Thursday, August 03, 2006

Guest Post: Jacob Sewall on Fast Pigeons

Writes Steve: My friend Jacob Sewall is a climatologist, pigeon fancier, and born (Maine)Yankee among other things. He writes some of the most fascinating stuff on pigeons and domestication in general-- one of our perennial subjects here--that I know of. In a just world I would be an editor that could commission abook from him. Here I can at least publish an occasional essay.

Take it away, Jake!

In Search of Speed

Jacob Sewall

High tension wires carrying electricity, data, and phone conversations are a fact of life, even a necessity, for most of us, but for a Miler “doo” they are a deadly obstacle to be avoided as he hurtles home at breakneck speed. “Milers” are one of the most esoteric, possibly rarest, and, certainly, most interesting of the countless breeds of pigeon that man has developed in his millennia long association with the descendents of the Rock Dove, [Columba livia]. Unfortunately, like many of the pigeon breeds before them, “Milers” are on the verge of being lost to time. These magnificent pigeons are a sub variety of the racing, or homing, pigeon cultivated to fly, as their name implies, the distance of a mile as fast as possible. For, while a British man achieved the “perfect” mile decades ago (Roger Bannister, 1954, 3:59:04), this select group of athletes still pursues it every Sunday.

Racing low over the crowded skyline of an English coal town, the miler doo dodges wires, houses, trees, and even hedgerows in all types of weather as he speeds home to his hen. In this sport of speedsters, only the male bird, or “doo” is flown. Raced “driving” their hens (When the hen pigeon is a few days from laying her first, of two, egg, the male pays her particular attention. He follows her about closely and keeps her in constant motion if she is not near the nest. Thus the term “driving” the hen to the nest), these pigeons traverse a mile in times ranging from 50 seconds to over a minute depending on the course, weather conditions, and, of course, the bird himself.

As a child I was fascinated by animals, fur, feathers, fins, scales – I observed, pursued, and coveted them all, but at the age of ten, I discovered the fascinating and addictive domestic pigeon and, though my interest in the natural world has never waned, my energies were forever channeled to the pursuit of pigeons and the fascinating universe contained within those charismatic little birds. I entered the world of pigeons at the relative “deep end” with racing pigeons, the “thoroughbred of the sky” and gallant hero of the World Wars. By the age of 15 my head was full of ideas and theories on how to motivate a bird to fly home faster and my back yard was filled with birds I hoped to blend into a successful family of long distance racers. A mile was the distance I rode my bicycle to my mentor’s house and 100 of them constituted a “short” race.

At about that time, the Racing Pigeon Digest, one of several periodicals focused on the sport of racing pigeons, carried an article on the short distance racers of England and I was introduced to the concept of “miler” racing. I consumed it avidly, as I did anything associated with pigeons, and then didn’t pay the milers, their game, or their fascinating history much thought for over a decade.

During that time I carefully bred my long distance racing pigeons, gave them all up, attended college, and moved across the continent to attend graduate school. Graduate school, for the first time in five years, provided the opportunity to again keep pigeons and I lost no time in constructing a small loft and filling it with a half dozen of my beloved racing pigeons. And just as quickly, I found myself bored with the whole endeavor. Bored and obsessed, even possessed some might say. Bored because it turns out it wasn’t just the pigeons themselves that I was interested in – it was sporting with pigeons as well. And wrapped up in sporting pigeons, or pigeon sports, is a world so vast, so intricate, so complex that it can fill your waking (and somnolent!) hours like nothing else. Sporting pigeons have been associated with man for thousands of years (some accounts suggest well developed pigeon sports that were 2000 years old a the time of Christ) and in pigeon sport, and the birds themselves, is a rich history of civilization, of culture, of sport, and of science.

The vibrant, vital past of the sporting pigeon fuses with the rewards of the present and the dreams of the future to form a truly satisfying endeavor, and it was this brilliant alloy that I sought and was missing. I sought pigeons whose sport and presence would link me back through the ages to the thousands, millions, of pigeon flyers who had gone before. Modern pigeon racing, thought the birds are magnificent and the competition tremendous, has too many trappings, is too contrived, for me to feel that link with the past. At the same time, I didn’t want a simple artifact, a collectible that was “historical” but no longer functional. I wanted a bird that was still “sporting,” still active.

In this state of mind, dissatisfied with my current situation and faced with the pursuit of a possibly unattainable ideal, I visited my parents for a Christmas holiday. Like countless generations of children before me, when I left home, I left some things behind. And like countless generations of parents before them, my parents were (are) constantly trying to reduce the number of things I had left behind. On this particular visit it was the pigeon magazines – in storage and awaiting the construction or purchase of my own “library”. They needed paring down from three file boxes to one and this necessitated a rigorous culling. In culling through the magazines I read through every one again and so the miler re-entered my life. But this time, with my desire for a sporting pigeon that exemplified the cultural past of pigeons as village birds and pigeon sport as village sport, the milers captured my attention and my imagination as few other pigeons have.

For starters, milers are kept simply, few trappings, gizmos, or gadgets interfere with your interaction with the birds. Each pair of birds is housed in its own large nest box approximately two feet square and slightly less than that in height. Six to twelve of these boxes might be neatly arranged inside a small loft, or a handful of them might be kept free standing on legs like a rabbit hutch. In either case, the combination of individual boxes and small numbers of birds (the latter being almost a necessity of the former given the added time required to care for individual boxes. However, there are few more rewarding ways to keep pigeons) has numerous advantages. First and foremost, it allows the fancier to establish a close relationship with each of his birds and, in knowing them well, derive not only greater success in their racing, but also greater pleasure from his association with them. Other aspects of the miler setup also foster this connection between man and bird – the birds all “trap” through open doors, no bobs, or aviaries, or sputniks. Complete control of the pigeons is necessary to ensure that the birds are all down from their exercise and into the loft at the appointed time. Small numbers and close contact not only foster familiarity with the birds, they also allow for a very tidy setup and miler lofts are virtually spotless. The lofts are scraped out once or twice a day and drinking water, provided in jam jars wedged in a corner with a piece of brick, is refreshed at this time. With each bird drinking from his own jar, the spread of any sickness between birds is greatly curtailed, and the use of glass (as opposed to plastic vessels which are porous and can absorb toxins) helps keep the water very clean and fresh.

Above this foundation of simple husbandry rises a relatively intricate edifice of sport. Miler lofts are, commonly, grouped together on a small plot of land known as a “paddock” and the paddock is frequently (and not surprisingly) convenient, if not adjacent, to a pub. Sport is, after all, a social endeavor. Games serve as displacement activities to help us relieve tensions derived from our living situation and forge social bonds within the community. Having your sporting pigeons proximal to the hub of your social life was, and is, a very practical, and efficient, setup.

The lofts on the paddock are arranged along the edges, forming a gallery or a hollow square depending on their number. In the center of the paddock is a marker of some sort, usually slightly elevated. It is here that the fancier, or an assistant – racing milers requires two people, one to “ship” and one to “receive” – awaits his pigeon’s return. All of the racing milers are released from a common point and, by returning to the marker in the paddock and not directly to their loft, race as near to exactly the same distance as is possible to arrange, and this is important in a sport where split seconds habitually decide the outcome (and into whose pocket the, sometimes sizeable, wagers go).

On race day (Sunday) each fancier, or a trusted assistant, takes his bird or birds (with only six to twelve pair of birds per fancier and relatively steep entry fees – all up as prize money – few fanciers fly more than a handful of birds on a given week) to one of several release points. The exact race point for the week is chosen several days before the race to allow fanciers time to train their birds from that location to sharpen them up. Meanwhile, back at the paddock, the receiving end of the equation waits for the milers’ return. The start order and time of release are prearranged; miler racing was developed long before “long distance” communication over a mile was commonplace and it is, of course, paramount that the timer at the finish line knows exactly when each contestant started flying. Once the first bird is released at the appointed time, the remainder of the birds follow at two-minute intervals. Each miler is released from the fancier’s hand and actually thrown forward into flight with the sort of motion one would use in hurling a javelin, except few javelins take on a life of their own upon release. The miler then races homeward, low, just clearing rooftops, treetops, and wires as he hurtles headlong towards the paddock...

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