The Nestlings of Heaven

by H. Kent Rappleye

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    What could a 17-year-old priest in Orem, Utah, possibly have in common with Julius Caesar? He isn’t a general leading his legions to conquer the world, nor is he a rich eccentric, strolling in splendor through marble palaces. The tall, dark-haired youth breeds racers (homers)—the elite of the pigeon family.

    Possessed with a strong instinct to return home, and with important messages strapped to their feet, the prize pigeons of Rome allowed Caesar to maintain communication with the vassal kingdoms scattered throughout his vast empire. Today, flying in the domain of the majestic Rocky Mountains, a similar flock cuts and threads the patchwork sky of Utah Valley. In aerial acrobatics, the birds slice into breathtaking dives and twist to reverse directions without loss of speed or bearing. They whip into a large circle, beating their wings faster and faster as they soar up the winding staircase of the wind.

    Every day the ritual is the same. They are training, building strength and endurance for the day when they will have to fly hundreds of miles across Utah to return to their loft nestled among the cherry and apple orchards that blanket the valley. Sitting in the deep grass near the loft, Harold J. Madsen scrutinizes the flock overhead with the concern of an Olympic coach. A young bird forgets to lift its feet and nose dives onto a roof. “Still a little young,” Harold explains. “The key to training is to get the pigeon to recognize the loft as home, so it will always return. By letting it fly from the loft every day for a few weeks, it becomes oriented and is ready to go greater distances.”

    Harold steps into the loft and gently wrestles a proud bluish-gray pigeon into his large hands. By his care and caution, it can quickly be seen that this is one of his prized possessions. The bird squirms with powerful jerks of wing and claw, struggling to be free. Harold gives it a gentle thrust into the air, and with three strokes of its wings, the pigeon glides into perfect rhythm with the circling flock overhead.

    The hope and dream of victory in a future race glistens in Harold’s eyes as he nods toward the flock swooping into the sun. “I have 12 birds that I’ve taken 25 miles away, and they’ve returned. We’ll go the same distance a few more times, and then I’ll take them 40 miles and longer.”

    This intense training is important because in a race, the pigeon is flying against itself. The birds don’t start from the same spot, since pigeon raisers live in different areas. Each bird begins an equal distance from its loft, and the first bird to return to its loft is the winner. Once the pigeon is through the trapdoor, it is considered “home,” and many races have been lost by birds that sit outside the loft after returning.

    Speaking with the happy wink of a coach telling the secrets of his athlete’s success, Harold explains that daily exercise and orientation to the loft are not the only keys to great racers. Proper diet, clean drinking water, adequate ventilation, and sanitary loft conditions are all essential to the strength and endurance of pigeons.

    The cost of feeding and taking care of pigeons runs about the same as dogs and other pets. Harold estimates that a 50-pound bag of feed will last 20 pigeons almost two months. Pigeons are especially fond of a combination of grains, including wheat, beans, chick peas, and crushed corn.

    Picking up a yellow water bowl covered with gunk and grime, Harold sighs in exasperation. “I have to change the water daily, since they all pile in and mess it up.” Pigeons love bathing, and after a good workout in the sun, they rival any locker room antics as they fight to get in the water. “Sometimes, they jump three on top of each other trying to get in.”

    Harold’s normally cheery face suddenly becomes cloudy, and he cautions that pigeons are susceptible to certain diseases and only careful observation will prevent disease from spreading to the entire flock. If a bird seems to be sick, it is best to isolate the bird and then contact a poultry farmer or veterinarian to determine proper treatment.

    Pointing to a silverish band on the ankle of his pigeons, Harold gives another word of caution. “Without a band, a bird cannot be entered in a race or fair. It also helps distinguish the birds from wild pigeons, and since good birds sell for over $30, the price of a bird without a band is cut drastically.” (Bands and registration information can be obtained by writing James R. Larimore, P.O. Box 3488, Orange, California 92665.)

    Like so many coaches and trainers, Harold’s relationship with his “athletes” goes beyond the grueling training program. A deep bond of love has developed between Harold and his pigeons. Twiddling a blade of grass in his fingers, Harold gives some insight as to why he feels the way he does. “Pigeons all have different personalities. Some are shy; some are bold. You get to know a little about each one.

    “It sounds stupid,” he says with a grin while shrugging his shoulders, “but when I was in Egypt for a year with my family, I didn’t miss my friends or anybody else; I just missed my pigeons?”

    Watching Harold train and work with his pigeons, it is not hard to see why he feels the way he does. There are no sharp squeaks or loud squawks, only soft cooing, a sincere invitation for friendship. Everywhere there is a feeling of peace and tranquility. No wonder over 4,000 years ago the Egyptian Pharoahs idolized pigeons as “the nestlings of heaven.”

    Getting Started

    Pigeon raising can be an exciting experience with many rewards. For example, Steve and Corey Pantuso of Salt Lake City began raising pigeons to show in the state fair. Soon they had covered their wall with ribbons and awards, and that got dad interested. They expanded their loft and began a great father and son hobby.

    Whether with father or alone, pigeon raising is fun, but don’t go down to the nearest park and catch a few wild pigeons. Mom won’t be too excited to have them flying through her basement. First, you need a loft, and building one teaches some basic carpentry skills along with a respect for a hammer. Many young beginners have built their pens from scrap wood which they were allowed to salvage from junk piles at construction sites.

    Pigeons need plenty of light and fresh air, and the loft must be built with that in mind. A loft six feet tall and four feet wide would be just right for ten pigeons. If you want to raise more pigeons, you must build a larger loft.

    Now, how do you get some pigeons? Again, forget the park and the wild ones. Most newspapers have a listing for “poultry” in their classified ads, and pigeons are often listed for one or two dollars. Also, if someone in your neighborhood raises pigeons, they will usually be willing to help you get started.

    Feed can be obtained from poultry farmers or some pet stores and usually runs around six dollars for a 50-pound bag. Wheat can be used by itself for a short time, but the various grains in the regular mix are important to keep the pigeons healthy.

    Water should be kept clean all times, and it helps to put in a large water bowl for bathing.

    Pigeons usually raise their young in the summer, and they need straw or pine needles to build their nest with. Build a row of nesting boxes on one of the walls of the loft and spread the straw on the floor; the pigeons will do the rest.

    The young birds will be ready to fly at about 28 days, and it is most important to band them when they are about two weeks old. Unbanded birds cannot be entered in fairs or raced, and their value is much lower than banded birds. Bands are available by writing James R. Larimore, PO Box 3488, Orange, California 92665.

    Pigeons need exercise and should be let loose about once a day. However, take care that the let loose have lived in your loft for quite a while, or they might not come back. Build in the loft a trapdoor that is about a foot square. Simply cut the hole in the wall of the loft, build a small platform for the pigeons to land on and then nail a one-inch board along the bottom of the door. Suspend pieces of hanger wire on the inside about one inch apart. This allows the birds to walk into the loft from the outside, but won’t let them go back outside. You will need to take each bird in your hand and help him through the trap door a few times so he will get used to it.

    Pigeons are smart birds and can be trained to sit on your shoulder and eat out of your palm. You can even train them to return to the loft when they a out flying by a certain wave of your hand or a whistle.

    The things you can dream up to do are almost limitless. You can take them on a family vacation if they are the homing variety and send a message back to your friend who is taking care of your loft. You can race them in big races or with your friends. State fairs offer ribbons, trophies, and even money in some cases. All of these opportunities await you in pigeon raising, but one of the best is the love and friendship you will develop for these gentle birds. One young pigeon raiser said, “I love my birds. When I come home from school and walk into the loft, I’m greeted by 35 friends who love me, too. It’s the greatest feeling in the world to have a pigeon sit on your shoulder and coo in your ear.

    Photos by H. Kent Rappleye

    Illustrated by Richard Hull

    Trap Door, Loft for Ten Birds; Nesting Boxes; Sunning Area, Trap Door, Loft for Twenty–Thirty Birds