Life in the North East of England (56)
The pigeon was sat on the grass just outside the loft. It was raining and it’s head was down. It was all a bit strange as normally anything that comes back late either sits on the platform corner where the two lofts meet or up in the valley between the two roofs. I’d been at the loft until dark the night before so it must have come back that morning. In the rain. It lifted it’s head and looked at me as I said “where the hell have you been then ” (so I talk to my pigeons but don’t we all) then stuck it’s head back into it’s shoulder feathers. It was one of my later youngsters. I lost four of them at an early Wednesday race but that didn’t surprise me. Wednesday racing is always a bit risky and I expected some of last years viral-affected youngsters to fall by the wayside this year. The whole purpose of racing them as a separate team mid-week being to try and sort out the wheat from the chaff.
The bird never moved at all as I walked across and picked it up and it was then that I realised why it hadn’t come back when it should have. It wasn’t because it was no good as a racer, it was because it couldn’t. If pigeons go missing when they shouldn’t I am no different to anyone else. You say to yourself if the others can get back then there is no excuse for those that don’t. You write the bird off as a failure, useless, that kind of thing, but you very seldom get to know the real reason for any birds non-appearance. With this particular pigeon the whole story of it’s misfortune was there for all to see. Badly singed flights and secondaries on one wing. A partially healed wound, scabbed over, on the front of the keel and all the secondaries missing from the other wing.
The story probably went something like this. Flying home on the edge of darkness it maybe got too close to a gas flare (and there are plenty of them in certain industrial areas they have to cross over on their way north to my loft) singed a wing, lost power, and thumped into the ground smashing the front of it’s keel. And whilst it was there, where it shouldn’t have been, a cat or maybe a kid had tried to grab it and took out the secondaries. A pigeon with no secondaries can fly, once it is the air, but has great difficulty in taking off. So the bird would have struggled to lift. Struggled to feed itself. And struggled to get home. It had taken this particular pigeon close on two weeks to do that. It can stay. It has lived to fight another day and I owe it that chance.
My friend was expounding on a pet subject of his. Why some pigeons are constantly consistent ,despite everything ,and can win out of turn whilst others perform erratically and never reach the heights that they should reach. This can happen even with nest mates. One can be outstanding and the other just ordinary or maybe downright bad. I can’t help thinking here about the performances in the ring of the champion British heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper and his very ordinary (maybe even less than ordinary) identical twin brother. My friends point, and heundoubtedly has one, was not why some can do the business and the others cannot, but that by hard testing on the road early on he would get the answers he needed sooner rather than later. Which ones to keep and which ones to discard.
I fully accept that, but what intrigues me is why the difference in performance in birds the same way bred. Fed the same. Trained the same. And living in the same loft? I believe it is a matter of how their life experiences, good and bad, affect them afterwards as racing pigeons. You throw up a real good pigeon which races well at the top level, so you breed another exactly the same way and it turns out not to be up to scratch. Did they both have exactly the same life experiences? Highly unlikely I would think. They may well have been subjected to a similar training and racing regime but it is very doubtful if they both had precisely whatever experience turned one into a racer and the other into an also-ran. I am not talking about sub- standard stock here but about good time- served lofts of pigeons where the norm is that some perform and some don’t. And I would like to know why. Answers on a post card please!
I do get asked some unusual questions. “Tell me” the big man from Scotland said, “do you think that the champion pigeons such as, and here he mentioned a few, have a different wing-beat to ordinary pigeons?” I launched into an explanation of how I thought that all pigeons have their own natural pace at which they fly, much as runners have their own speeds at which they feel most comfortable, and was half way into sprint athletics where the person appearing to pull away at the finish is actually slowing down, but at a slower rate than the chasing pack, when he stopped me. “I don’t mean that” he said “I mean could it be that the speed they fly at makes them different from the rest? And is that why the hawks pick them out as they always seem to kill the champions.”
The penny finally dropped. My answer was that when a champion is killed by a hawk you hear about it, for sure! By virtue of the very fact that it is a champion, You don’t hear it so loudly or widely when an “ordinary” pigeon is killed. A little personal moan, no publicity, and that’s it! How many times have you heard when a good pigeon dies of disease or by accident or gets lost, the words that “it always happens to the good ones!” It doesn’t. It just seems that way.
I have a friend who is a gambler. Good and proper. I hear of every big win he has but I never hear when, as is normal, he loses. You never see a bookmaker riding a bicycle! Predators prey on the old, the sick, the lame, the infirm, the slow, the tired, the ones that don’t fit or stick out for some reason, and occasionally, perhaps more regularly than I myself think, the unlucky ones. It stands to reason, there aren’t that many champions about. That when one is killed it makes the news. And it also stands to reason that the bulk of the prey taken comes from the rank and file racing pigeons. I don’t think the champions fly with a noticeably different style or wing-beat from other pigeons. They are simply fitter, faster, and go on for longer!
It is my fervent belief that any pigeon can make a mistake and still come good afterwards. Once it has physically and mentally recovered. A good pigeon that makes a mistake will more often than not rectify it by itself , but it won’t stop it making the same mistake again. I have had two or three really fine racers over the years that were prone to making an almost annual mistake, even when training from short distances, before, later on, doing what they were bred to do. And doing it at top level. Look at the Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros. His game was built on making mistakes, then correcting them brilliantly. Making mistakes never stopped him being the best golfer in the world in his time! Don’t ask me why pigeons make mistakes. It Is just something that happens now and then. And not solely on tail winds! Pigeon racing never was a science.
Do you know what anthropomorphism is? You should do because pigeon men practice it all the time! It is the fallacy of describing or interpreting the action of animals other than Man in terms of human actions and mental processes. Think about it. Fanciers are forever talking of their pigeons in anthropomorphic ways. This one is “jealous.” Another one is “honest.” One is “thick” and another “clever.”This pigeon “knows what it’s doing” and the other “hasn’t a clue.” We talk of “loners”, “leaders”, and “followers” and convince ourselves that they are doing and behaving just as we would ourselves in similar circumstances. This is rubbish, yet it is easy to think this way. I still do so myself on occasion. Until reason tells me it’s wrong.
I once took my two children, when they were young, to a local zoo and whilst they were watching an Elephant I was watching a cage full of Monkeys. One was playing with a paper plate which the rest wanted. They ganged up on it and chased it all over the enclosure, screaming biting and scratching it, until they got the plate off it. The gang then sat high up in one corner passing the plate around amongst themselves, examining it closely and totally ignoring the previous, well beaten owner sitting on the ground in the other corner. After licking it’s wounds and grooming itself the first Monkey, very ostentatiously, walked to a particular spot on the earth floor and dug up a right pile of these paper plates! It selected one and waved it at the gang up in the corner.
I remember thinking that if ever a Monkey was saying “up yours” this one was! But was it? It looked that way to me because I was seeing the Monkey’s actions in terms of human actions. Which is a mistake, whichever way you look at it. The Monkey, well, it probably just remembered where it had buried the plates in the first place and went and got another one from the hoard. It makes much more sense to me to observe and note the actions of our birds for future use than to try and understand them in the context of our own human world.
Ethology, the scientific study of behaviour, is a precise attempt at understanding it. Anthropomorphism is not and is therefore worthless. We are all guilty of thinking this way.
At least for some of the time!