“Years and years and years ago, when they first recognized there were pigeons, monks found them in a cliff, and they captured them for food,” according to Charlie Klipsch, a breeder of racing pigeons (called Racing Homers).
Klipsch operates a loft, dubbed “Flying Surprises,” of about 48 birds in his backyard in Sunset Hills.
“Some of these birds escaped, and when the monks went back to get more food, they found that the ones that had escaped were back at the cliff again. And they realized that these birds had a homing instinct,” Klipsch said.
So goes the foundation myth for homing pigeons. It was the beginning of many centuries of partnership between man and pigeon that extended well into the modern era. A Racing Homer was standard issue to English airmen flying over France, and to Allied spies parachuting into it, in both World War I and II. In 1943, three pigeons serving in the Royal Air Force were the first winners of the England’s Dickin Medal for Gallantry (by animals) for their remarkable flights through heavy winds and stormy weather to deliver messages on the locations of downed pilots. In 1944, pigeons flew with American paratroopers on D-Day.
Pigeons also provided the basis for the giant Reuters news service, which began its corporate life as a kind of Pigeon Express shuttling financial market closing prices between points not yet served by telegraph.
Most famous, though not necessarily accurate, pigeons brought early word of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo to financier Nathan Mayer Rothschild, who turned this news beat into a fortune on the London bond market.
“We know the English used pigeons a long, long time ago,” Klipsch said. “We know the Germans did, the Belgians did, the Italians did. We know the Phoenicians used them!”
Today, the march of technology has ended the economic and military usefulness of Racing Homers, but they retain a mystique that transcends their lost utilitarian value. Their unique capabilities – not to be duplicated even in an age of electronic miracles – still fascinate those who care to look.
For example, what featherless biped could match the prowess of a pigeon traveling from Shamrock, Texas, to St. Louis (approximately 600 miles) with nothing to guide him but the tools nature provided – eyes, ears, nose, brain? Some no doubt could manage it, but a Racing Homer can do it in one day, flying from 45 to 60 mph.
The pigeon’s feathers obviously provide a large speed advantage over earth-bound bipeds. But the accuracy of the flight derives from a suite of in-born navigational tools that for centuries have eluded scientific description.
“To know where home is, when they have never been to a place before, never been 200 miles away, and yet they come home,” said Klipsch. “That’s the homing pigeon.”
Research universities “have studied this for the past hundred years, spent thousands and thousands of dollars on it. They don’t know how the pigeon does it.”
“We have proven a lot of theories,” Klipsch said. “We know that the pigeon uses a magnetic sense, from the earth. We know they use the sun as a navigation tool. We know they use their sight – 26 miles they have been registered to see something.”
But the birds have some means of coordinating all these tools that is not understood, Klipsch said.
“If they blindfold them, they can still find their way home,” he said. “They plug their ears, they still find their way home. They put magnets on their wings, and they still find their way home. They know they use all of these things (sensory detectors), but they don’t know how they use them.
But Klipsch knows he can use them – for an absorbing hobby and for simple backyard fun. He races his birds every weekend of the racing season, which runs for several months from spring through autumn. He ships the birds to a launch point, and awaits their return with wife Florence from their screened back porch or lawn chairs.
The birds clock themselves by passing through an electronic detector at the door of their roost. The days of mechanical clocks are over. The birds’ flight times now are recorded to the fraction of a second.
Klipsch, a member of the Mount Pleasant Homing Pigeon Club, is hoping to engender wider interest in racing among the younger generation. He inherited the love of racing (but no birds) from his father, and he from his father before.
But Klipsch’s six children and nine grandchildren so far appear immune to the racing bug, he said.
To enter the hobby, only a simple loft (“mine was just a tool shed when I got started”), and a couple of birds are required, Klipsch said. Breeders will give young birds – as well as the mentoring needed to keep them – to a club member who wants to get started, Klipsch said.
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