London Evening Standard
By Nick Curtis 16.08.02
It's enough to ruffle the regal feathers - one of the Queen's racing pigeons has gone missing.
The bird, known somewhat coldly as GB02ER41, vanished on a training flight for the pigeon-fancying community's contribution to the Golden Jubilee celebrations.
The event - billed as the One Loft Race - will see birds flying from York to Cheltenham on 21 August.
The Queen originally had a brace of birds scheduled to start the race, organised by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA), of which she is the patron. Now she has only one, GB02ER34, a yearling known to her manager as "Queenie".
So far the association has not officially informed Her Majesty of her loss. Nick Orchard, loft manager at Cheltenham, says: "Lord Vestey, who has pigeons racing with us, told me he was having dinner with the Queen and asked me if he should break the news to her. I said, 'If you do, do it gently.'"
Peter Bryant, RPRA general manager, sheepishly adds: "We don't inform owners if their birds are lost. But we post results of training races on our website, so members can follow their birds' progress."
With a moment's pause, he adds: "I suppose there will be no knighthood for me this year."
The Queen is not alone in her loss. A thousand birds, all only a couple of months old, were introduced to the Cheltenham loft as their "home" in May, and some two-thirds of them have gone missing in training flights over gradually increasing distances since.
"That's the enigma of pigeon racing," says Mr Bryant. "Some birds, for some bizarre reason, don't come back."
Explanations for the disappearances range from the usual suspects - cats, foxes, electrical wires and cars - to a more modern threat to nature, the mobile phone. "Mobile phones give out microwaves and we do know they can affect the birds' homing instinct," adds Mr Bryant. "Some research was done into the subject by a Swiss university."
There is a chance GB02ER41 is still out there, waiting to be pointed towards home. Many birds are found and returned, although GB02ER41 is only distinguishable from others by that serial number, including the regal ER, on the ring around its leg. "It was a blue bar, a common or garden-looking pigeon," explains Mr Orchard.
Mr Bryant adds that royal endorsement does not increase the bird's worth. "The record price for a bird was £106,000," he says. "But these are only young ones and because they're not very experienced, it's probably worth about £400 or £500."
There is no reward offered: not even chicken feed. "If the bird were returned, I'd sent the finder a thank you note," says Carlo Napolitano, the Queen's loft manager at Sandringham. "But I don't think they'd get a personal note from the Queen."
Mr Napolitano says that, although the Queen takes a great interest in her birds, she last visited him "for a chat" in the winter, before GB02ER41 was born. So, for now, Buckingham Palace's hopes in the race rest on "Queenie", assuming she makes it through today's 140-mile training flight from Doncaster to Cheltenham.
In the Queen's case, the RPRA waived the £100-per-bird entrance fee for the race but, if Queenie wins, there is the matter of the £20,000 prize money. "If she did win," says Mr Bryant, "I'm sure the money would go to charity."
Perhaps to an organisation that helps lost and confused homing pigeons.
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