“Why pigeons?” people ask us when they see my family walking down Raleigh streets carrying our small cage filled with bobbing-headed birds. Or when company spots the little white house with the bull’s-eye red door in our backyard, home to nine winged residents eager for visitors. “Why would you ever get pigeons?”
I first thought of keeping pigeons while rocking our son, Thompson, less than a year old at the time. He and I were on a roll of enjoying those weird morning hours experienced most often by wild, college-age fun-seekers, more reasonable raccoons and possums, and new parents. “Pigeons would be nice,” I thought with the delirious brain of someone who has been awake so long that she no longer registers the smears of someone else’s breakfast crusted to her forehead. “We should get pigeons.”
I’m not alone in my love for pigeons. North Carolina is rich with pigeon fanciers. Hundreds of enthusiasts keep bird lofts in yards or on rooftops across the state. Many fanciers began keeping pigeons because they had grandparents or parents who kept pigeons. Maybe that’s why I got pigeons. In the 1920s, my own grandmother had a loft in Connecticut, where she raised homing pigeons, or homers, to sell to neighbors to eat or race. Like many fanciers in the early 20th-century United States, she was a child of immigrants who brought along the practice when they arrived.
I found Bruce Gaudet, who sold us our birds, through an Internet search. In his 60s, Bruce rears racing homers and a few breeds of fancy pigeons, called show birds. His lofts span the width of his Fuquay-Varina backyard, a maze of perches and shelters, clean and natural gray-brown structures punctuated by the papery flutter of hundreds of feathered wings. In the late 1960s, Bruce spotted his neighbors’ pigeons along his newspaper route in New York State. Fascinated, he got a pair of birds from his neighbor when he was 12 years old.
Pigeons can mate for life. Hope (left) and Flash Dash have been a couple for three years. photograph by Charles Harris
“I just found it amazing that you could let them go, and they’d come back,” he says. Racing homers like Bruce’s can travel more than a thousand miles to get home. When Bruce moved to North Carolina, he built a travel cage for his birds and drove them down. He locked the younger birds in their coop for six weeks to help them learn their new home, but his older pigeons had to stay inside. If he had released them, they would’ve flown back to New York.
When we brought our young pigeons home, they rode in the back of our station wagon in a cardboard box with a small flap cut out for a door. We could hear the skitter of pigeon feet trying to gain purchase on the cardboard with every bump and curve. We put them in our coop. They peered at us through their little cardboard door, their bright, round eyes wild, tender, and afraid.
“You’ll only be in here six weeks,” we told them. “Then, you’ll fly.”
Two days later, we found a Cooper’s hawk — the shark of the skies — sitting on our coop, waiting for his supper.
“Get out of here, you big meanie!” we shouted at him. He turned his amber eyes casually in our direction, lifted his gray-cloaked shoulders, and loped to a tree branch just above our heads. Hawks are never in a hurry unless they’re being sneaky. Our flock huddled in their natal box, probably wishing they were back at Bruce’s house.
Charles Darwin explored his ideas of how life’s wild and wonderful diversity came to be by breeding fancy pigeons in his yard. He gathered breeds and crossed them to thrilling effect. His letters reveal his initial bemusement with working-class fanciers, but before long, Darwin learned the secret of their appeal. He fell in love with his birds, telling friends that watching his pigeons was “the greatest treat … which can be offered to [a] human being.”
In Kinston, Danny Joe Humphrey knows the secret that Darwin learned. He breeds fancy pigeons. A peek through the welded wire in any of the lofts in his backyard will astound the uninitiated. Sharp-eyed Archangels shine all bronze and silver like statues; short-beaked Seraphim return large-eyed gazes; double-crested Saxon Priests strut about with tufted feet, ready to take confessions. Short-tailed Old Dutch Capuchines turn regal heads from necks ringed in lavish Elizabethan collars made of feathers. Arabian Trumpeters chee and oop like monkeys in the jungle.
“You can ask a hundred different pigeon breeders why they have pigeons, and nobody can give you an exact reason,” Danny Joe says. “But with pigeons, for me, it was like love at first sight.”
Hawks are never in a hurry unless they’re being sneaky.
He started with homers given to him by a friend’s dad more than 60 years ago, when he was 13 years old. Today, he has at least 30 breeds, which he keeps and sells across the United States. Sometimes, he shows them at pigeon shows.
We didn’t get fancy pigeons like Darwin and Danny Joe. We got homers.
For six weeks, we visited our pigeons in their backyard loft. At first, they looked like a group of dumb-but-pretty birds — just a group, not much different from the faceless masses of birds we’d see picking up French fries from the McDonald’s parking lot. Opening the coop resulted in a flurry of wings and feet as they tried to get away from us. But we came back at the same times each day, shaking food, and calling them. “Coo coo, caroo,” Pete, my older son, would say, trying to imitate their sound. “Coo caroo, pigeons. It’s only us.”
After a while, we started to remember each other. Buddy Glass has a tiny white spot near his eye. Winblo does not. Hope’s gray back is splattered with pepper specks. Flash Dash and Milo are both snow white, but Milo is noisy and crashes into things while Flash Dash is tentative and curious. Wild Thing came later, a wild bird who showed up in our coop one day. We’ve released her around town to encourage her to live somewhere else, but she keeps coming home to us. Her eyes are as wild as her name, but she takes seeds from our hands so gently it feels like kitten whiskers on our palms.
The birds started to recognize us, to wait expectantly for us each morning. After a while, the boys fell into the rhythm of the pigeons. They trained their favorite birds to perch on their arms and peck food from their palms. They learned to be patient; if you wait, living things will come to you, gladly. They learned how to gently open hollow-boned wings with tiny fingers. How to show up each morning so that someone else will know you’re worth counting on. In the afternoons, they squat on a small ladder in the coop and talk to the birds, warn them about our large, bird-eating dog, ask them what it’s like to fly. They reassure the birds, tell them everything is going to be all right, that it’s OK to spill seeds; there will always be more seeds, and spills are easy to manage.
We forgot about the Cooper’s hawk.
Released from an unfamiliar place, homing pigeons try to go home. They can fly up to 100 miles per hour to beat it to their lofts. Scientists aren’t sure how they do it but they think the birds use a number of tools, including Earth’s electromagnetic fields, remembering the smells of places, and recalling landmarks like man-made roads. During World Wars I and II, pigeons saved thousands of lives because we used their intense, persistent drive to get home to deliver messages for us. In World War I, Cher Ami, an iridescent silver bird trained by Americans, pounded toward home through gunfire and shrapnel with a message tied to her leg. Her battalion was trapped, surrounded by Germans, and losing lives to friendly fire. She made it home, 25 miles in 25 minutes, exhausted, shot through the breast by Germans, blinded in one eye. Along with the battalion’s location, the note read: “For Heaven’s sake, stop it.”
Cher Ami saved 194 American men. Today, her body is housed in the Smithsonian Institution. She and more than 30 birds won national medals of honor for their service.
Still fascinated by their speed, people around the world continue to race pigeons. In North Carolina, about eight clubs race pigeons locally, and birds from all over compete in big races like the Breeders Fall Classic. Their owners pay $100 or so per bird and hope to win thousands of dollars in prize money. To race, fanciers release pigeons from a designated spot and see how long it takes them to get home. Bruce has a few champion racers, and some that have won awards like “best average speed.”
Sometimes, the birds don’t make it home.
“You lose quite a few birds each season,” Bruce says. “You have hawks or electrical wires they fly into. If you start a season racing 25 birds, you’re lucky if you have 20 left at the end of the year.”
The author shows her son Thompson a juvenile bird that would be named Gregory Peck. photograph by Charles Harris
We didn’t get our pigeons to race them, but we know they don’t make it home sometimes. Milo and Buddy Glass both went missing after an outing. We found Milo’s white feathers in the park a couple of blocks from our house, beneath the big tree where the Cooper’s hawk perches and screams in the morning air. The boys gathered them from bushes and mud puddles, and we tucked as many as we could find in our pockets. These feathers are our Milo, bobbing and strutting with excitement whenever he saw us in the yard; Milo, flying to tree branches and dancing for anything that resembled a female; Milo, the first to land on our young sons’ hands and brush his head tenderly on their fingers. We brought his feathers to our backyard, back to his home.
Pigeons are synanthropic. They are like the ants on our kitchen counters, the squirrels in our trees: They thrive where we thrive. Like much of the wildlife that we see every day, we usually don’t pay attention to them unless they bother us. We may ignore the birds that cover our statues and parking lot rails. We have forgotten that humans have kept pigeons for thousands of years. We also miss that the fathers and mothers both care for their young. They take egg-sitting shifts, both make a protein-rich milk to feed their babies, both encourage the chicks to grow. Those white doves we release at ceremonies are as much pigeon as the stout gray-and-green fellows waddling around the grocery store parking lot, looking for crusts. The birds we see in our neighborhoods can live 12 years, and just like our human neighbors, our trees, our squirrels, they become our companions.
Waiting for a pigeon to come home, you learn more about who lives with you by looking for the ones who are not there. You learn about your world from watching the treetops. Life goes silent when a hawk is nearby. The chucks and hisses of squirrels and songbirds signal that a neighbor’s cat needs scolding. You learn to tell the flash of your bird’s feathers apart from those of any other birds. You see the bounty that can live in a city tree and start to recognize other avian neighbors. The feisty chickadee. The plucky wren. The shy nuthatch. The bossy blue jay. They reveal themselves if you’re still, and you learn their languages. You become friends as you wait for those you love the most. And when it’s about time for them to come home, all the world becomes an indistinguishable din as your birds burst through the sky. Each time they come home is a miracle, a celebration. “You did it!” we all cheer. “Welcome home! Welcome home, you good birds!”
I don’t know for sure why I thought we should get pigeons. What I know is more of a sensation than a fact: the rocking of my son in the darkness, the tug of a small being so powerful it feels like it could pull me through the floor. The tiny fingers, arms, and legs wrapped around me, made to spread and grow like hollow-boned wings, to wave and run to places I may never see. The truth from familiarity, the importance of care. The world as vast and mysterious as those dark morning hours, with Cooper’s hawks and canopies of trees as dangerous as they are havens. Maps made of stars, heroes made of feathers, love made of something more deeply animal than human understanding, and the knowledge that these things must be experienced for a life to be lived. The hope — that thing with feathers — as fragile as the minutes we rocked away. Those minutes are gone and won’t come back. The simple song tumbles through the breast like a coo, rumbles as steady as a heartbeat, but loses meaning when sung as human words: “Come home. Come home. Please, come home.”
Between flights around the neighborhood, the Rices’ pigeons like to perch on a pecan tree branch to watch the family. photograph by Charles Harris
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