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Wild About Utah: Homing Pigeons

Mary Heers

The following is an unedited transcript.

At 11:00 last Friday, I was standing alone outside a 120 ft pigeon loft in Fielding, Utah, scanning the sky for incoming birds. A few minutes later, the loft owner, Derek Alder, pulled into the driveway. "I passed them in Malad," he said, hopping out of his truck. “They should be here in about 10 minutes."  Earlier that morning, Derek had driven 250 pigeons to Spencer, Idaho, 180 miles away. He had released them at 8 a.m. and had barely beaten them home.

"Here they come!" Derek spotted the lead group of 40 as they flew into view, just over the tops of two trees a few hundred yards away. When the first bird entered the loft, the computer chip in its leg band sent a message to the loft computer. We heard the ping. It was 11:19. The lead group had flown 180 miles in three hours and 19 minutes. That made the average speed close to 55 mph.

Soon the computer was pinging nonstop. I was mesmerized. These were all young birds, less than a year old, who had been taken to a place they had never been before, 180 miles away. They had found their way home and were now calmly walking into their loft for a bite to eat and a sip of water.  

I had begun my own journey into this world of avian athletes last summer at the Cache County Fair. I had gone to cheer on my neighbor's kids who were showing their pigs, and ducked into the bird barn on the way out. I was expecting chickens, but found myself surrounded by pigeons. This encounter soon led me to Hyrum to meet the main exhibitor, Randy Balls. He met me at the door to his house with a big smile. "Do you want to see them fly?" he asked. We spent the next hour sitting on a bench in his backyard, watching his pigeons as they circled and swooped overhead. Randy's love for his birds was contagious, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I now find myself with four homing pigeons of my own in an improvised coop in my backyard.  

Growing up I had heard stories of pigeons who carried messages in both world wars. My favorite story was the one about a bird called Cher Ami, who was assigned to an American unit and carried into battle in a wicker backpack. The unit was pinned down by German guns, and, to make matters worse, was also hit by friendly fire.

A desperate message was written and placed in the small canister tied to Cher Ami's leg. "We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake, stop it." Cher Ami took off.  She was hit by bullets that blinded one eye and shot off part of her right leg. But she kept going. She delivered the message to army headquarters, and was credited with saving the lives of one hundred and ninety four American soldiers.

We know the messaging partnership between homing pigeons and humans can be traced all the way back to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. What we don't know is exactly how pigeons do it. Somehow they are attuned to the earth's gravitational fields in ways that humans are not. I like the mystery of it. I like keeping alive the flame of wonder and awe as we continue to learn and interact with the natural world

I'm Mary Heers and I'm wild about Utah.

Mary got hooked on oral histories while visiting Ellis Island and hearing the recorded voices of immigrants that had passed through. StoryCorps drew her to UPR. After she retired from teaching at Preston High, she walked into the station and said she wanted to help. Kerry put her to work taking the best 3 minutes out of the 30 minute interviews recorded in Vernal. Passion kicked in. Mary went on to collect more and more stories and return them to the community on UPR's radio waves. Major credits to date: Utah Works, One Small Step, and the award winning documentary Ride the Rails.