing shooting skill. Animal protection societies call it plain brutality. As a result, live pigeon shoots are by invitation only.
Invited to a recent shoot across the border at the Club de Tiro al Pichón de Nuevo Laredo were 150 guns, most of them wealthy—or at least leisured—Texans, who plunked down close to $10,000 for the privilege of firing at 3,000-odd pigeons. Approximately a third of the birds—either the fastest or most fortunate—escaped, and the rest wound up in the clutches of a horde of scrambling, barefoot Mexican muchachos, eventually to be cooked and consumed with gusto by their impoverished families. So live pigeon shooting cannot be all bad. "At least," says one Texas shooter, "we give the pigeons a sporting chance."
That the pigeons do have a chance is less a knock against the marksmanship of the shooters than a tribute to the artistry of an acrobatic 50-year-old Spaniard named José (Pepe) Manauta. Pepe is the world's most famous colombaire. Colombaire is a Spanish term which in this case translates to "pigeon thrower." Since the colombaire leads a precarious life at best, and since Pepe has managed to survive for such a long time, his talents come high, up to $1,000 for a three-day shoot.
Dressed in white shirt and pants, rope sandals and a red cap, this Warren Spahn of pigeon throwers struts back and forth in the shooter's stand, dark eyes darting from the bird fluttering in his hands to the shooter ready and waiting five paces to the rear with loaded shotgun, safety off. Pulling out certain tail feathers to impart an erratic trajectory to the bird's line of flight, Pepe holds the pigeon's wings together across its back with one hand, cradling its rump and legs in the other.
"Listo?" Pepe asks. "Pàjaro" mutters the shooter. Spinning around in a three-quarter circle, Pepe hurls the pigeon—sometimes under his leg, more often over his shoulder or around his body—into the air with a straight-arm, backhand motion. Like a missile, its wings temporarily useless, the bird soars up into the sky at great speed, barely clearing the 16-foot-high wire surrounding the shooter's stand. When the bird finds its wings some 25 to 35 yards from the shooter, the slightest breeze seems to catch the pigeon and send it spinning crazily away. As a boxer, Pepe would probably have been a master; after two or three pigeons, he can pick out any shooter's major weakness—and then the fun begins.
The rules in pigeon shooting are as simple as the shooting itself is difficult. In most shoots the limit is 15 birds per gun, two shots at each bird and, usually, automatic elimination after four misses. A hit bird that drops and bounces hard inside the fence surrounding the 200-meter-in-diameter shooting ring is a dead bird, or bueno, unless it can be persuaded into flying again by a bird boy. If, however, a bird leaves a drop of blood inside the ring, it is scored as a dead pigeon. Any bird that makes it over the fence, even one filled with shot that glides over the fence to drop like a brick outside, is a miss, or cero, and is so signaled by a bandero waving a white flag. If a bird is bueno, the boy waves a red flag.
Whether live pigeon shooting will spread much beyond its present habitat (it took more than 100 years to reach Texas from Spain) is a question that the laws of the State of Texas will probably decide in the end. "There is no Texas law against this type of pigeon shooting," says one gunner, "but there is definitely a law against gambling, and gambling is a big part of any shoot."
If Texas objects, the gunners can continue to cross the border and shoot in Nuevo Laredo or a number of other Mexican towns. Everyone gambles in Mexico, the tequila is cheaper down there—and someone is always hungry for no-longer-live pigeons.