Life in the North East of England (64)

Rod Adams

Did you know that two Houseflies, mating once, will produce 200 young ? These 200, mating once, will produce 40,000 flies which in turn, mating once, will produce 8,000,000 others which themselves, again on a single mating, will produce 1.6 Billion flies! These on one mating will produce 320 Billion young which, mating once, will produce 64 Trillion Houseflies. After that there aren’t any numbers big enough to use! What is more, the time scale from the fly hatching to laying eggs itself is only three weeks! It is the time scale that interests me and also the fact that Geneticists (not to mention confidence tricksters as numbers like the above are the basis of Pyramid selling) use Fruit Flies for their work, not pigeons, because of the fact that in a very short time, say six months, six generations of flies will have been created and studied!

Contrast the time scale and the numbers being tested with what it takes to breed and test a family of long distance pigeons and you will see what anyone attempting to create a distance family is up against. My friend and I were trying to explain the long term nature of the beast to some fanciers who at present are fiddling about with only eight distance birds and those, as yet, unproven ones. It is not a task for the faint hearted nor for anyone who is worried about how long it might take or if they actually have the time left on this earth to achieve what they are after! The time scale involved in breeding and testing birds for the distance is daunting. An awful lot of the initial breeding stock will be dead or lost before their offspring come good, if indeed they ever do, and you will have been playing with numbers that the Geneticists would laugh at as being totally inadequate! And yet we persist. Some of us anyway.

It’s easy, sat having a drink, as we all were, to talk about creating a distance family but the reality of it is vastly different. Even if you start with a proven base family there is no guarantee of success and bang goes a few more years of your life, but it is a much better bet than starting with untested birds or trying to convert the ones you already have, which can be done if they have it in them. But not without the necessary mind-set that is essential for success. The blinkered, distance mind-set where all means are totally devoted to one end. Winning at the distance. Throwing up the odd good reliable channel pigeon is one thing but producing a family which can regularly bring home the bacon at over 500 miles is quite another. We are not talking Houseflies here! You probably won’t know in six years how successful your breeding programme has been, never mind in six months! You can’t progeny test on the scale that Fruit Flies can be tested in the laboratory, besides it’s performance you are after not physical appearance as such. Good pigeons come in all shapes and sizes. Except extra large of course. There again, that’s only my opinion!

A friend of mine was telling me about the time he had a mass panic amongst his birds, for no reason that he could discern. When they just refused to come in and flew on and on, as they do, in tight little circles going faster and faster until they disappeared into the dark like bats. Out all night they came into the loft the next morning as if nothing was the matter. It has happened to me before. One pigeon looks at some imaginary cause of fear, tightens up into the “I’m off” mode, the rest see this and in turn get ready for the off. One twitches and the whole lot are away and not coming back–not for a while anyway. A similar thing often occurs in the big sea-bird colonies.


It’s called, for want of a better name, “a dread.” The normally very noisy, screaming, fighting, feeding, mating colony falls completely silent then, as one, every single bird leaves the site in complete silence and flies away. I’ve seen it myself and most impressive it is too. They wheel around and around for some time before returning and within seconds of them landing normal service is resumed and you have a vibrant living collection of breeding gulls once more. So what caused the panic? Well you tell me! I have a hunch that a single individual acting out of the ordinary could be the trigger that spreads this unfounded fear and turns it into a mass panic, but I’m not sure that is the whole answer.

It does appear that it doesn’t have to be an external disturbance that starts it. Ethology is the study of bird behaviour and men like Conrad Lorenz (“King Solomon’s Ring”) and Niko Tinbergen, (“The Herring Gull’s World”) who were the pioneers of this kind of work, thought that perhaps it was the flock instinct at work, dominating the reproductive instinct, but in addition that the whole thing might be the result of just one bird constantly starting and leading the mass panic every time. And so do I. There is only one place for a bird like that and you don’t need me to tell you where it is!

Fielding pigeons are no good to man nor beast despite what the fanciers of old would have had us believe. You have no control over them and in this modern day and age you have to have exactly that. Control over what they eat. Control over when they fly and control over where they live. Which most certainly isn’t in the nearest field! In late summer the local farmers will be ploughing in the stubble and a lot of racers sustaining themselves in the fields will find they are on short rations and come home. The trouble is that they never lose the fielding habit, and, given time will fix it in the rest of your birds.

To go with his new gun my local shooter has recently purchased a decoy gadget whereby two dead pigeons are fixed, with outstretched wings to a rotating wire frame ( you can make one yourself with a car battery, the motor from a windscreen wiper and some fencing wire or you can buy one, it’s your choice) which he reckons is irresistible to Wood Pigeons and feral pigeons alike. He has backed this claim up with an impressive body count. I have told him that my two/three fielders are his, they have no business being in the fields, but please could I have the name and address rings back. They cost money you know!

In this age of specialisation what do you think of a pigeon that could win 1st. Nevers one weekend then a mile sweepstake race the following weekend, and this in an area where the best milers were clocking 50 seconds for the distance? That is precisely what a Red Grizzle hen belonging to Johnstone & Stubbs of South Shields Central club did –– in 1949! Some pigeon eh? I am indebted to David Simpson, son of the well known partnership of the late Maurice & Agnes Simpson of Shotton Colliery, for this information and for sending me a whole bunch of interesting photocopies taken from what appears to have been “The Pigeon Racing News & Gazette” in the years between 1946 and 1949.

There was information on Bill Douglas, the war-time Pigeon Service (Calshot) friend of Frank Perkins of Boston, who served in two world wars and was the first man in my town (South Shields) to fly Troyes, 525 miles, on the day and also on Salford and Sons legendary pigeon “Old Mike” who in ten years of racing from Mons, Chimay, Troyes, Arras, Melun and Nevers never spent a night out in his life together with reports on many other top pigeons and fanciers of that era, which I will doubtless use in future articles, but one snippet in particular caught my eye.


A race between Billy Metcalf of Bedlington, a pit village in the northeast of England, and the renowned champion Northrop Barker of Brussels. It happened in 1901. Billy, a miner, was a well known handicap sprinter and local footballer who for fifty years acted as a convoyer, mostly for the Up North Combine, and who flew in many matches from all distances. The match with Northrop Barker was a home- to- home one, with each competitor flying two birds and was arranged by a Mr Halstead, Secretary of the Yorkshire Federation. Barker’s birds were liberated by a Dr Jennings of Bedlington. Metcalf won this race easily in spite of flying from East to West against the prevailing winds “clocking” an 1897 Mealy cock in ten hours and his second bird on the third day. There is no evidence that Northrop Barker ever had an arrival! A miner living in the then little pit village of Bedlington putting his money where his mouth is against an Englishman living in Brussels and a famous Englishman to boot. Now is that not the true spirit of pigeon racing? And where on earth did it go to?