Local pigeon club keeps history alive

Special to The Pee Dee Post

RICHMOND COUNTY — As Danny Clifton stood sentry, scanning the skies from his picnic table in Rockingham, he had a healthy hunch that Pretty Girl would be the first bird home. Sure enough, the petite, 13-ounce pigeon made a final circle above Danny’s backyard, swooped smoothly onto the stoop, and walked calmly back into a pigeon loft.

Submitted photo

Submitted photo

Pretty Girl had just wrapped up a mind-boggling feat: She flew eight hours straight, at 44 mph, from 350 miles away in Brunswick, Ga. With her uncanny internal GPS and single-minded determination, she made a beeline for one tiny speck in a semi rural neighborhood just east of Rockingham.

Every time Pretty Girl arrives home from the long-distance races she’s aced to earn elite-flier status, “she still looks like a million bucks,” says Danny, a disabled veteran who’s president of the Sandhills Racing Pigeon Club.

For Danny and the other pigeon racers in the Sandhills, moments like Pretty Girls quiet triumph are unforgettable. It’s the payoff for pampering the pigeons from egg to birth and beyond, patiently training them day after day to carry out their ancestral mission of flying home — fast. For many owners of these so-called thoroughbreds of the sky, it’s all part of a thrilling high-stakes sport that pits top fliers for lucrative purses at races like the annual Texas Showdown and Florida Flamingo Race, two of the country’s top pigeon competitions.

For the rest of us, it’s an astounding reminder of the abilities of pigeons to perform jaw-dropping feats while carrying on one of the world’s oldest methods of communication.

“The Romans and Greeks used pigeons widely to carry messages,” enthuses Bulverde’s Robert Tomlinson, a pigeon racer and former executive vice president of the Oklahoma City-based American Racing Pigeon Union, which has close to 700 clubs and 10,000 members. For centuries, pigeons provided postal services — everywhere from a fully bird-staffed service in 12th century Baghdad, Iraq, all the way up to India’s Police Pigeon Service, an 800-bird “P-mail” service for emergency messages that was used until 2002.

Heroic wartime homers performed even nobler tasks. During World War II, a pigeon named GI Joe was credited with saving the lives of at least 1,000 British soldiers. He delivered a message to the Americans not to bomb an Italian city where, unbeknownst to U.S. forces, the Germans had retreated and British troops had just entered.

During World War I, a carrier pigeon named Cher Ami delivered messages within the American sector at Verdun, France. His last message, carried from the “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Infantry Division, elevated Cher Ami to legendary heights. Shot through the breast, the bird somehow managed to return to his loft where a message capsule was found dangling from the ligaments of a leg also shattered by enemy fire. Mere hours after the message was received, 194 survivors of the battalion were safe behind American lines.

The U.S. Army disbanded its Signal Pigeon Corps — which numbered 54,000 pigeons at its peak — in 1957.

Historically speaking, commerce worldwide once partially relied on the pigeon. In the early 1800s, a network of pigeon couriers ferried financial information all over Europe for firms such as the Rothschild family companies. Pigeons carried stock prices between Aachen and Brussels for the Reuters news agency until a telegraph link was established in 1851.

In 2009, a South African information technology company proved it was faster — at least in this one instance — to transmit data with a carrier pigeon than via Telkom, the country’s leading Internet service provider. It took the pigeon 1 hour and 8 minutes to fly 50 miles to the coastal city of Durban with a data card strapped to its leg. The transfer of data, including downloading, took 2 hours, 6 minutes and 57 seconds — over that same period, only 4 percent of the data was transferred using a Telkom line.

Pigeons still create plenty of commerce: Pigeon racing carries big-buck purses in places such as South Africa, where the Sun City Million Dollar Pigeon Race attracts an elite field. European, Latin American and Asian countries are known for lucrative races and plenty of pigeon gambling, Danny notes. Racing pigeons of prized pedigree and speed—they’ve been clocked up to 92 mph — have been sold for $250,000 at auction.

Most Sandhill’s enthusiasts, though, are drawn to the hobby for family fun and a chance to hone skills to produce exceptional pigeons.

“It’s a fascinating pastime,” says pigeon racer Benja Burr, a retired first sergeant with the North Carolina Highway Patrol and owner of Wings of Love. “You use genetics to breed the best bird, medicine and animal-husbandry knowledge to keep them healthy and training well and meteorology to strategize about weather conditions for flying.”

“Everybody wants to know how the pigeons know how to get home — even from a place they’ve never been before,” he adds. “We still don’t know exactly how!”

Studies show that pigeons use the position of the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass. Researchers have found iron-containing structures in homing pigeons’ beaks and posit that the birds form a “magnetic map” based on magnetic fields. Pigeons also rely on a keen sense of sight, smell and sound.

Pigeon fanciers reinforce these abilities by providing care that’s “like training a world-class athlete,” says Danny. He built his pigeon loft, an airy, whitewashed building that looks more like a guesthouse than birdhouse, in his spacious backyard off of County Home Road.

Pigeons coo softly as he points out the nesting areas where he’ll mate the best fliers after poring over lineage records. He shows off the special grain mixes and details the daily care that includes weekly baths to keep feathers primed for flight. “They love their baths—even when it’s colder, they’ll fly right over and jump in,” Danny says.

As for baby care from mom and dad pigeon, they share round-the-clock duties, with both sitting on eggs and then feeding their young “milk” secreted through their crops. Babies get banded with their lifelong numbered leg band at the age of 1 week, and by 6 weeks, they’re ready to begin with test flights called “training tosses.”

“First, you let them fly around the yard, and you train them to come back through the trap door,” explains Danny. “Then you’ll take them five miles and let them fly home, then move up to 10 and eventually 50 and 100.”

Homing instincts are reinforced with tossings timed to make the flight home coincide with breakfast or dinnertime. And pigeons are also motivated to fly home to return to a mate or baby. But human bonding is a crucial part, too.

“I talk to my pigeons and snuggle them,” says Danny, who believes the maternal touch may explain why female pigeon owners, who are a small but growing minority in the pigeon-racing world, are increasingly producing prizewinners.

The “young-bird” race season for pigeons born in a calendar year begins in North Carolina when the weather cools down in September. Club members transport pigeons to the starting point, where all birds are boarded in a special trailer rigged to open each cage at precisely the same moment. Then the race is on, with winners calculated by the elapsed time until the pigeon touches down on its home-loft landing board. Technology ensures fairness: Each pigeon has a computer chip in its leg band, and each loft features an electronically wired landing board that will automatically register the bird’s band number as soon as it alights there.

The “old-bird” season begins in the spring for pigeons older than 1 year. In North Carolina, 600 miles is the racing max. “With the heat, it’s too stressful to make them fly farther,” Benja says. From the second they’re released, tension builds as owners worry about how their birds will maneuver within changing weather patterns while dodging hunters’ bullets and swerving around high-line wires and other tall obstacles, such as utility towers.

“There’s a lot that can go wrong in a race,” says pigeon racer Walt Smith who’s Vice President of the Sandhills Racing Pigeon Clubs, “But those times when you’re waiting for them to come back and then they come soaring in,” he muses as the sun sets over his Cordova-area loft, “that moment makes every bit of it worthwhile.”

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