The Plight Of The Underrated Pigeons

Pigeons on a rail
This story originally aired on March 18, 2007.

Pigeon trainers and breeders take seriously their birds' reputation very seriously because know that many people don't like pigeons and call them flying rats.

"Street pigeons are kind of like homeless people," Bill Cox said. "They look the same in appearance. But if you were to take those pigeons and domesticate them, give them a bath everyday, they would materialize into a much more attractive bird."

Pigeons are bred not only for show, but also for speed. Pigeon racing is an international sport. Birds, all brought to a specific site, are released together. Sometimes flying at speeds of more than 60 miles an hour, they travel hundreds of miles back to their homes, called coops or lofts.

Tony Borelli of Staten Island, N.Y., has owned racing or homing pigeons since 1951. He says keeping the pigeons helps keep him sane.

"When things get too much I can come out in the coop and just sit in here," he said.

But when Braver caught up with him, Borelli was getting his birds ready for a 340 mile race — making sure they are well fed and rested.

"Thoroughbreds of the sky — this is poor man's horseracing," he said.

Borelli packed up his aspiring champions and drove downtown to the Staten Island Pigeon Club where racing pals are gathering, too. Each bird was electronically registered via a small band on its foot. The prize money came to about $3,000, but Borelli said that's not why he races. It's the suspense they love.

Pigeons' ability to always find their way home is legendary. It is what's called the homing instincts. But how it actually works is still a mystery.

"Well, some of the top minds can't really quite figure it out," Andrew Blechman, author of the book "Pigeons," said. "But they seem to be able to sense the Earth's magnetic field so that'll bring 'em home. They can also use the sun and the moon and the stars, and they also have ultrasonic hearing. They can hear the wind over the Rockies, you know, blowing across it about 2,000 miles away."

Blechman says pigeons have an important place in history. A pigeon delivered word of the first Olympics.

"776 B.C. and it was a lot better than a runner — it took the runner all day, and he died afterwards," Blechman said. "Noah's dove was actually a pigeon. In fact, a pigeon and a dove are just the same thing. People think that it's if its white and small it's gotta be a dove, but a pigeon is a dove."

Pigeons and doves are actually both descendents of the same species.

Pigeons have long been used by the military, carrying messages for the allies in both World Wars. Even Queen Elizabeth fields racing pigeons and has her own royal loft.

That hasn't stopped London and many other cities from trying to reduce its pigeon population. Blechman says he's all for humane pigeon control but he insists the pigeons' "dirty bird" reputation is undeserved.

"They don't carry any more disease than you or me," he said. "They really don't. In fact they seem to be immune to avian flu."

And Blechman says he has come to admire these birds. They are sociable and gentle, monogamous, good parents and great athletes.

"They're an unusual creature and they deserve a second chance, at least another look," he said.

Tony Borelli couldn't agree more. His birds and the others in the race were released early that morning and now he was waiting, worried about unexpectedly high winds.

"The stronger the wind, the less chance they have of flying a straight line and so it takes them longer," he said.

Finally he spotted a few in the air. As each crossed into a coop, its foot ring registered on a hidden sensor, which records the bird's arrival time. Borelli's best bird placed fourth in this race.

"His mother was a 400-mile winner," he said. "She'd be proud."

But win or lose, Borelli says there is nothing like participating in a race.

"You get a rush," he said. "It's like hitting a jackpot in Atlantic City. Even if you don't win, you know, these are like your pet children and look, 'Hey, look, my pet came!'"