Nature's notebook

City pigeon found a new home in the countryside

Homing pigeon that showed up in the Uwharries. Photo: Shirley Grissom

Over the years, some interesting birds have turned up at our farm in the Uwharries.  Mama keeps her feeders stocked all winter, and she’s been rewarded with species that will set a Piedmont birder’s heart aflutter:  an evening grosbeak, a black-headed grosbeak, and the extremely rare yellow-headed blackbird. This summer, she had another unusual visitor: a pigeon (Columba livia).  Yes, the species synonymous with gritty urban parks, the poor creatures denigrated as “flying rats.” Pigeons also thrive in rural areas where seeds and grain are plentiful.

But this bird was different. In addition to being especially beautiful – a head mottled white and gray, black wing bars, and an iridescent neck and breast – it sported a red band on its left leg. Rarely is a common bird so intriguing.


► The pigeon’s place in history

► Movies featuring pigeons:

  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
  • The Pigeon that Took Rome (1962)
  • The Pigeon that Worked a Miracle (1958)

The pigeon is an Old World species, introduced to North America in the early 1600s. The species has been domesticated for thousands of years, mostly due to its innate and impressive homing instinct. The birds take cues from the position of the sun, but they can also find their way blindfolded. This indicates they can sense the earth’s magnetic field and perhaps use sound and smell as well.  

Their abilities have made them useful messengers throughout history, including the dove Noah sent forth after the flood. While they generally fly only one way – returning home after being transported to a distant location – they can be trained to travel back and forth between their home and a designated feeding station up to 100 miles away. Examples abound of pigeons around the world delivering mail and medications (and in some cases, running drugs), even into the 21st century. Their services have been especially valued during times of war. After her valor in World War I, Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.  Pigeons also played an important role in the invasion of Normandy. Today, the birds still help the Coast Guard locate people lost at sea, but the vast majority are trained by pigeon aficionados for the sport of racing.

Mama followed the pigeon around the yard, trying to capture it and keep it safe from predators. She could walk along beside the bird, but if she leaned down to grab it, it hopped and fluttered just out of reach. With her binoculars, she was able to make out some of the letters and numbers on the leg band, enough to guide me to the American Racing Pigeon Union.

The executive director of the ARPU, Karen Clifton, quickly responded to my email query about the bird.  The letters AU indicated the band had indeed been issued to one of their members, but she needed the complete number to determine the owner. Mama redoubled her efforts to capture the bird. The family across the road came to help, and they attempted to throw a towel over the bird as the ARPU website advised. Mama even resorted to the long-handled catfish net. Alas, her efforts were in vain.

The bird was in a strange but stable limbo. It spent a lot of time on the roof of Mama’s back porch, swooping down to feed in open areas just beyond the fence where the grass is a little longer. At dusk, it would fly off toward the northwest, presumably to roost somewhere less open. (This was in the direction of another neighbor, a man in his 70s who dared to climb onto his roof to try to catch it.)  Every evening Mama wondered if she’d ever see it again, but it always came back the following day.

Leg band from the pigeon. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

One morning, Dad saw it feeding alongside the road as he returned from his walk. Minutes later, a truck passed the house. Mama looked out the living room window in time to see a cloud of feathers tumbling across the driveway in its wake. She rushed out and scooped up the bird. The number she’d been trying to read for nearly two weeks was now clearly, painfully, visible. She removed the band then buried the bird beside the magnolia that overlooks the fields where the bird had liked to forage.

Once I gave the ARPU the full number, their records showed the bird was registered to a man in Charlotte. Officials with the local club told me the owner is a member, but he doesn’t speak much English. They offered to convey the sad news, but they seemed philosophical about the loss. This was a young bird, they said, banded just this year. It had gone astray early in the training process. Many young birds are lost. They might get caught up in a thunderstorm or spooked off by a hawk before they’ve imprinted on their home. 

Once this pigeon wandered – or bolted – from Charlotte, it could have settled anywhere. Perhaps it wasn’t an urban bird at heart. For some mysterious reason, known only to pigeons, it claimed the Uwharries as its home. In the process, it also claimed a place in our hearts.

Many thanks to Charlotte ARPU club members Frank Zeidler and Guy Richardson for sharing information about this bird and stories about racing pigeons in general.  Contact Guy Richardson at 704- 453-6010 to learn more about the club’s activities.