Susan Orlean

Little Wing

On a bright, breezy Saturday not long ago, Sedona Murphy gave her homing pigeons away. Earlier that morning, the birds had flown around the neighborhood, looping over the shaggy old trees and the peaked rooftops of South Boston before returning to their gray shed in the Murphys' back yard. They then toddled obligingly into their wooden case. These were racing birds, accustomed to being crated and carried, so the close quarters were nothing new, and they had no way of knowing that this was the last time they would ever fly free.

The pigeons were being given away because the Murphys were moving, and the pigeons would not assent to the move. No matter how much nicer the yard would be at the Murphys' new house, in Southborough, a suburb west of Boston, the pigeons would always consider home to be the narrow wooden house on East Fifth Street that the Murphys were leaving behind. If the birds moved to Southborough and ever got out of their coop, they would race back to Fifth Street. Once in a while, pigeons that have to be moved -- that is, pigeons whose owners are moving -- can bond to a different coop. But, most of the time, birds raised by hand in a coop have no talent for living in the wild, so homing pigeons that have to be moved must be caged for the rest of their lives -- they become what are called "prisoners." In the best of circumstances, prisoners are kept in a large aviary, so that they have room to fly even though they can't be let loose; in the worst, they never fly much again.

I got into the Murphys' car with Sedona and her twin brother, Patrick, and their mother, Maggie; the pigeons were in their wooden case in the back seat, muttering to themselves like old men in a bingo hall. The highway was uncrowded. We ticked past several exits, until we were minutes from the headquarters of the South Shore Pigeon Flyers, one of the two dozen or so clubs in Massachusetts for homing-pigeon fanciers, where we would be leaving the birds.

Sedona was quiet. She is thirteen years old, a lean, leggy girl, with the luxuriant golden hair of a princess, but a grave, precise manner. Her posture is elegant. Her diction is occasionally exactly that of a person her age -- earlier in the day she had announced, with amazement, that Grand Tetons means "big boobs" -- but more often it is startlingly precise and sophisticated. Once when I was visiting her, she was showing one of the pigeons to a friend. The bird was squirming and pecking. Her friend squealed and said she thought the bird was icky. Sedona gave her a look, then turned the bird on its back and said firmly, "Hey! You're being a dominant, dominant bird!"

South Shore Pigeon Flyers is housed in an old brown barn behind the home of the club's president, Damian Le Vangie. When we pulled in, Le Vangie was standing on a small terrace off the second floor of the barn, his head tilted up. Maggie called out a greeting. "I can't come down," Le Vangie said. "I'm waiting for birds." At six that morning, thousands of pigeons from the Boston area had been released near the Berkshire Mountains for a two-hundred-mile race, and Le Vangie's flock was likely to be reaching home any minute; he would need to lure them across an electronic finish line so that their leg bands would trigger the timer used in official scoring.

"We have Sedona's birds," Maggie said.

"Just leave them," Le Vangie said. Spotting a flash of wing in the sky, he swivelled around and began shaking a can full of grain to attract the birds' attention, so they wouldn't dawdle in the air too long before landing. Maggie and Sedona waited for a bit, but Le Vangie wasn't budging. Finally, Sedona placed the case of pigeons near the barn, and then climbed into the car. By the time we got back to the Murphys' house, a friend of the family's, Jim Reynolds, was dismantling Sedona's pigeon coop, restoring it to its original incarnation as a garden shed. Sedona stood at a distance, observing. "It looks empty," she said. "Pigeonless." Maggie watched the demolition with her. Out came the perches, the bird bath, the fifty-pound sacks of pigeon feed; off came the Lucite door the birds hopped through after they'd been flying around and were ready to come home.

This is both the marvellous and the problematical thing about racing pigeons: they have a fixed, profound, and nearly incontrovertible sense of home. Americans move, on average, every five years; pigeons almost never move. This gives the hobby of raising homing pigeons a curious permanence, a fixedness in space. It's as if you had pasted your stamp collection on your bedroom walls and then, when it came time to move, you couldn't get it unglued. The Murphys' new house didn't have an aviary, so Maggie felt the best solution was to persuade Sedona to give the pigeons to people in her racing club who did. Other pigeon racers, facing the same problem, decide they just can't move. I spent much of this past racing season with Sedona and with Matt Moceri, who flies his birds with the Gloucester Racing Club, north of Boston. Matt, who is fifty-six, is slight and dark-haired, with a foghorn voice and a cheery manner. He has been raising birds since 1982, and always keeps a flock of at least sixty. Matt has lived in the same house in Gloucester for almost his entire life, but he would love to leave the cold, wet winters there for somewhere pleasant, like Tampa, Florida. He began to feel this most acutely five years ago, when he learned that he had cancer. "My wife wants to get something in Florida before I croak," he said to me recently. "But I can't do it with the birds. They belong to this house."

If, in the Kentucky Derby, all the horses were trucked together to some remote spot and set loose, then galloped back to their respective barns, where they crossed a finish line, and their times were then compared and ranked in order by a race secretary (factoring in the difference in the distances to the various barns), you would have the equivalent of a pigeon race. It is the inverse of a group spectator sport. Birds in a race are all together only when they are first let go, which is done by a truck driver who transports all the competitors -- thousands of them, in the big races -- to the release point. None of the bird owners watch the start of the race, because the birds travel as fast as sixty miles per hour and they fly direct, so if the owners watched the start of the race they would probably miss being home to see the birds return. There is no gathering of owners to watch the end of the race, either: everyone wants to see his own flock come back to his own coop. "You hang out in the yard by yourself, waiting," a pigeon racer recently explained to me. "You put on some music or the baseball game, have a cocktail, and just watch the friendly skies."

Homing pigeons find their way on instinct, but they need practice. Pigeon racers get up early, because practice sessions -- known as "training tosses" -- are usually done at dawn, before it's too hot for flying, and most people drive their birds farther and farther away, several days a week, to build their stamina and to strengthen their attachment to home. The American Racing Pigeon Union oversees two racing seasons each year -- one in the spring, for birds more than a year old, and one in the fall, for young birds. The races are held regionally each week, and range from one hundred to six hundred miles. Some races have cash awards for winners -- up to several thousand dollars in some cases, and one series of races in South Africa has a purse of a million dollars. But, most of the time, you do it just for the thrill of it, and you get nothing but glory.

There are scores of pigeon breeds, all of them varieties of the rock dove, the bird you see in cities. Fancy breeds -- such as pygmy pouters, oriental frills, and short-faced tumblers -- are raised for show and for performance. Homing pigeons are raised to race home. Their ability to find their way -- and their choice to do so -- has been remarked upon since before the Roman Empire. The Egyptians and Turks trained pigeons to carry messages; dynastic China used pigeons to carry mail. It is rumored that Count Rothschild used the early news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, delivered to him by pigeon, to manipulate investments; in the nineteenth century, Paul Julius Reuter founded his news service as a string of pigeon posts; London stock-market quotations were regularly conveyed from London to Antwerp by bird. Pigeons have been used by the German, French, Dutch, English, Belgian, and American armies to carry microfilm and messages. Some military birds conducted surveillance. "If you should ever wake up in the morning and see perched on your window sill an uncanny little bird pointing a miniature camera at you, you might be sure that he was a United States feathered photographer," Marion Cothren wrote in her book "Pigeon Heroes," in 1944. "Not to be outdone by Germany, Russia and Japan, our Pigeon Service trained . . . these birds to carry two-inch aluminum cameras attached to their breasts. . . . These clever camera-birds were used to photograph troops or ammunition dumps." During the Second World War, a pigeon was cited for bravery by the American Army: during a storm, the bird, known as U.S. 1169, carried a distress message to shore from a foundering Coast Guard vessel. Between 1943 and 1949, the Dickin Medal -- a British award for animal bravery -- was bestowed on thirty-two pigeons, nearly twice the number given to hero dogs.

Pigeon racing, as a competitive sport, was developed in Belgium in the early nineteenth century, when messenger birds were bred to have greater endurance and speed. By the eighteen-eighties, races of five hundred to a thousand miles were held regularly in Europe and the United States. There have been changes in the sport since then. Electronic finish lines were introduced ten years ago; before that, racers had to grab their birds as they entered the coop and remove their leg bands, to stamp them in a manual timer. There is now racing-team software ("Pigeon Loft Organizer . . . a quick and easy way for you to manage all your pigeon data . . . records, pedigrees, race results"). There are husbandry practices to stimulate stronger feather growth. There is pigeon feed on the market that contains magnetic particles, and is touted to help navigation. There are techniques to increase speed, including a system called "widowhood," in which mating pairs are kept apart, to increase their longing for each other -- and, accordingly, to increase their haste to get home. But, fundamentally, the sport has remained unchanged for more than a hundred years. It is simply a contest to see whose birds are fastest coming back to their coop. No one is exactly sure how the birds do it. Scientists have been studying homing pigeons for decades; at Cornell, experiments have been conducted on them since 1967. Inertial routing -- the theory that the birds register the physical experience of the journey and retrace it -- cannot entirely account for their ability. Nor can navigation by sight (pigeons fitted with translucent contact lenses are still able to find home); sun-compassing (pigeons can find their way home on overcast days); smell; sound; infrasound; telepathy; or magnetic sensitivity. Many biologists now believe that pigeons use some combination of these. The sentimental explanation is that if pigeons like where they live they use all their animal instincts -- which are beyond our capacity to measure -- to find their way. Sedona believes that magnetism has something to do with it, but she mostly subscribes to this notion. "I believe it's the love of the loft," she told me. "They return to where they feel is their home."

Occasionally, birds get lost. They might be blown off course and can't correct themselves. Cell-phone transmissions are suspected of interfering with their steering. In 1998, twelve hundred birds competing in a race from Virginia to Pennsylvania went off course; more than half of them were never seen again, and no one knows why they went astray. At a St. Peter's Fiesta on the north shore of Massachusetts a few years ago, someone released a hundred white pigeons, assuming that they would make a nice addition to the event and would head back home immediately. Weeks after the fiesta ended, the birds were still fluttering around the area, lost and disoriented. One of Sedona's favorite pigeons, Soleil, went missing after a training toss. Sedona says she thinks she's seen him a few times since then, wandering the streets of downtown Boston. Her birds are so attached to her that they will come when she calls, but Soleil seemed to have found a new home.

Most of the time, though, homing pigeons can be counted on. Last fall, I went with Matt Moceri on a training toss with a few dozen of his birds and those of some pigeon-racing friends. He was planning to let the birds go in a parking lot in Greenfield, Massachusetts, about a hundred miles away. It was soon after sunrise when we arrived. There was an emu ranch next to the parking lot, and as we pulled in we could see the birds at the ranch peering at us through the fence. There were about a thousand pigeons in the pickup. As soon as Matt opened their cages, the pigeons poured out like water, and then whooshed into the sky and disappeared into the morning. I couldn't believe they would find their way home, or want to. At the very least, I figured, we would have several hours of waiting time in Gloucester before we would catch a glimpse of any of them. But when we got back to Matt's house and walked into his yard, I could see all of his birds lined up on the roof of their coop, burbling and cooing, shuffling and bowing, as if they were performing the finale of a magic trick.

You can buy a racing pigeon for a hundred dollars, or you can spend thirty thousand dollars or more for birds from champion racing stock. In general, the costs are reasonable -- pigeon feed is about twenty-five cents a pound; basic gear costs a few hundred dollars; club membership and racing fees are about two hundred and fifty dollars a year. The biggest expenses are an electronic timer, which can run close to a thousand dollars, and veterinary bills, if your birds get sick. Sedona got her first pigeons a couple of years ago, as a gift from a friend of Maggie's, Bill Hussey, who calls his hundred-bird racing team Hussey-N-Da Lofts. Sedona was crazy about animals -- at the time, the family already had an Australian shepherd, a cat, and a gecko -- and she was especially fascinated by birds. When she was small, she liked to lie on the grass in the park near home and study wild pigeons for hours. To train Sedona's birds for racing, Maggie had to wake at 5 A. M., wait for someone to come and watch the kids, drive the birds as much as an hour away, release them, then drive to police headquarters, where she is a detective, and start her workday. Maggie is divorced from the children's father. "I think my father had a parrot once, but he had to give it away," Sedona said. "I think he was allergic to it, and it didn't like women." Several years ago, the Murphys' neighbors, Jim and Mary Reynolds, began walking the Murphys' dog during the day. The Reynoldses are both deaf and they have no children; walking the Murphys' dog led them to more involvement with Sedona and Patrick, and over time the Reynoldses have become like grandparents to them, babysitting while Maggie is at work, helping with projects around the house. The attachment is powerful. When Maggie told them that they were moving to Southborough, the Reynoldses decided that even though they'd been in the neighborhood for decades it might be time for them to move, too.

Hussey gave Sedona two baby birds, Soleil and Stella Luna, and when she joined South Shore Pigeon Flyers some club members gave her several more. The birds mated; she then had a flock of eighteen. At first, the pigeons lived in the house, in an old rabbit cage, which caused the dog, the cat, and the gecko to be somewhat discomfited. After it became impossible to walk through the kitchen without crunching on pigeon feed, Maggie bought a garden shed to use as a coop. Jim erected it at the far end of the long, narrow back yard. He had grown up nearby, and, as a kid, had friends with homing pigeons, so he knew how to care for them and helped Sedona run the coop. Patrick liked the birds and spent some time with them, but he is more of a dog-and-cat guy; it was Sedona who fell in love. She thought the pigeons were beautiful -- "I know people think they're plain or even homely," she said, "but I think they're little works of art" -- and she loved seeing them in competition. She raced her young birds in the one- and two-hundred-mile races. She lost a few to hawks and to misdirection, and a few more to a virus that spread through the birds in the club, and she knew she was up against grownups with flocks of two hundred pedigreed racing champions, but she was still proud of her birds. One day when I was visiting her, she showed the birds to me, lifting and turning them every which way so that I could see their features, commenting on each one's potential with the meticulousness of an auctioneer touting yearling colts at Keeneland. "This one's texture is really excellent. . . . This one's coloration is called a white grizzle, a beautiful bird. . . .This one has a proud chest. . . . This one, Patches, is too fat. We have to get her on a diet. . . . Lightning has very good genetics."

By this time, Maggie had already made the decision to move: a hopscotch of packing boxes stretched from the front to the back door, and realestate pamphlets lay in a heap on the kitchen table. It hadn't been an easy decision: the house had been in Maggie's family since the early nineteenhundreds. But the neighborhood had changed, Maggie explained to me. Everyone she knew was moving away, and the new neighbors were the type to scold her kids for goofing around too close to their yards or playing tag in the street. She had found a handsome old house in Southborough, on almost an acre of land. It would give them all sorts of space, compared with South Boston, where the houses crowd in on one another.

Sedona plays baseball and soccer, and is an accomplished ballerina, but giving up the birds was a blow. Figuring them out was more compelling to her than figuring out how to hit a line drive or perform a jeté. Even when she knew that she would never again see her pigeons floating over the top of the house and zooming back to the coop, she doted on them, dreamily speculating about which birds might have made a mark in the races. Her successes had been modest -- her best finish was her bird S. J., who came in forty-ninth in a race of three hundred birds. But, still, the possibilities seemed limitless. One hot afternoon near the end of summer, we sat out near the coop talking about the move. She allowed as how the new house was big and nice, and then she changed the subject and said she wanted to give the birds a bath and show me how affectionate they were with her, almost like dogs. The coop was tiny -- we just fit in, crowding through the door -- but it was clean and pleasant, filled with the odd, almost noiseless sound of the birds, a sort of cadenced vibration, like an unplugged electric guitar being strummed. Sedona picked up a dappled tan pigeon and hugged it close. "You know," she said, "you can actually become a millionaire from your birds." There persists in Sedona's mind the possibility that she will get her birds back someday -- that she and her mother will build a huge aviary at the new house, and even though the birds would be prisoners they would live there happily. Recently, she has also said she might consider raising show pigeons, rather than pressing her mother to reclaim the birds she gave away. She thinks show pigeons are gorgeous; she had seen one riding on the back of a dog at a circus and was very impressed. Moreover, they are fat and placid, flying in somersaults if they fly at all, rather than always yearning to race home.

As a pigeon flyer, Sedona is atypical. Fans of the sport are mostly male and largely middle-aged or older. The pigeon clubs are clubby. The motto of the Greater Boston Concourse -- the governing body of the pigeon clubs in the Boston area -- is "Camaraderie Through Competition." On the nights before races, members gather at their clubhouses to wait for the truck to collect their birds, but also to play cribbage, watch sports on TV, have a few drinks, tell dirty jokes. Maggie preferred to take Sedona and her birds to the South Shore Pigeon Flyers headquarters early; they would chat for a short time and head right home. Pigeon devotees have included Mike Tyson, Walt Disney, Picasso (who named one of his daughters Paloma, which is Spanish for dove), Marlon Brando (as Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront"), Roy Rogers, and King George V. Pigeon racing is not demographically diverse but it is multinational. In Belgium, its popularity is said to be on a par with cycling and soccer; it is thriving in England (where not long ago one exceptional racing pigeon sold for nearly two hundred thousand dollars) and in the rest of Europe (where videotapes about pigeon-racing stars like Marcel Sangers, "the Wonderboy of Holland," are marketed with taglines like "Racing in the hotbed of Zutphen against some of the sport's giants, Marcel has achieved what many can only dream about"). The sport is fashionable in the Middle East, and the Taiwanese have gone mad for it. Prize money in Taiwan's biggest races can reach three million dollars, and gambling on them is commonplace; so is pigeon-related crime, including stringing gigantic nets across the route of a race and holding the trapped birds for ransom, and sneaking birds onto airplanes to hurry them to the finish line. Sharing affection for pigeons seems to fill people with an all-embracing global emotion. "Whatever language and whatever country you're in," the president of the American Racing Pigeon Union, Frank Greenhall, said recently, "you sit down with a pigeon man and you speak one language -- pigeon."

The American Racing Pigeon Union has ten thousand members and oversees eight hundred clubs around the country; another several hundred clubs are affiliated with the International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers. Still, the numbers aren't what they once were -- for instance, there are about half as many members in Boston-area clubs as there were twenty years ago. Where have all the pigeon flyers gone? Some complain of weariness with the neverending care that the sport requires, compared with a pastime like golf, and it has also become more difficult lately to keep a pigeon coop -- concerns about disease and about whether the sport violates animal rights have prompted some cities to start regulating coops, and Chicago has made it unlawful to keep pigeons at all. The resurgence of hawks has made some people quit in frustration after their well-trained racing teams get eaten. But, recently, newcomers from China and Vietnam have begun joining the sport in the United States, and people who love pigeons see other signs to be hopeful. Last summer, I went to Fall River, Massachusetts, to attend the annual auction and picnic at the racing club there. Greenhall was addressing the crowd. "People keep saying the sport is dying, but the sport is bigger than ever before," he said, over the din of kids shouting at each other in the SpongeBob SquarePants bounce house, a group of men discussing the virtues of the birds being auctioned, and people jostling in line for barbecue. "For instance," Greenhall continued, "we are close to having the Boy Scouts recognize pigeon racing as a merit badge. . . . We have nine school systems using pigeons to teach math and science." He looked around the picnic, nodding with satisfaction, and added, "We even have prisons starting pigeon racing!"

There are just a handful of female pigeon flyers, but what really set Sedona apart was her age. She was well known in the Boston pigeon-racing world because there are so few kids in the sport. I once asked her if that distinction was actually kind of cool. "The other people in the club were not exactly fun," she said, slowly. "But they were, um, interesting." The pigeon people I met found their failure to interest their own children in it exasperating. They said their children thought pigeons were too much work; they complained that their kids were only into computers, that their sons were only interested in girls. Some people I met had first taken up pigeon racing as children and then abandoned it, and had returned to it later in life. I thought this would have assured them that their kids would eventually find their way to the sport. But many of them had an uneasiness, a foreboding that, regardless of the good news about the Boy Scouts and math classes and prisons, and the fact that more people are joining the sport as families these days, it is on the wane. That worry seemed to be also an expression of their ambivalence about a pastime that is unusually confining. The morning of the Greenfield training toss, I waited for Matt in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, along with five other pigeon racers. It was five-forty-five in the morning. I asked one of the racers how he was, and he said, "Honestly, I'm tired. I mean . . . I'm driving out here and I'm asking myself, I'm getting up at 5 A. M. for some bird?"

Matt is the race secretary of the Greater Boston Concourse, and yet he confided to me that he thinks he is starting to talk himself out of being a pigeon racer. Still, even though he has set his birds free and watched them return hundreds and hundreds of times, he seems exhilarated each time they lift into the air and then miraculously reappear at home. That morning in the parking lot, he was eager to take the birds out to Greenfield and let them fly. "Hey, let's get these birds and get going!" he hollered. "We're four minutes late already!"

The day we went to Greenfield, some of Matt's other birds were flying in a race. The release was in Ilion, New York, about two hundred miles from Boston -- 224.592 miles from Matt's coop, to be exact, for purposes of calculating their time and speed. Matt was rushing back to Gloucester so he could see his flock come home. He was feeling optimistic, even though he was not having the best season of his career. "Since I've been sick, I haven't done so well, so everyone likes me," he said, slapping the steering wheel. "When my birds were doing really well, there was lots of envy. With pigeon guys, there are always lots of feuds." His cell phone rang. "Birds went up at seven-forty-five," he said. "O. K., good luck." Within a minute, the phone rang again; he gave the same message. During the rest of the drive back to Gloucester, his phone rang every few moments. Matt was in a philosophical mood. Before he became ill, he did construction and remodelling work; now he devotes his time to tending his birds and puttering around the house and speculating about the future. His wife, Joan, often drives to the training tosses, because he tires easily. She probably has more pigeon business in her life than she counted on. Matt underwent chemotherapy, and for a year he was too sick to clean the coop and feed the birds, so Joan did it all herself and developed a lung condition that can be caused by exposure to bird dander. Their vacations are limited to times when they can find someone to bird-sit. "And whenever we do go on vacation, I spend some time doing pigeons," Matt said. "I leave Joan at the pool and go find some pigeon guys. I have to."

The day was hot and still. When we got back to Gloucester, we sat in the yard, listening to the cicadas click and the leaves on a huge maple tree beside his house rustle and sigh. I mentioned what a beautiful tree it was. "Well, it is," Matt said. "It's just that it blocks my view of the birds when they're heading in." He had a cordless phone next to him, which rang every few minutes. "Hello, Louie. . . . No, I don't have any birds yet. . . . O. K., good luck." He checked his watch, checked the sky, checked his watch again. The phone rang again. "No, John, I don't have any yet." Another ring. He turned the ringer off, saying he didn't want to know whose birds were back. His own team was late. "I'm disgusted," he said. "I don't want to talk to anybody."

I asked Matt if he knew Sedona; he remembered meeting her briefly, at a pigeon auction. I wondered if he had considered taking some of her birds. He laughed. "No way," he said, shaking his head. He mentioned that he and Joan would be vacationing in Tampa soon; their son had agreed to take care of the pigeons. Increasingly, Tampa is where pigeon guys go to retire; Frank Greenhall told me that a subdivision near Tampa has been nicknamed Little Belgium, because of all the pigeon fanciers who have moved in. Maybe while they were down there, Matt said, he and Joan would look at real estate. On a day like this, with his team underperforming, the idea of moving seemed more palatable, maybe even appealing. "I love my birds," he said, "but I always wonder why I'm doing this." He suddenly bolted to his feet, pointing past the maple. "I got a bird!" he yelled. I could see a dark shape gliding around the crown of the tree, spiralling downward; then a bird landed on top of the coop. It was glossy and gray, with pink feet and bright, round eyes. It had just flown two hundred miles on instinct or memory, or perhaps it was drawn back these two hundred miles because it loved where it lived. It was unruffled, composed, as if it had spent the whole morning scratching for feed at home. "C'mon, c'mon," Matt called out, until the bird crossed the finish line, registering its return at 13:15:42. He took a huge breath and then grabbed his phone, hit the speed dial, and shouted, "Hey! Louie! I got a bird!"

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