Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tunnel Vision; Waiting for the A Train, The Sophisticated Pigeon

The New York Times
Published: March 5, 2002

In the annals of strange subway stories -- some pure urban legend, some alarmingly real -- there has always been a menagerie of animals.

Stories of alligators roaming the tunnels, of pet snakes loose on trains, of rats tough enough to survive the third rail. There have been eyewitness accounts of live chickens, on their way from poultry market to soup pot, escaping from sacks and running amok through the cars. Recently, someone posted a story on the Internet about a man in the subway walking a dog that was being ridden by a cat, the dog and cat dressed in matching Uncle Sam hats. (The story was accompanied by a photograph to prove that it was not made up by Dr. Seuss.)

But one subway animal story has been so persistent and widespread that it simply cried out to be investigated: the case of the train-riding pigeons of Far Rockaway.

A little more than a year ago, a motorman and a conductor on the A line, which terminates at the Far Rockaway station, swore to this reporter that it was true. They said it was common knowledge among longtime riders and those who worked on the line. Pigeons, they said, would board the trains at the outdoor terminal and step off casually at the next station down the line, Beach 25th Street, as if they were heading south but were too lazy, or too fat, to fly.

The inquiry began the other afternoon, when the question was put to a car cleaning supervisor at the terminal. He appeared suspiciously nervous about the subject. ''Oh, no,'' he said. ''Our trains have no pigeons.''

But Andrew Rizzo, 44, a cleaner sweeping in a nearby train, looked around and smiled as if he were finally going to get to reveal his secret.

The birds ride the trains all the time, he explained, motivated not by sloth but by simple hunger and ignorance: when the trains lay over at the terminal to be cleaned, for about 20 minutes, pigeons amble through the doors, looking for forgotten crumbs. But being pigeons, they do not listen for the announcement that the train is leaving, and the doors close on them. They ride generally for one stop, exiting as soon as the doors open again.

''If you don't know what's going on,'' said Mr. Rizzo, pushing his glasses up on his nose, ''you'd think they knew what they were doing. It's a little freaky.''

Mr. Rizzo has a soft spot in his heart for pigeons, who helped him make a living in Central Park in the late 1980's when he was less gainfully employed. He would wear straps with tiny cups of birdfeed on his arms and head and would soon be covered with pigeons, Hitchcock-style. He would put out a donation box, and pull in $200 a weekend. ''I still feed them sometimes,'' he said. ''I feel bad for the little guys.'' But he also admitted: ''I run them out of the train. I don't want them to make no mistakes, if you know what I mean.'' Despite his efforts, they make many little mistakes.

Mr. Rizzo and many of his fellow employees at the terminal have become amateur ornithologists. They said that pigeons -- known vulgarly as air rats, more elegantly as rock doves -- ride trains at several outdoor terminals and stations, like the Stillwell Avenue station in Coney Island.

Francisco Peña, a conductor on the A, said he watched them step off his train and promptly fly back to the Far Rockaway terminal. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the blue homing pigeon reported to have flown 7,200 miles from France back to Vietnam in the 1930's, but still, Mr. Peña said, not bad.

Frank Maynor, a car cleaner, noted how the sparrows and seagulls, also plentiful at the terminal, are never bold enough to venture into the cars. The sparrows can be seen hopping onto the threshold, looking longingly inside. The gulls loiter outside, like thugs, waiting to tear pizza crusts from the bills of unsuspecting pigeons as soon as they carry them out.

''They shove the pigeons around,'' said Mr. Maynor, disapprovingly. ''But they're going to evolve and start going into the trains, too. They're giving up a lot of food to the pigeons.''

On the subject of evolution, Sarah Canty, another cleaner, said she had noticed that the pigeons might be evolving into more alert straphangers. ''When the bell goes off, you watch them,'' she said. ''They know the bell like we do.'' And indeed, when the next bell rang, signaling that a train was about to depart, several pigeons could be seen high-stepping it out of the trains.

But there are those who have either not learned or are yearning to break free from the nest. And at 10:45 yesterday morning, it finally happened: a dark, plump bird with iridescent purple feathers around the neck took a ride. Alone with the bird in the car was Eduard Karlov, a retired procurement officer for the United Nations.

Mr. Karlov, originally from Moscow, glanced over at his fellow passenger and smiled. ''He does not bother me, and, in fact, I find him rather amusing,'' he said, adding, ''I cannot give you any more details with respect to pigeons, however.''

Photos: (William C. Lopez for The New York Times)(pg. A1); With no tokens to its name, a pigeon that got on the A train at the Far Rockaway station in Queens pondered its next move, top. Workers say pigeons often board there and exit one stop later. (Photographs by William C. Lopez for The New York Times)(pg. B3)

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Training The Individual

By Jas. C. Foster, Jr.
The American Racing Pigeon News
September, 1954

We hear much about methods of training pigeons. "I fly my pigeons forty miles every day;" "I force fly them thirty minutes around the loft every morning," and so on. How about it? What is the right method, or is there such a thing as a good method; a satisfactory system for conditioning racing pigeons? Personally, I do not think there is.

The baseball season is now well under way. Presumably all regular players are in as good condition as it has been possible to get them. How did they get that way?

Sometime ago, after the winter layoff, they all were called in to the spring training camps. Individually, they were in very different states of physical condition. Did the managers put them all through the same course of training? Certainly not.

Some were overweight, gross and sluggish. Nothing but long hours of hard work would take off the excess fat and put them into condition. They got this work, day after day. Others were underweight and too fine. Some had had operations or illnesses from which they had fully recovered. Did these men get the same conditioning treatment as the fat and sluggish players. Certainly not. They had to be built up and brought into work slowly as they toughened up and could take it.

I do not think there are greater differences in physical condition between ball players or race horses than between racing pigeons. Nor do I think there are greater differences between the same number of racing pigeons.

It would sound rather silly, wouldn't it, to ask a trainer how much work he gives his race horses to put them in racing trim. Some horses take several times as much work as others. In fact, both work and diet must be fitted to the needs of individual horses or there would be no hope of ever winning a Kentucky Derby. The work one horse may need to put it into condition would kill off another horse altogether.

It is the same way with racing pigeons. There can't be any system suitable for all of them. Different pigeons require very different amounts of work. They all, of course, need some work. They may be started off together and given calisthenics up to, say, 100 miles. Then the way each individual pigeon takes its work and reacts to it must be studied carefully. After the calisthenics stages are past, the work given to each individual pigeon must be regulated to meet its individual needs.

Racing pigeons should be conditioned as individuals, which they are, not as a flock. I do not think there is, nor can be, any successful "system" for training racing pigeons; one that will be suitable to all individuals of any race team. I think each racing pigeon must be treated as an individual and trained and conditioned as an individual. Any fancier who relies upon a "system" of training is very apt to find that this system fits only a small percentage of his race team and that the rest of the team never come into high racing form. As challengers for the top honors, the rest of these pigeons are useless, although many of them may potentially be among the best racers of the team.

The fancier who thinks of his pigeons as so many race horses and attempts to handle each one so as to meet its individual needs is the fancier most likely to ship an entry of pigeons to a race in such condition that each one will have a real opportunity to offer top contention. Unfit pigeons don't win. No matter how good any system may be, it will not fit the needs of most of the pigeons in any team, nor will it bring them into top racing form.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hobby takes off for B.C. man

The Toronto Star
Saturday, April 20 1991

Earl Kitto trains and races homing pigeons

VERNON, B.C. (CP) - Earl Kitto gave his son's homing pigeons away twice. They came back. Twice. So now he has an absorbing hobby: racing pigeons. Some of his older birds have raced home to Vernon from as far away as Smithers, B.C., 725 kilometres (450 miles) as the crow - or pigeon - flies.

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Some of Earl Kitto's prize pigeons have raced home from as far away as 725 kilometres. He has a flock of 42 adult birds.

Released daily from their loft for exercise, the flock of 42 adult birds circles above Kitto's land north of this Okanagan community for two or three hours at a stretch. The birds are athletes and Kitto begins conditioning them early at about 4 months. "You just take them in cages about a mile away the first time," he says, adding he keeps moving farther out each day.

They are comical to watch as they overshoot the slippery loft roof and clumsily negotiate turns in the air. "It takes a while to learn to turn and some don't come back for a couple of days." Some return with broken legs. Kitto splints them. He loses about six birds a year - to hawks, in collisions, or during the confusion created by electrical storms.

Both males and females race, and Kitto's hens routinely out do the cocks. Birds race against the clock. They're trucked to a release point, often several hundred kilometres from home, and all are released at a pre-arranged time. As each bird returns to the loft, an identifying band is removed from its leg and placed in a specially designed timing clock. The winner is the one with the fastest over-all speed. Some racing pigeons, flying with a tailwind, have been clocked at 90 km/h (55 m.p.h.).

Barring disease or accident, pigeons live for about 10 years and can race competitively until about age 7. Most race best between ages 2 and 4. Some bird owners take racing very seriously. When betting takes place, fortunes have been won and lost by the tick of a timing clock. "It's very competitive," says Kitto. "You can make and lose friends real quick."

Pigeon fanciers include Queen, Boxer

WEYMOUTH, England (Reuter) - Clint Eastwood, Mike Tyson and Queen Elizabeth are said to share a common passion: all are devoted to pigeons. That passion can be expensive. In Japan and Taiwan, for instance, prices equivalent to $40,000 U.S. have been quoted for a single bird.

The most sought-after pigeons are from the Jan Aarden strain, which race distances of up to 1,300 kilometres (810 miles), and the Janssen breed, popular with the British Royal Family, including the Queen, who keeps them at her Sandringham estate. The pigeon, a relation of the rock dove, has fascinated man for more than 5,000 years. Egyptian pharaohs and roman warriors used them to carry messages - a trait that news agency founder Paul Julius Reuter later exploited in mid 19th century Europe to bridge communication gaps.

The sport of pigeon racing, which first became popular in Belgium in the early 19th century, is fraught with hazards. In 1912, of 1,638 pigeons released in Marennes, France, to fly to Manchester, England, only 31 arrived. Now breeder Tony Hayne is worried that the thinning of the ozone layer is affecting his birds. "In years gone by, if you released 10 pigeons, you expected 10 pigeons back," he says. "I don't know if it's the change in the climate, with this hole in the atmosphere, but bad races seem to be increasing. A lot of pigeons are being lost for no reason at all."

Hayne, one of Britain's top breeders, and his wife Mary run a pigeon stud farm called Ponderosa Pigeons U.K., based at Weymouth on the southwestern coast of England. Racers are not always scrupulous. Last year, a Dutch racer was banned for 30 years for tampering with the clock used to time his pigeons. "Pigeon nobbling (cheating) has been going on since the sport began," Hayne says.

Sex is another handy racing aid. Female birds are said to fly home much faster if they know their mate was left at home with another female admirer. However, it seems that the owners are the ones who suffer the most torment. "It's no good if you've got a weak heart," says Mary Hayne. "Tony's so nervous I can't even talk to him on race days." Hayne, who is involved in planning an international race for 100,000 birds in Barcelona to coincide with the start of the 1992 Olympic Games in Spain, admits that the anxious wait for a homecoming racing pigeon is tough on the nerves. "You wouldn't believe the number of times I've been standing out there scanning the skies and timed in a sparrow or a butterfly by mistake."

Past sports promotions
Pigeon racing

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Sprinkle Sea Salt over chopped up Cabbage, and give to the feeder's daily.

Twenty words or less TCC Loft series
Chas. Heitzman passed this on to Tony Paszterko years ago, and Tony still gives cabbage to the feeders today.

Feeding greens to our breeder's is also discussed in "The Practical Side of Pigeon Racing"
by Leon Petit

Friday, March 25, 2011

Early Warning Pigeons

The New York Times
Published: March 15, 2003

WINGED SENSORS -- Dozens of pigeons were distributed to Marine units in Kuwait to warn them of chemical attacks. Like the canaries that miners once carried in case they ran into explosive gas, the pigeons fall victim to dangers more quickly than humans. The Marines will also be equipped with $12,000 mechanical sensors. The pigeons cost $60 each, plus seed.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Homing Pigeons, Close to Home

The New York Times
Published: January 18, 2005

Homing pigeons are renowned for their ability to navigate over long distances, and after decades of study scientists are pretty sure they know how the birds do it. They use their sense of smell to figure out where they are and the position of the sun to determine the direction they must fly.

But less is known about how pigeons navigate when they are close to home, in more familiar surroundings. Many researchers have thought that in such situations the birds must rely, at least partly, on visual cues.

"There's been controversy about whether familiar landmarks have been used," said Jessica Meade, a doctoral student in the Animal Behavior Research Group at the University of Oxford in England. "Because there was no tracking of the birds along the homeward route, the hypotheses aren't very clear."

Ms. Meade and two colleagues, Dr. Dora Biro and Dr. Tim Guilford, set out to rectify that situation, using small Global Positioning System loggers attached to the backs of 15 homing pigeons. These devices, which weigh about an ounce, use satellite signals to record precise location fixes every second.

The researchers released the birds about three miles from home, and each bird had about 20 flights from the same point. The results are published in Proceedings B, a journal of the Royal Society.

At first, the researchers found, the birds' routes were highly variable. But after a number of flights the birds began to follow the same path from flight to flight, even though they were not necessarily the most direct routes home.

This route stereotypy, as it is called, implies that the birds use visual cues to navigate: they follow the same cues in order to reduce the memory load on their brains.

"We were also surprised that the routes were longer than they needed to be," Ms. Meade said. This implies that the pigeons use a chain of landmarks by themselves or in combination with compass bearings, but that they do not integrate direction and distance. If they did, Ms. Meade said, they would realize their routes are not the most efficient ones.

Whatever the precise method, the work suggests that homing pigeons shift from primarily compass navigation to visual navigation when they get near their home.

"It seems like they use a different strategy when they are very familiar with a task," Ms. Meade said.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Using pigeons to carry the news

By Jackie Kemp
Friday, 4 March 2011

...I marvel at the rapid transformation in the way that news and entertainment are delivered to the public. Yet in their day the telegraph (invented in 1837), the modern typewriter (1867), carbon paper (1872), and the telephone (1872) were just as revolutionary. The arrival of the Linotype machine and the rotary press in the same period coincided with the removal of stamp duty and press censorship.

The use of pigeons to carry news also occurred around that time and is part of the folklore of the press. Though I have never seen it they say there is a pigeon loft in the old Herald building in Mitchell Street, which has stood empty since we left it for Albion Street in 1980.

Sometimes, listening to the stories of old-timers, I have found myself feeling a certain scepticism, thinking that perhaps they were apocryphal. Certainly most of the yarns are risible. Yet the use of pigeons for news, documented in various histories of the press, must have seemed during its brief epoch as innovative as fibre-optics in our own time.

It is hard for us to imagine how slowly news arrived until the technological revolution of the nineteenth century. In 1815 the news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo took four days to reach London; the news of his death at St Helena six years later was brought by sea and took two months.

Telegraph lines began to spread from the 1840s and, according to a new history of Reuters to be published next week, the use of pigeons sprang up to fill gaps in the chain.

It is often thought that Julius Reuter was the first to employ pigeons in this way but this was not the case. In the field before him were Charles Havas, the founder of the French agency of that name (whose integrity was to be compromised by French Government subsidy), the Rothschilds and other financers. The development of international news services was driven by the need for financial information as well as for political and diplomatic intelligence.

Reuter brought a high degree of organisation to the deployment of pigeons. In 1950 there was a gap of 76 miles between the German telegraph line linking Aachen to Berlin and the French system joining Brussels to Paris.

Reuter made an agreement with an Aachen pigeon-fancier who supplied 45 trained birds to maintain a service with Brussels, where they were sent each day by rail to fly back next day.

The first pigeons were released at dawn. To guard against loss or delay, three birds carrying identical messages were sent up each time. A trusted assistant received them in the pigeon loft in Aachen, placing the messages in a sealed box to be sent round to the office where Reuter sat waiting, smoking and reading the papers.

When the box arrived Reuter and his two clerks sprang into action to transcribe the densely hand-written sheets. Runners hurried them to the telegraph office for dispatch to Berlin.

Even in modern times Reuter men occasionally fell back on pigeons in emergencies (for example during the Normandy invasion) but their systematic use by newspapers must have persisted only for some years after 1850.

There was an anecdote on the old Manchester Guardian, where my father worked before the war, about a reporter of the old school who was sent to cover a Gladstone campaign meeting. He went by bike from Manchester to, let us say, Altrincham, and was alarmed to see that a rival had brought pigeons.

Full of despair, he set off back to Manchester as soon as he could, his shorthand notebook in his pocket. As he cycled, the sky darkened and it began to rain. To his immense relief he saw the pigeons of his competitor settle on the dome of the town hall. On that occasion, at least, he was first with the news. No date attaches to this story but it may have been some time before 1867, when Gladstone won a landslide victory and formed his first administration.

Another hoary old anecdote concerns the sports reporter who, towards the end of a local derby in Edinburgh, had written out the scoreline and inserted it under the pigeon's wing. Just before the final whistle, Hearts scored. The reporter (I fear he was biased) raised his arms in exultation, releasing the pigeon prematurely. As it flew off he shouted after it: ''Hearts 2, Hibs 1!''

In those days the pigeon and the telegraph were used to deliver news of national or financial import, of wars and treaties, of markets collapsing or prospering. Nowadays Reuters world-wide system of computer-driven financial information and dealing systems is of first importance, a vehicle for the currency flows which so inconvenience national governments from time to time. In the sixties the volume of foreign exchange transactions was about $3 trillion a year. By 1987 it had reached $87 trillion, a staggering rate of growth.

Much of the new information technology delivers entertainment or trivia across frontiers, reinforcing American domination of popular culture. But even in the old days the cabled message could be vacuous, as we are reminded by the couplet on the illness of the Prince of Wales by Alfred Austin, whose appointment as poet laureate in 1896 aroused widespread derision:

Across the wires the electric
message came:
He is no better, he is much
the same.

Then, as now, the means to communicate provided no guarantee that there was anything to say.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

1898 Photograph of a Passenger Pigeon.

The last wild Passenger Pigeon was shot by a 14-year-old boy in Ohio in 1900, while the last known individual of the passenger pigeon species, named "Martha" after Martha Washington, died at 1 p.m. on the 1st of September 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. She was 29.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bath Twice A Week

Heitzman's birds were given baths throughout the year. To control lice he added two ounces of sodium-Fluoride to four gallons.

Twenty words or less TCC Loft series

Friday, March 18, 2011

They Don't Brake for Statues; Racing Pigeons Hurry Home to Brooklyn, at 55 M.P.H.

The New York Times
Published: October 16, 2001

There were 1,500 pigeons packed into traveling crates, and the Knights of Columbus taproom smelled like a barn. It was race night and the birdmen talked to one another about storm fronts and prevailing winds. They talked to their birds.

They synchronized their race clocks and tagged their pigeons with numbered rubber bands. They drifted toward the bar to make their boasts and lay their bets. Someone bragged about his slate-roofed coop -- a recent import from Belgium. Behind their beer cups, the other birdmen frowned with lust.

At midnight, the crates were stacked in a trailer and the birds were hauled 400 miles from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Cadiz, Ohio. The race would start in the morning when the pigeons were freed at 8 a.m. Flying at 55 miles per hour, with a tailwind and a bit of luck, it would take them about seven hours to return.

For a pigeon racer, there is no greater joy than watching the heavens suddenly offer up a homer returning to its loft. This is a pleasure unknowable to the ordinary man. ''If I wasn't flying pigeons, I'd be dead,'' said Frank Viola, 82. ''My birds are my life.''

There are perhaps a few hundred pigeon racers in New York City, and earlier this month nearly all of them entered the Frank Viola Invitational at the Knights of Columbus lodge in southern Brooklyn. Breeders from around the country -- Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Hawaii -- enter their birds in the race. It is considered the Kentucky Derby of the pigeon racing set.

In the 1950's, it was hard to walk down a street in Bensonhurst or Coney Island without a flock of pigeons twinkling in the sky like a handful of falling dimes. The last 50 years, however, have been tough on the pigeon game. Teams have disbanded; new racers are hard to find.

The sport, racers say, has gotten too expensive. They spend as much as $10,000 a year on entry fees, E. coli medication, handmade coops and specially blended feeds. That's not to mention computerized clocks, veterinary visits and travel to training grounds.

''If you've got birds on Staten Island and you're training in Jersey, you're talking about $15 a day just in tolls,'' said Joe Green, a computer technician who entered several birds in the Viola race. ''It's $500 in medication a year. Another $300 for the clock. Forget about it. These things are like racehorses. They're the thoroughbreds of the sky.''

A pigeon race is more complicated than any horse race. The course is invisible and the racers never see their birds in flight. The pigeons are trucked from a central spot to a ''liberation point'' typically 400 to 500 miles away. The birds are freed as a flock and head for home. The racers await them at their coops.

When a pigeon lands, the racer plucks the rubber band from its foot, and the band goes into a plastic capsule, the capsule into a metal clock. The clocks automatically assign a time to every capsule ''banged'' inside them by the turn of a handle. The birds fly different distances from the liberation point to their coops in the city. The winner is the pigeon with the best air speed in yards per minute.

Pigeon racing originated in Europe and has been traced back as far as the Roman Empire. The sport flourished in the 19th century in Belgium and Holland, and took root in the United States as soldiers returned from World War II.

The birds are born pathfinders and can make their way home from 700 miles away. ''They have iron deposits in their brains that act something like a gyroscope,'' said Dr. Catherine Toft, a professor of ecology at the University of California at Davis. ''Geese use the stars to navigate, but pigeons basically have tiny compasses in their brains.''

The men who race them can spend an entire evening discussing the merits of Antibac and Pigeonguard vitamins or whether the Staf Van Reet breed of birds truly is the greatest sprinting strain. They say things like, ''Yul Brenner was a pigeon man'' or ''That bird of yours pretty much walked home, didn't he?'' When their pigeons are flying, they pass up weddings and funerals. They pass up quiet nights at home with their women and wait in their coops, staring at the sky.

Frank Viola is a birdman's birdman. He has paintings of his favorite champions hanging on his walls. Mr. Viola has been known to study a pigeon's eye with a jeweler's loupe and pronounce him a winner. He can pick his own birds from a flock of 20 as they pass above at 30 yards.

He has a racing team of 100 birds in his coop in Coney Island, and this year entered 70 in the invitational he has organized for the last 10 years. On Oct. 7, when his birds were freed, he set up shop in his cluttered apartment. He watched the Weather Channel, taking updates from callers stationed along the course.

''Waiting for the birds'' is a full-fledged social gathering. Mr. Viola has a glassed-in observation booth outside his coop. The booth, about the size of a bus stop, is outfitted with folding chairs, a space heater, a desk, a clock, a phone.

He started his vigil at 3 p.m. on race day as thrilled as a 6-year-old on Christmas Eve. Pete Viola, his nephew, sat beside him, glancing at the clock. Their friend Butch D'Amato paced outside the booth, his eyes glued to the sky.

They waited. The skies were clear. A jet headed toward J.F.K. Then a smudge banked above them. It could be . . . yes, it was -- a bird. Mr. D'Amato tensed then slackened. ''Ah, it's just a street rat,'' he said of the common city pigeon.

When recalcitrant racing pigeons arrive, racers send up birds called chicos to cajole them toward the coop. The chicos are like avian chase planes; they lead stray pigeons to the loft. Mr. D'Amato had a cage of chicos at his feet. He plucked one out and held it like a football, ready to toss it into work.

He didn't need it. As he stroked the chico, a pigeon appeared. It came from nowhere and landed on the roof. It bobbed its head and waited. It sat there just a foot above the coop.

''That's my bird!'' Mr. Viola shouted. ''He came right down like a bullet! Come on, boy! Come on! Go on! Go on! Get in the coop!''

Mr. Viola nodded at his pigeon. Mr. D'Amato sprinkled birdseed on the coop. The pigeon watched the men with its vacant pigeon stare. Pete Viola was on the telephone: ''Uncle's got a bird!''

Frank Viola said, ''Oh, my heart is beating, Butchie!''

Mr. D'Amato clucked and cooed: ''My heart is beating, too!''

When the pigeon finally came down, Mr. D'Amato snapped the band off its foot and stuck it in a capsule. Then he banged the capsule in the clock. He came out smiling, pumping his arm. Like a touchdown scored in the final quarter.

The official race time: 38 seconds after 3:11 p.m.

Pete Viola hit the phones. Staten Island, no birds. The Bronx, no birds. Queens, Long Island, other Brooklyn coops, no birds. Frank Viola had the winner -- the first time he'd won his own race. He jumped to feet and hollered. ''Hoo, hoo! Hoo, hoo!''

From inside his observation booth, he sounded like his birds.

Photos: Frank Viola, the birdman's birdman, in his coop in Brooklyn. His bird won the Frank Viola Invitational for the first time.; Racers calibrated their computerized clocks, above, before each race. More than 1,000 birds, packed into traveling crates before being taken to Ohio, were signed in for the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing. (Photographs by Aaron Lee Fineman for The New York Times)(pg. D1); A handler tagged a racing pigeon in preparation for the Frank Viola Invitational. In the race, the birds flew from Ohio to New York. (Aaron Lee Fineman for The New York Times)(pg. D7)

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

National Briefing | South: Florida: An End To A Free Feathered Feast

The New York Times
Published: July 20, 2002

Disney World ended a 30-year tradition this week when it stopped releasing pigeons during its shows after realizing that the birds had become prey for red-tailed hawks. The pigeons, released in shows like ''Cinderella's Surprise Celebration'' and ''Beauty and the Beast,'' were supposed to return to their roosts, but many were grabbed by the hungry hawks. Disney World's animal experts only recently noticed the hawks snatching the birds.
Read more ...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Influence of the group

What is better: alone or in a group?

Scientifically speaking this controversy remains unresolved. There are researchers who are of the opinion that the return flight goes off better when only a small group are involved. Their arguments are: jealousy and less chance of being led astray. Keeton in contrast thinks that small groups of up to four pigeons do certainly not give a better performance than lone flyer's.

For flying competitions these findings are however not very relevant, for what do we find there? Huge masses of pigeons which are all liberated at once and will in addition make off for different lofts. Pigeons have a strong social sense, so they like flying together in a kit. Such a large group tends to sweep along other pigeons too.

Fanciers from an area with the largest participation occupy the best loft positions in a race in which the pigeons are not divided up equally over the whole radius. This advantage diminishes with increasing distance. The direction the wind blows from also works for or against this advantage.

A good example is the Belgian National race from Bourges in which every year a great number of old and young birds take part. During these flights there is generally a west to southwest wind. Participation from the centre of the country is overwhelming. Prospects for players from the west are not too rosy under these circumstances. It will take quite a strong easterly wind to neutralise the mass effect of the participation of all the pigeons from the centre.

Taken from
The Big Pigeon Racing Book
by A. van den Hoek
Prof. Dr. G. van Grembergen
J. Hermans 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pigeon racing takes wing in Tacoma

The News Tribute
By Debby Abe
Published: 05/26/10

Sean Steen has only to walk to the handsome shed in his backyard to indulge his flock of eager, winged athletes. Steen likely is the youngest member of the Tacoma Racing Pigeon Club – and the club is glad to have him.

Sean Steen has only to walk to the handsome shed in his backyard to indulge his flock of eager, winged athletes.

The South Tacoma man digs his hand into a plastic bowl of dried maize and yellow and green peas. He whistles and opens his palm, attracting a half dozen pigeons that crowd near the edge of their cage – some even wrapping their feet around the wire walls – and bob their heads in the grain.

Another 50 or so coo from their wooden perches lining the bird loft that looks like a narrow garden shed with perfectly aligned aluminum siding.

Steen, a burly man with an eagle tattooed on his left arm, is as gentle as a butterfly with the birds.

“There’s my baby,” he says stroking a slender, creamy gray bird with white markings. “If I walk in there, she’ll land on my shoulder. If I hold her and rub her, she’ll close her eyes. … She’s a good bird.”

Steen started raising and racing homing pigeons two years ago, following the path of an ancient sport that survives with 21st-century technology.

At 33 years old, he likely is the youngest member of the Tacoma Racing Pigeon Club – and the club is glad to have him.

Club membership has fluctuated through the decades since its founding in the 1930s, and it’s now down to about 20 active members, said club President Jim Novak of Spanaway.

While many of the members are senior citizens, “we’re getting quite a few younger people now. They can’t afford to buy fancy boats. It’s a family thing for them and their kids,” Novak said.

Nationwide, the sport seems to be gradually growing, Novak said. It’s as big as soccer in Europe and booming in Asia, where enthusiasts gamble on races.

Pigeon races around South Sound typically attract 90 to 100 owners and their birds. The Tacoma group meets monthly at the clubhouse at 2919 S. Warner St., built by U.S. Army Signal Corps veterans and other members in the 1940s, Novak said.

“It was after they came back from World War II,” said Novak, who’s been raising and racing pigeons for 60 of his 72 years. “Most of them had birds before they went over, and had experience in it.”

Pigeons played a crucial role delivering messages to troops during the first and second World Wars. The most famous pigeon, Cher Ami, won a French medal for delivering key messages that saved U.S. soldier lives. The last message he delivered was hanging in a capsule from a ligament in his shattered leg.

South Sound birders typically pay a truck driver to drive their pigeons as a group to a drop-off point elsewhere in the state, Oregon or California, Novak said. Birds are released at the same time and fly back to their owner’s loft.

Each is registered with a national pigeon association and carries a GPS chip on its leg band. Electronic monitors record the time they begin the race.

When they arrive at their home loft, a special landing pad scans their return time.

Owners take a small computer module that records the data to their club, where it’s downloaded and compared with other competitors.

The winning bird is determined by calculating the fastest flight time in yards per minute, down to the second.

In human terms, the average speed for a pigeon is 40 to 50 miles an hour, depending on the conditions, Novak said. He’s had birds released 500 miles away in California at 6 a.m. return to Spanaway as early as 5:30 that afternoon or as late as the next morning.

“They fly straight through, unless it’s really hot,” Novak said. “People have seen them fly over a lake and scoop water to drink and keep flying.”

Yet there’s still mystery to their amazing feat. Scientists aren’t certain how they navigate hundreds or thousands of miles from an unfamiliar destination to their home. Some think it has to do with the sun, the weather and magnetic poles.

Perhaps not so ironically, it was a pigeon who found Steen and ignited his love for the sport.

Two years ago, he found a roller pigeon, a bird that zooms into the air and instinctively tumbles down, then suddenly pulls straight into flight. There are competitions for those birds, too, based on how they tumble.

Steen decided to keep the bird and placed him in a pet carrier. He called him Pete after a neighbor who raised pigeons when Steen was growing up.

His two boys, Ethan, 4, and Tyler, 9, were more than eager to keep the bird. But Steen’s wife, Kari?

“I said no, we’re not having pigeons,” she recalled, “and I let it (the pigeon) go.”

But when Steen returned from his job repairing surgical instruments that day, he found the pigeon in its carrier outside the house – as if Pigeon Pete was waiting for him.

Kari Steen relented – and adjusted.

“It keeps him busy,” she said smiling. “It keeps him at home.”

Steen has spent the past two years gobbling up as much pigeon knowledge as he can from club members and pigeon magazines. Club members have given him birds, he’s purchased a couple others and he’s figured out how to breed them. Friends helped him build the birds’ 8-by-16-foot loft.

He learned how to use feed to teach them to come when he whistles. He also learned how the waddle on top of their beak signifies wellness if it’s white, and illness if it’s dark.

And Steen has discovered how the birds fly for the highest perch, how they love raw, unsalted peanuts, and how protective they are of their eggs and babies.

He and his two sons have learned how to train the young birds by releasing them in Roy or Yelm and seeing if the birds will beat them home to Tacoma.

And he’s become all too familiar with the circle of life.

He’s seen hawks crash onto the bird loft or land on telephone wires in the yard, hoping to snare a morning snack.

More than one bird has returned with an injury, apparently wounded by a hawk or falcon. He’s watched his birds outfly a pursuing hawk, but estimates he’s lost 20 birds the past year to raptors. Some birds never return from training flights or races, perhaps casualties to illness, electric wires or other perils.

“It gets to be annoying, but it’s a part of Mother Nature,” Steen said.

To try to keep from getting too attached, he calls virtually all of his birds by the number on their teeny plastic leg bands, instead of giving them names.

Though Steen won’t name the birds, his mother, Pattie MacFarland, does. She visits the birds daily.

She calls a coal-colored pigeon Thunder; the navy blue pigeon with white speckles and a lame leg is Dennis Hopper. She says they know their names because they step toward her when she calls them.

As she spoke near the loft, three birds gently pecked at the inch-long ruby on her ring. She let them and told them, “Oh, you like red.”

“It sounds kind of crazy, but you get so used to them that you just love them.”

It’s hard for Steen to keep emotional distance, as well.

His beloved birds have let him experience the thrill of victory: three of his birds have won first place at the club level.

“There’s nothing like knowing they’re in Oregon or California and then watching them come home. They tuck their wings back and then come diving in,” Steen said. “They’re a lot of fun.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694

Get started: To learn more about the Tacoma Racing Pigeon Club, go to
or leave a message with the club by calling 253-627-6025.

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Past sports promotions
Pigeon racing

Sunday, March 13, 2011

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Ad Schaerlaeckens ...
a writer that knows what he's talking about ...
enough said!

Personalities that have made a difference in the world of pigeon racing

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Loss of Chest Feathers

Not necessarily caused by Red Mite. The birds could be rubbing against high sides of feeders, drinkers, and grit containers.

Twenty words or less TCC Loft series

Friday, March 11, 2011

China's Most Secret Weapon: The Messenger Pigeon

Wed Mar 2, 1:30 am ET

Though the world's attention has recently been focused on the unveiling of China's first ever stealth fighter jet, the Chinese military has been busy investing in another type of furtive flyer - the humble messenger pigeon. According to reports in state media, late last year the Chengdu division of the People's Liberation Army began training 10,000 pigeons as part of a push to build a "reserve pigeon army" that would provide support to the military's conventional communications infrastructure in the event that war rendered its plethora of modern technology unusable.

"These military pigeons will be primarily called upon to conduct special military missions between troops stationed at our land borders or ocean borders," air force military expert Chen Hong told China Central Television (CCTV) after the announcement. According to reports, the birds will be dispersed to communications bases across China's remote and mountainous southwestern region, particularly around the Himalayan foothills. The pigeons, flying at speeds of up to 120km per hour, will be trained to carry loads of up to 100 grams.

The birds have a long history of service in China. Messenger pigeons have been used in China for more than a thousand years, and pigeons have been earning their military stripes here since at least the late 1930s. In 1937, Lieutenant Claire Lee Chennault, a retired U.S. Airforce pilot, arrived in China to head up a group of U.S.-sponsored aviators known as the Flying Tigers, tasked with taking to the air to repel the Japanese invasion of the mainland. He brought with him hundreds of messenger pigeons to help with the war effort, and after the war, left the birds behind. That group of pigeons would form the core of the PLA's first military pigeon brigade.

Today, the pigeons serve alongside 10,000 dogs in PLA service, guarding military warehouses, assisting special police forces and supporting border troops. Two thousand new dogs are reportedly signed up each year. Horses, once an important part of the military operations, have been falling out of fashion, as the PLA cavalry has played an increasingly peripheral role. There are said to be fewer than 1,000 cavalry soldiers left in the PLA, and those mostly take part in exhibitions or movie shoots.

The Chinese army is far from the only one to turn to these winged warriors in times of trouble. Hundreds of pigeons were dropped over Normandy during the D-Day landings to provide a communication channel back to Britain for soldiers who feared their radio messages would be intercepted by the Nazis. The first pigeon to make it back to London with the news that the invasion had been a success was awarded high military honors. Criminals, too, have found pigeons useful: In January, authorities in Colombia apprehended a pigeon that was being used by smugglers to deliver narcotics to their incarcerated compatriots. The over-burdened bird, with cocaine and marijuana strapped to its back, fell out of the sky before crossing the prison walls.

In China, the birds are also used for recreation. Pigeon racing - and pigeon breeding in general - has exploded in popularity among China's upwardly mobile middle classes. In late January at a pigeon auction in Belgium an unnamed Chinese bidder broke the world record price for a single pigeon by paying $200,000 for a pedigree Belgian racing bird, considered the crÈme de la crÈme of the pigeon racing world.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Charity Events

by Silvio Mattacchione

The Toronto Sick Kids Charity Auction

The racing pigeon fraternity worldwide has a wonderful history of raising much needed funding for charities of all kinds. In 1993, and again in 1994, Silvio Mattacchione and his partner, Jim McLean, put on two special events in Toronto. These events were called The Toronto Sick Kids Charity Auction. Over $17,000 was raised for this wonderful cause in 1993 and 1994. When asked why we did it, Silvio responded to the media, "I am very happy that my children are well and I have never needed their help."

Well, things were to change dramatically when only five years later, in October 1999, Silvio's six-month-old daughter required major open heart surgery at The Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto. Thank God that this world-class facility exists!

These charity auctions represent the very best elements in our sport-an attempt by individuals who care to make a real difference.

Past sports promotions
Pigeon Racing

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Homing pigeons reveal true magnetism

BioEd Online
November 24, 2004
By Michael Hopkin
Nature News

Iron crystals in their beaks give birds a nose for north.

It's official: homing pigeons really can sense Earth's magnetic field. An investigation of their ability to detect different magnetic fields shows that their impressive navigation skills almost certainly relies on tiny magnetic particles in their beaks.
“You don't need a large receptor structure like you do for the eye, because the magnetic field permeates everything. It's like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Cordula Mora, University of North Carolina

The discovery seems to settle the question of how pigeons (Columba livia) have such an impressive 'nose for north'. Some experts had previously suggested that the birds rely on different odour cues in the atmosphere to work out where they are. But the latest findings suggest that they are using magnetic cues.

The idea that pigeons' beaks contain tiny particles of an iron oxide called magnetite is not a new one, says Cordula Mora, who led the latest study at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. But the particles themselves are likely to be only a few micrometres across, and no one has ever seen them under the microscope.

Mora's behavioural experiments therefore give the best indication yet that pigeons are aware of Earth's magnetic field. She and her colleagues taught the pigeons to discriminate between magnetic fields by placing them in a wooden tunnel with a feeder platform at either end and coils of wire around the outside.

Tunnel test

The pigeons were trained to go to one end of the tunnel if the coils were switched on, generating a magnetic field, and to the other if they were switched off, leaving Earth's natural field unperturbed. "I was pleasantly surprised. The pigeons were very fast learners," says Mora, now at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

"I was pleasantly surprised. The pigeons were very fast learners.”
Cordula Mora, University of North Carolina

Their skills were impaired, however, when the researchers attached magnets to their upper beaks, and also when the upper beak was anaesthetized. This suggests that their ability is down to the presence of magnetically sensitive material in this area, the researchers report in this week's Nature.

The team then set about seeing how these magnetic signals might be transmitted to the birds' brains. When they severed the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve, which leads from the upper beak to the brain, the birds were unable to distinguish between natural and perturbed magnetic fields. But when the olfactory nerve, which carries smell signals, was cut instead, the birds performed fine, dealing a seemingly fatal blow to the idea that they navigate by relying on odours.

Nose for navigation

The results sit well with previous studies of another impressive navigator, the rainbow trout. The species both seem to have a system in which signals from magnetite particles are carried from the nose to the brain by the trigeminal nerve, says Mora. This is not surprising, she says, as iron-containing materials are common in many animals' bodies.

So why has nobody seen the particles? Other researchers are looking for them, Mora says. But the problem is that even though we know where to look, they are elusive because of their small size and the fact that many other biological materials, such as blood, contain iron.

The particles are small because there's no reason why they should be any larger, Mora adds. "You don't need a large receptor structure like you do for the eye, because the magnetic field permeates everything," she says. "It's like a needle in a haystack."

1 Mora C. V., Davison C. V., Wild J. M. & Walker M. M. Nature, 432. 508 - 511 (2004).

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Monday, March 7, 2011

At-Risk Kids Soar with "Roller Pigeons"

CBS News
by Steve Hartman
Los Angeles
15 March 2010

Former L.A. Gang Member Makes Good by Taking Children Under His Wing With Unusual Hobby

Bobby Wilson (left) hopes to keep kids out of trouble by getting them into raising pigeons. (CBS)

(CBS) First thing Bobby Wilson tells visitors is please, do not pre-judge his pigeons.

"These are not rats with wings," Wilson said. "That's why I want you guys to see 'em perform."

CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman reports they're called Roller Pigeons - because once airborne, they roll like gymnasts in the Cirque du Poulet.

No one knows why they do it. They just do it. Roller Pigeon buffs like Wilson breed them to roll better and longer. They even have competitions. But that's a story for another day. Today we're focusing on how these birds are getting people to turn over - a new leaf.

"Once you get into these pigeons, man, it can save you," Wilson said. "I think it's better than religion."

He speaks from experience. He's now a Los Angeles music producer but once he was a gang member. He spent five years in prison and when he got out in 2007, he had two goals in mind - find something that would keep him out of trouble, and do something to make up for his crimes: two goals and one solution.

"I just love helping kids and with the pigeons I can get through to little young guys like him," Wilson said.

Before Wilson got him into pigeons, young Taisean was in freefall himself -- rolling headlong into the gang lifestyle.

"I was getting close to it, but with the help of Bobby, I avoided it," Taisean said.

Now he's planning on college instead.

How can a pigeon save a kid?

"Once you get in with these pigeons, feeding, watering and seeing to them, it's going to be too late to get into some trouble," Wilson said.

It just may be the most unconventional gang-prevention program in the country. Using donations and the some of the money he makes from selling his pigeon magazine, Wilson provides kids with the food, the pens, even the birds.

Each starter set comes with lessons and lifetime 24 hour assistance.

So far Wilson, now a music producer, has taken about 20 kids under his proverbial wing.

"Twenty kids that would be doing something else," Wilson said.

Wilson really thinks his pigeons have that much potential for change. Of course, what he doesn't realize is that the birds are inconsequential. It could be snakes or stamps and kids would still respond to the real catalyst for change here - a human being who's been there and cares.

Read more & view program videos ...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Taking on Tyson - Mike's Homecoming

Animal Planet
TV Schedule

Starting Tonight

Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Still coming to terms with his past and looking forward to the future, Mike Tyson is now immersing himself in competition once again by taking on pigeon racing!

"The first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon." -- Mike Tyson.

You know Mike Tyson as the former world heavyweight champion. In March 2011, tune in to meet Mike Tyson the pigeon lover.

Heavyweight boxing legend and Brooklyn native Mike Tyson has always loved breeding and raising pigeons. These birds have been an integral part of his life since his childhood. In fact, Mike threw his first punch when a neighborhood bully killed one of his beloved pigeons and threw it in his face. Of course, Mike would go on to become one of the most famous, and infamous, champions in boxing (and sports) history. And through it all, his pigeons and rooftop coops remained his one constant and secret solace.

Now, in the new Animal Planet series TAKING ON TYSON, debuting March 6, at 10 PM e/p, Mike goes beyond just raising his feathered friends — he races them for the very first time. With unprecedented access to the neighborhood haunts he grew up in, and in the company of the lifelong friends who surround him, Mike takes audiences on an insider's tour of the highly competitive, bizarrely fascinating subculture of pigeon racing. The stakes are high in this sport, which has just as much machismo as boxing. But this time it's not about money; it's about bragging rights.

From the rooftops of Jersey City to the streets of Brooklyn, this six-part docudrama profiles the enigmatic boxing legend as he reconnects with his roots and returns to his childhood neighborhood to face his next challenge. Mike's pigeons have given him a sense of tranquility and escape throughout his tumultuous life. Now, along with a band of close friends who share his love for these avian athletes, Mike enters the realm of competitive pigeon racing. TAKING ON TYSON is an enriching window into Mike Tyson's complex life, where the road to self-awareness, the path to inner peace and the vision into the future lie with these birds.

"The first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon. I don't know why...I feel ridiculous trying to explain it," says Mike. "Pigeons are a part of my life. It's a constant with my sanity in a weird way; this is just what I do. If I'm lucky enough to die an old man, I'm going to have birds."

Supporting the novice racer are members of Tyson's Corner: Mario Costa, his lifelong friend and promoter/manager; Vinnie Torre, his esteemed and respected pigeon trainer; and the Roman Brothers, his pigeon caretakers. Mike's rivals include the younger yet more experienced racers Joe Green and Helder Rodrigues.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011


Racers perform better when on a 21 day wormer program. Weekly use of garlic can also help with worm management.

Twenty words or less TCC Loft series

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pigeon transfers data faster than South Africa's Telkom

Wed Sep 9, 2009 3:54pm EDT

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African information technology company on Wednesday proved it was faster for them to transmit data with a carrier pigeon than to send it using Telkom, the country's leading internet service provider.

Internet speed and connectivity in Africa's largest economy are poor because of a bandwidth shortage. It is also expensive.

Local news agency SAPA reported the 11-month-old pigeon, Winston, took one hour and eight minutes to fly the 80 km (50 miles) from Unlimited IT's offices near Pietermaritzburg to the coastal city of Durban with a data card strapped to his leg.

Including downloading, the transfer took two hours, six minutes and 57 seconds -- the time it took for only four percent of the data to be transferred using a Telkom line.

SAPA said Unlimited IT performed the stunt after becoming frustrated with slow internet transmission times.

The company has 11 call-centers around the country and regularly sends data to its other branches.

Telkom could not immediately be reached for comment.

Internet speed is expected to improve once a new 17,000 km underwater fiber optic cable linking southern and East Africa to other networks becomes operational before South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup next year.

Local service providers are currently negotiating deals for more bandwidth.

(Reporting by Peroshni Govender; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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Thursday, March 3, 2011


Famous, strong flying strains that can tolerate inbreeding, are always excellent strains for crossbreeding purposes!

The cardinal point in what Prof. Bonsma calls "erfdwang", I know to be prepotency. I've looked in vain through the various dictionaries to find a comparable definition. Prepotency is to be predestined, as it were, to have the potency to breed in an excellent fashion. Many say that prepotency "just happens" as a result of inbreeding. Prof. Bonsma believes it to be the winning number in a lottery. Breeding is, in a certain sense, a lottery. We never know exactly what is going to happen. He sees prepotency and heterozygote as not being necessarily opposites. I would like to quote him again. "Within every population group a few individuals play an immensely important role in the creation of the desired animals."

Taken from The Memoirs of Piet DeWeerd
by Piet DeWeerd

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Boomerang, the pigeon returns to original owner after 10 years!

Thaindian News
by ANI
Thursday, June 19, 2008

London, June 19 (ANI): A racing pigeon suddenly turned up at the home of the man who raised her 10 years after he gave the bird away.

Pigeon-fancier Dino Rearden was astonished to see ‘Boomerang’ on Father’s Day, a decade after he gave her to a friend.

The 13-year-old bird first made headlines back in 1998, when she made a 1,200 mile trip from a pigeon breeder in Algericas, Spain, back to Rearden’s home in Skipton, North Yorks.

Reardon immediately gave her to another breeder in Filey, North Yorkshire - but she returned again.

Finally, still in the same year, Reardon gave her to his friend Alf Pennington in Lancashire. This time the bird didn't return, until now.

The 76-year-old, who bred pigeons for the RAF during the Second World War, says he now plans to give the bird a permanent home.

“She recognised me and walked straight towards me. It was only when I picked her up and checked her ring that I realised who it was," the Telegraph quoted Reardon, as saying.

“It is something that has never been done before and even more remarkable because I've moved my lofts from where Boomerang was born and bred."

“I’m going to keep her now and what is amazing is that she has already paired up with another male pigeon and I’m hoping for eggs", he added.

He said that his friend, Mr Pennington died some years ago and the birds whereabouts since then remain shrouded in mystery.

“I just couldn’t believe it. She could barely stand up and couldn’t even make it into the aviary - she was just exhausted,” Rearden said.

“She’s home, feeling well now and she’s stopping here", he added.

A spokesman for the Royal Pigeon Racing Association described Boomerang’s exploits as “incredible”. (ANI)

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