Wing and prayer: “amateurs” thrive in pigeon racing | Local
DECATUR – William Meyer races on a wing and a prayer.
A carrier pigeon racer, or “hobbyist” to use species-specific terminology, Meyer has his carrier or carrier pigeons chased for distances of up to 600 miles from their Decatur loft. Then, together with the pigeons of the rival fanciers, they are all released at the same time and the first carrier pigeon to return home wins.
Pigeons fly up there as fast as they can, and these feathered runners can really change gears: speeds of 60mph aren’t unusual over short distances, and they can comfortably cruise at 35mph. Back on the ground, Meyer looks skyward and busies himself in praying. Collisions with high voltage wires take their toll and 12 o’clock bandits are every pigeon’s worst nightmare.
“The losses suffered by hawks have really become horrendous over the past 20 years,” says Meyer, explaining how the number of predators has skyrocketed since the world became aware of the dangers of pesticides such as DDT, which were killing. Now, however, hawks are thriving and training for carrier pigeons.
“Birds of prey like hawks and hawks use the height advantage,” adds Meyer, 67. “Falcons can dive to almost 200 mph when hitting pigeons; it’s incredible.”
For the average carrier pigeon Joe, his best air defense, if he can spot the falcon in time, is to gain altitude to reduce the height advantage. Meyer says that a good circuit has a good chance of outsmarting and hovering over a hawk if it is at the same level. These aerial fights and other dangers can arise at any time, and the hobbyist is often left to guess, without any proof, what happened when a particular bird stays forever in that wild blue out there.
Some homers also lose their moral compass and fall out of favor to join herds of wild pigeons, where Meyer says former homers have been found living on the streets.
“They (the savages) show him where the food and water are, where the shelters are,” Meyer explains. “He (the temperamental carrier pigeon) maybe meets a posh young lady and sets up cleaning under an overpass or who knows where.”
So, with all this poultry game going on, why go through the trials and tribulations of breeding and training pigeons? Meyer, racing secretary for the Decatur & Macon County Racing Pigeon Club, says it’s an addictive passion that he can’t shake, and that he’s been a racing pigeon for 48 years.
He puffs up his chest and smooths himself with pride as he recounts the races his birds have won or ranked in the long flight of time. Entering a dovecote 24 feet long and 8 feet high, he shows a fine example of the breed by picking up a bird marked with the paw tag “2106”, which recently finished a very respectable second in a 500 mile race from Oklahoma City.
Even visitors unfamiliar with the pecking order of birds can’t help but admire the 2106’s elegant mottled gray plumage (technical name “blue check”) and remarkable white flight feathers. With the neck feathers highlighted by flashes of metallic green, it is a bird that appears to have been hand painted by God while the Almighty was having a good day. Meyer says the thrill of watching a bird like this return home in maybe 14 or 15 hours after a 500 mile run never gets old.
“Every time you pull them out and let them go, there’s a danger, there’s no guarantee they’ll come back,” says Meyer, who works as an insurance adjuster and appreciates the science of risk. “And if they’re a little late, you start to get a little more worried, a little more depressed, and then all of a sudden – boom – you see that little dot coming home.” I get the same level of excitement every time.
How do the birds, which fly only during the day, manage these extraordinary feats of navigation? There have been all kinds of experiments and all kinds of theories, and it seems likely that birds are able to detect changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, as well as use visual and even olfactory cues. Mankind has been aware of this capability for at least 3,000 years, and carrier pigeons provided air mail service to Baghdad in 1150.
The extraordinary birds are also perched on the perch in times of war, carrying vital messages while frequently being themselves under fire. The war pigeon “Dear Friend”, who saved countless Doughboy lives with his messages during World War I as he flew for the US Army Signal Corps, returned home despite being shot in the chest and being injured. leg broken by a German sniper.
Cher Ami (“Cher Ami”, in French) was later awarded the French “Croix de Guerre” medal with Palme for heroism and died in 1919 of complications from his combat injuries. The pigeon’s one-legged body (grateful soldiers carved a wooden leg for it during his lifetime) was stuffed and remains on display at the Smithsonian.
Pigeon enthusiast and admirer Donald Lake keeps racing pigeons at his home near Niantic and says you can’t help but respect the brave birds that lick each other but keep ticking. Sometimes, however, they need a good human wingman to fix them up after a hard day in the air combat zone.
Lake, 70, has over the years become something of a paramedic pigeon specialist and has developed his own effective treatment techniques for birds that limp at home after bloody encounters with hawks or sons. After explaining how he medically “cleans” them and carefully repackages any internal bird plumbing that has found its way outward through an open wound, he deals with the glue.
“I use Super Glue to replenish skin that is too fragile to suture,” he says. “And these birds will fly the next day.”
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