Wednesday, July 16, 2014

This bird won't finish the "race"

One morning last week I was walking about in Kent when I observed something on the ground that caught my attention. It was a mostly white bird, a pigeon in fact. Most street pigeons are of course mainly blue-gray, but occasionally you see one that is reddish-brown, or partly or all white. This particular was laid out in a posture I had seen before where I work: A pigeon either muddles about sluggishly, or just crouches in place, making no effort to escape if you come near it. The next day, you find it lying on its side, with its wings spread out: This bird was no longer a going concern. It was deceased. 

This particular pigeon must have met its sad fate sometime that night, because a large band of crows spent its evening hours nearby in the adjacent wooded area. By the time they came back to life, they would make short work of the remains of the pigeon once they discovered it. The next day there was in fact little left of the bird, save a mass of feathers and bone.

And something I noticed attached to one of its legs, a band with an identification code on it:  AU2014GSC2428. I at first thought this was for some scientific research purpose, but an Internet search disabused me of such a noble purpose. The band identification indicated that the pigeon was what is called a “racing pigeon,” a domesticated variety with same “homing” skills that messenger pigeons have had for thousands of years, except that this one was for sport. 

Apparently pigeon racing is popular all over the world (or at least in Europe and the U.S.). The “GSC” in the code refers to the club that the bird raced for, in this case the Greater Seattle RPC, a member of the American Racing Pigeon Union. Under “G” there were 73 of these clubs, suggesting that there were thousands of such pigeon racing clubs in this country alone. A curious sport, especially for the curious.

These racing birds are trained to travel from variation locations back to their home loft, utilizing navigation aids common with migratory birds. Since these birds are owned and trained by individuals living in disparate locations, there is no official “finish line.” The pigeons are timed by the distance they travel divided into the moment they re-enter their home loft, when the band is removed and place in a timing mechanism. Some of these birds fly considerable distances during these races, sometimes a thousand miles or more in their single-minded purpose. I have some “experience” with pigeon behavior, and they are not the stupid feeding machines that they appear to be—although I have to admit that what actual “pleasure” either the bird or the owner derives from this “sport” is beyond my feeble comprehension.

In any case, this particular pigeon was not cut out for the profession chosen for it. The “2014” on the band indicated that, according the ARPU guidelines, this was “the year the bird was hatched and banded/registered.” Street pigeons can breed year-round if sufficient food is available, and can live up to 35 years; this must have been a very young bird hatched very early in the year in order for it to be “trained.” Something obviously went awry from point A to point B.

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