Flying home with the pigeons

Granada’s Animal Parade finds out about The Fancy

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 5 August 1962

HOW does a homing pigeon find its way home? There are as many theories flying about on that score as there are racing pigeons in The Fancy, which is the name experts use for their sport.

And there are about 3,750,000 racing pigeons — not to be confused with the fat, strutting variety that inhabit Trafalgar Square and public places in most of the cities of Britain.

Granada’s Animal Parade on Monday tells of the life of the racing pigeon from the moment it pecks its way out of its shell.

Training methods are shown which can develop a bird’s speed to a fantastic 90 miles an hour.

The popular image of a pigeon fancier is a miner or a docker, but many prominent people, including the Queen, Sir Gordon Richards and breakfast foods millionaire Frank George, have been “bitten”.

Frank George
Mr. Frank George with his pigeon Flying Dutchman

Mr. George is one who has been puzzling over this homing instinct ever since 1919, when he bought his first pair of birds.

Today, with about 400 birds housed in his luxury lofts at his home in Wellingborough, Northants, he confesses himself defeated

“All I know is that they are wonderful creatures. They are often 15 hours on the wing. They get home tired — but they get back. Don’t ask me how or why,” he told me.

One theory is “astronavigation” — a system whereby the pigeon is said to use the position of the sun to plot its course.

This, it is believed, gets the bird to within a few miles of its home loft when “visual reckoning” takes over. The pigeons keen eyesight, and

many hours of practice flying near its loft, enable it to pick out the tiniest identifying objects.

Mr. J. W. Selby-Thomas, secretary of the National Homing Union, believes that the pigeon possesses a magnetically-attuned mind and flies a magnetic course. He cites an area around Penzance, in Cornwall.

“This district is rich in metal ores and these upset the finely attuned brains of the flyers so that they cannot strike a homing course. They fly round and round until they are exhausted and lost,” he claims.

Wing Commander W. D. Lea-Rayner, wartime head of the Air Ministry’s Pigeon Section, believes the whole of this controversial homing instinct centres on the brain-power of individual birds. He said:

“It is just like pilots in the days before radar. All flyers got the same sort of information from their instruments. The good pilots deduced the right result and flew to their right destinations; the indifferent pilots came to wrong conclusions and found themselves off course.

“Similarly, all homing pigeons get the same information and can see the same objects. Some have the strength of their convictions and fly straight back home. Others dither and dither until all sense of direction is lost.”

No true-blue pigeon fancier derides the theory of another, but Sir Gordon Richards came near to disagreeing with Wing Commander Lea-Rayner.

“Some birds are brainier than others, but how can you account for some pigeons returning to their original lofts two or three years after they’ve settled down in another?

“Several birds I bought in the North of England eventually found their way back home and birds I sold to fanciers in far-distant places came back to me,” he pointed out.

Sir Gordon, who gave up keeping pigeons when horse training claimed his full time, remembers with sadness the time he demolished his lofts.

“For months many of the pigeons I had to get rid of came back and sat around the place looking bewildered. The amazement on their faces had to be seen to be believed,” said Sir Gordon.

Sifting out all the theories (and carrying out his own research) is Cambridge zoologist C. Pennyquick. Ultimately Mr. Pennyquick will, no doubt, come up with a learned and scientific theory, but I doubt if it will settle the arguments that rage in Britain’s 3,000 pigeon clubs and associations.

Pigeon fancying goes back to the Ancient Egyptians and for nearly 5,000 years these game little flyers have been finding their way home, often over distances of several hundreds of miles.

The history of pigeon racing is patterned with rich stories. N. M. Rothschild, of the banking family, is said to have made a big “killing” on the Stock Exchange after getting a “scoop” on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo — by pigeon post.

The Duke of Wellington, who had an extensive loft and many famous birds, regarded them as part of his military equipment. Pigeons have been on the military strengths of many countries. During World War II, the Air Ministry had more than 30,000 on its “feed” roll.

Ounce for ounce, top-class pigeons are probably more expensive than star soccer players.

In Mr. George’s Wellingborough lofts are the Flying Dutchman, which cost him £750 [£13,500 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed], King Pin (£350 [£6,250]) and News Lad (£500 [£9,000]) and a few years back he paid an all-time high figure of over £800 [£14,300] for the winner of the pigeon racing classic — the Barcelona-Holland race.

A record of another sort was the 900 miles which a Swedish-owned bird flew in one day. The longest recorded distance in this country was 725 miles flown from sun-up in the North of Scotland to dusk in a remote part of Cornwall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *