For the Birds Radio Program: Homing, Part I (Re-recorded)

Original Air Date: March 5, 1991 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: March 5, 2008; Oct. 26, 1999

Cats and dogs returning home over incredible distances are legendary, and true. But homing is most studied in pigeons, not mammals. Laura tells the story of her brother and his prize-winning pigeon Rocky.

Duration: 4′02″


(Original transcript) (Recording of a Rock Dove)

Some friends of mine recently moved to Duluth from six miles up the shore, bringing their cat Rainier with them. After a few days, the cat disappeared. For three weeks they searched their new neighborhood, and did all the things people do to find a missing pet. Just as they were losing hope of ever seeing him again, they ran an errand back in the old neighborhood, and there was Rainier.

Homing is one of the most studied, and yet least understood, phenomena in the animal world. “Incredible Journey” stories abound about dogs and cats returning to a homesite from unbelievable distances, surmounting unbelievable odds. But even if the homing instinct is strong in a particular pet, the odds of finding its way cross-country– with expressways, rivers, and dog-catchers in the way–are pretty steep. In human beings, who are supposedly more advanced than our pets, orientation and navigation are very poorly developed instincts.

Maybe that’s why when people think of homing, they think of birds. And the bird people usually think of when they think of homing is the homing pigeon, also known as the carrier pigeon.

People are often disappointed to learn that the common city pigeon–the most abundant bird in Duluth in winter–is the same bird that has saved countless people and executed incredible missions in wartime, and the same bird that even in this age of sophisticated telecommunications relays messages, carries blood samples, and generally makes itself useful to man. Ornithologists call it the Rock Dove, but pigeon fanciers usually call it the domestic pigeon. All the fancy breeds of pigeons are really just selectively-bred varieties of the basic gray species, and interbreed indiscriminately.

My brother spent his boyhood racing pigeons. He got his start with Rocky–a dusty gray pigeon clumsy enough to allow a ten-year-old boy to drop a paper bag over him as he ate spilled grain in a Chicago railroad yard. Rocky collected a lot of ribbons in local pigeon races. Then my brother got interested in more of exotic breeds–like tumblers, fan- tails, pouters, and king pigeons–and Rocky kept spoiling his breeding program–his racing talents were eclipsed only by his procreative abilities. So Rocky had to go. After a tearful good-by, my brother sent him to Florida with a vacationing buddy. Rocky beat the buddy back to Chicago. Then he was sent to northern Manitoba with an uncle on a fishing trip. My uncle took a plane home, but Rocky beat him, too. After that, my brother gave up–he built a dividing wall in the coop to keep Rocky from his fancy, pure-bred females, but, like Romeo, with love’s light wings did Rocky o’er-perch those walls. Pigeon mongrels abounded in our yard for twelve years, but my brother never had another bird that raced as well as Rocky, his common old railroad pigeon.

Many other species of birds fly long distances with romance on their minds. But unlike Rocky and his fellow pigeons, most other birds only nest in spring, and couldn’t be induced to “home” when not nesting. Next time I’ll tell you about some of those wild bird homing studies, and some of the theories ornithologists have developed for explaining how pigeons and other birds–and maybe even lost cats–find their way home.

(Recording of a Rock Dove)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”