Fifteen pigeons were released around 7.30 am at the Kilinochchi railway station in celebration of the 69th Independence Day on February 4 and the birds returned to their home in Wattala with messages of peace and unity and of course phone numbers so Loni de Lanerolle could call the dignitaries still somewhere in the North to say their messages were received.
The whole trip took the pigeons less than four hours. Attended by religious heads, the Government Agent S. Arumainayagam and senior police officers, the event was organized by Loni de Lanerolle, a pegion fancier, who is an animal enthusiast and trainer of racing pigeons since childhood.
He hopes to revive the spectacle of messenger pigeons by carrying out a series of such events across the country. We were greeted by Papaya the macaw. The blue-yellow-green beauty had a lousy loud call that totally contradicted its good looks. But it was quite harmless despite its inquisitive bahaviour. Two beagles (dogs) were dozing off in a coop and it was the two Chihuahuas (breed of dog) who announced our arrival with barking and tail wagging at the same time. A few tortoises were doing their lawn rounds and the place was a mini zoo. Apparently pigeons were not Pigeon-man Loni’s only interest. He is an all-round animal enthusiast.
The pigeons were in coops while some were perched on a wooden bird perch. They were robust and the plumage around their necks glittered in sea green, pink and brown the likes of which can only exist in nature.
Their living room had the ambiance of an upcountry cottage, or one of those quaint old houses you find only in old English novels. The living room had wooden carpetted floors and one wall consisted of photographs that spanned six De Lanerolle generations. The only thing that was missing was a fireplace. Loni and his wife Monika designed their house in Wattala together. A photograph of two riders on a beach adorned another wall and with muscles gleaming and horses’ hooves splashing on the water, the photograph taken with an Instamatic camera was very lively. Loni once owned a stable with 16 horses and had previously won the Governer’s Cup. Now the stables have been replaced by a tea factory, owned and run by the Lanerolles. Loni’s olfactory senses have gone for a six because of the tea. “I was the first one to flavour tea in Sri Lanka,” informs Loni. Back in 1981 he worked with tea for many hours in his room, due to which he effectively loss his sense of smell.
He was the first to import a thoroughbred in 1996. One of Loni’s sons took to horses and is the only British qualified horse trainer in the country also known as BHSI or British Horse Society Instructor who trains members of the island’s Mounted police. “When the other kids were getting ready to go to school, my kids were out riding on the beach or learning how to bait a hook at 3am in the morning,” said Monika. That’s all their parents were interested in, the great outdoors.
“My boys can shoot,” said Loni who recalled that one of them won the Junior Nationals.
“Whatever the father did the boys also followed suit,” chipped in Monika.
When asked how she put up with a house full of people who loved the great outdoors, Monika said, “I was the only child in my family and when I married Loni it was like taking over a farm. His parents were only too glad to get rid of his pigeons and ponies,” recalled Monika laughing.
In fact, Loni bought a pair of eagles with his first salary. He bought a pony next. At one time he had owned 21 Persian cats. Ever heard of geese guarding houses? Loni’s geese do. They previously owned a watch dog in the form of a blue coot as well. “Whenever someone came to our house the blue coot would fly from its watch post and peck the visitor’s toes,” said Loni. He revealed that geese are equally territorial, guarding their home against any intruder. He owned a pair of carrier pigeons when he was very young and recalled famous stories of pigeons been used to send messages from the frontline to the main camp during wars.
Loni’s 30-strong flock consists of birds of documented champion bloodlines from Germany and Switzerland and claims that they have never fallen ill. His flock is given special vitamins imported from Australia and a special concoction of bird feed made from various grains, such as Kollu and corn according to his own ratios. “It’s an instinct,” says Monika. “He just knows what to give the birds.”
Loni can identify each bird just by looking at it. And he knows what to give them. If they look a little tired or dozing off, he gives them more Kollu as it gives them more energy.
Loni had his first pigeon trial in Puttalam against his father’s warning that he’d lose the birds. But Loni trusted his featured companions more than anyone else. It was a rainy day and the pigeon returned the following day. But he also lost a few. Once Loni released some of his pigeons at Elephant Pass and his gardener filmed the whole episode. Loni did not realize that a falcon swooped down on one of the birds which he knew only after viewing the video footage.
Ten years ago one of Loni’s friends in Germany sent him eight pigeons. They were able to get them cleared from Sri Lanka Customs, but two escaped while in quarantine. A month later his friend from Germany called to ask him whether he let two birds out in Frankfurt. Apparently they escaped from Colombo and flew 10,000 miles back to Frankfurt.
Being a hunting man Loni bagged many migratory ducks in Puttalam. “These ducks are ringed with markers and they come from Siberia which is much further than Germany. But racing homers (pigeons) are much faster than ducks”, said Loni. Loni uses his pigeons to deliver messages only when the occasion calls for it especially when there are dignitaries and the release of pigeons is deemed necessary as a symbol of peace and unity.
“Most of them (dignitaries) don’t believe that pigeons can actually carry messages. So when the birds fly back with the phone numbers and we call them, they are quite shocked,” said Loni. “Sometimes the pigeons have beaten the dignitaries to Colombo.” The trick of the trade is to keep the ladies at home, something that most pigeon breeders know. But Loni has gone a step further and usually keeps the males and females in separate cages. The night before they are to be let out he allows the lads to meet their ladies. Once they are released, whether it’s Colombo or Kilinochchi or Point Pedro, they find their way to their partners.
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