BY JENNIFER PETERSON
Animal Tracks is a series of articles from Noah’s Ark Animal Foundation exploring the human/animal connection. For informationabout dog or cat adoptions, visit www.noahsark.org.
Say the word “pigeon” today, and the image that most readily comes to mind is that of the feral pigeon, sometimes referred to as a “rat with wings.” Its plentiful numbers in bustling citycenters often put it in the category of “pest,” and all mannerof devices and techniques—some humane and some less so—are employedin a seemingly never-ending battle to remove them from sky-rise window ledges,road structures, and countless other pigeon-friendly nesting and roosting spots.Pigeons are unique among birds because they will rarely roost in trees, preferringman-made materials like concrete and metal—a trait closely linked to that of their ancestor, the rock dove, which roosts on rocky cliffs. This makesthe city an ideal pigeon habitat.
And yet, this animosity toward pigeons has only a short history. Forthousands of years, pigeons have been one of our strongest allies. Earliestknown uses included food and fertilizer (pigeon droppings are rich in nitrogen),and pigeons also carried a strong religious meaning in many faiths—mostoften a symbol of peace and prosperity, a significance we prefer to link todoves today.
The most noteworthy contributions of pigeons stem from their strong and mysterioushoming ability. They are capable of flying hundreds of miles to return to theirmate and nest; and they possess a strong drive to do so at all costs. Historically,this trait made them valuable messengers in the sky. The young news companyReuters became renowned for the speed with which it could gather information,primarily due to its extensive use of pigeons to deliver news reports to thecentral offices.
Pigeons were also valuable assets in wartime. Military officials sent generalcommunications, messages of victory, or urgent requests for assistance by pigeon,and as birds travel faster than human messengers, and do not have to allowfor rivers, mountains, or forests, they proved a godsend. They could also crossenemy lines more easily than horsemen or runners, and were less noticeable.
After World War I, the United States and European countries honored about40 pigeon “war heroes,” including the famous Cher Ami, who savedan American battalion that was being fired on by other American soldiers. Despitehaving been shot several times, Cher Ami returned to his loft with the message “Ourartillery is dropping a barrage on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!”
Today, cell phones and other wireless communications eliminate much of theneed for homing pigeons. However, the birds continue to be used, albeit relativelyobscurely, for racing. The sport of racing pigeons originated in the very early1800s in Belgium and gradually worked its way to the U.S. toward the end ofthe 19th century. The sport experienced a rise in popularity throughout WorldWar I and II.
Among fanciers, a pigeon race is referred to as a “race with one startand many finishes.” It begins at a single point. Each participating loftsends some of its best birds to this start. All pigeons are released at once,then each bird beats its way to its home loft. The pigeon’s owner notesthe bird’s arrival time, and later, fellow racers regroup to study theirresults. Because lofts are at different distances from the starting point,the bird with the best average speed to its loft takes first prize.
To be a successful racer, pigeon handlers must treat their birds with greatcare. Racing pigeons receive regular exercise and nutritionally balanced feed.A sick, stressed, or overworked pigeon can develop fret marks—gaps, wrinkles,or rough areas—on wing feathers, inhibiting a bird’s flying ability.Damaged feathers can slow down a bird in a race often determined by mere secondson the clock. For this reason, the birds are kept clean and parasite free,handled gently, and treated respectfully. Compared to the life of a feral pigeon,these racing pigeons live a very pampered life. Among pigeon aficionados, thesebirds are not “flying rats” – they are “racehorsesof the sky”!
Pigeon racing is a very accessible sport compared to many other animal sports.Even young children and elderly citizens can handle a pigeon without riskinginjury, save perhaps the occasional scratch from the bird’s claws. Pigeonsare also easier and cheaper to keep than dogs or horses, and their small sizeallows even apartment dwellers in the city to own them. Some city keepers carefor a loft on the roof of their apartment complex. Nevertheless, the sportis in decline. Pigeon racing is not a very visible sport; lofts can be as smalland unnoticeable as a garden shed in a backyard. Active pigeon racers todayare usually older men who learned to handle and train pigeons during WorldWar II. Now, innumerable other sports and pastimes compete for the attentionof younger generations.
Interestingly, pigeon racing has recently gained notice among inner cityyouth as a humane alternative to dog or cock fighting. Unlike animal fighting,where the animals are usually badly abused, the avian athletes need extremecare to the point of coddling. Beneficial side effects for young racersinclude money (i.e., winnings from races), prestige among peers, a senseof accomplishment—and,most importantly, an increased respect for living creatures.
Though the feral pigeon is the most well-known type of pigeon in today’ssociety, in fact pigeons have a close and beneficial relationship with humans.Specially bred domestic pigeons have served mankind—feeding us, entertainingus, and saving our lives—for thousands of years. Not too shabby for abird some consider a “flying rat”!
Jennifer Thomas lives and writes in Round Rock, Texas.