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Life in The North East of England 67 29-07-17


Rod Adams

It all started with the Flu jab. I’d been advised, as a controlled asthmatic, to have an injection against Pneumococcal Pneumonia and, as it was also free, my wife decided I should have a Flu jab as well. It worked brilliantly. Within 24 hours I had influenza and have been recovering ever since! I also developed bacterial conjunctivitis in my right eye which eventually forced me back to see my doctor who I’ve known since he was a student at Newcastle University.

A humourous man, he always sides with me against my wife who inevitably insists on accompanying me into his consulting room. “Right” he said after looking at my eye, “get your shoes off and we’ll see what your height, weight and blood pressure are like.” The warning bells rang, but I needn’t have worried. “My wife butted in with “I’ve already got him on a diet Doctor” but to no avail.  “Rod” he said “you’re my patient today, not your wife, so I’ll give you the figures in metres and kilograms.” He grinned conspiratorially at me and muttered “height 1.85 metres, weight 82.5 kilograms” then turned to his charts. “Body mass” he said, “well” and uttered a figure I couldn’t quite catch. “You know what that means don’t you?” I nodded my assent despite not having a clue. “You’re certainly not obese but you do need stretching a bit. Half a stone too heavy I’d say,” then out of the side of his mouth and addressed directly to me, “at the top end of the range.

Do you drink much?”  “About 10 litres a week Doctor” I replied lying through my teeth. He sucked his breath in. “You know how many units that is don’t you ?” I do. “So you know what you have to do?” I do. And it won’t be easy. “My wife smirked, “can I have a diet sheet for him Doctor?” She got one. And I got a prescription for my eye. Fusidic acid -Viscous Drops, in other words “Fucithalmic Ointment,” just the ticket for the pigeons! I’ve used it many times before to treat Conjunctivitis in my youngsters! “Can I have the largest size Doctor” I asked? “There’s only one size” he said, reading my mind, “ and you well know that it goes off a month after being opened. Still, you should have some left for the birds. Come back in 10 days time if your eye hasn’t cleared up.” The good news was that my blood pressure was just fine and that he informed me that I am exactly the right weight for my shape!!

Shipbuilding on the River Tyne is not what it was when I was a lad. The river was buzzing then and as schoolchildren we were often taken one of the many shipyards to see a vessel being launched. I lived near the river and was brought up to the sounds of rivetting, caulking and shipyard hooters. My father worked in the yards but despite me being enthusiastic about pigeons from the age of ten, I never knew that Swan Hunters Shipyard at Wallsend operated their own loft. And that they were still using pigeons to carry messages from ships undergoing trials in the North Sea as late as 1947, maybe even later!

The lofts had been established for many years and often the pigeons arrived back in the shipyard before the radio message had been relayed from the receiving station in Cullercoats only a few miles away from Wallsend. And remember, sea-trials went on all year round, even in the depths of winter! The company records of this kind of activity go back to 1910 and contain many interesting items. For example one bird was liberated miles out at sea at 4.20p.m. on 20th. December and got home with it’s message. Another one, caught out by the onset of darkness, spent the night on a lighthouse before homing next morning with it’s message still intact! Then there was “Prince George.” That was some pigeon. Sent on sea trials with the S.S. Prince George this bird was liberated off the coast of Dover  with a message. A 300 mile trip, single up in bad weather, it still homed safely and afterwards was raced from Rennes then sent back to Marennes, 640 miles, in the North Championship Race.

Liberated in a cold North wind with bleak conditions all the way home it won by 5 clear days on a velocity of 734 yds./min. Only two birds were timed in! The loft manager at this time was a Mr. MacGregor an excellent fancier who often won the longest and hardest races and who bred the birds that carried their messages from places as far apart as the very North of Scotland to the French coast. Are you thinking the same as me? That maybe we’re too soft these days?

My friend had been a professional Slaughter-Man for just about all of his working life.  Now into his seventies he is almost the same weight as he was when he was called up for National Service as a young man. But he is not, obviously, the same strapping youth that he was in the pre-mechanised days of his trade. His body shape is different, the mass weighs the same but muscle has been toa large extent replaced by fat and other tissues in areas where it is no longer needed, his shoulders for example, enough remaining in vital areas for him to still be able do pretty much what he now wants to do. And is able to do. He knows this. He knows what fitness is all about. He trained one of his daughters who became an international class trampolinist and is at present training one of his grandsons who is a talented young footballer and swimmer. For many years the man has put up splendid long distance performances with his pigeons including two Up North Combine wins. He takes no prisoners and the regime his pigeons live under is tough, harsh even, but it is very successful. When he talks about things like body mass and muscle, I listen.

The point that was emerging from our discussion was that weight is not a reliable indication of fitness unless a lot of other factors are taken into account at the same time. Things like age, what kind of muscle is present, feeding, work load and even the time of year. Remember too, that the majority of us are doing no more than using the feel of the bird in our hands to try and estimate weight and condition. The wonder is not that we get it wrong so often but that we get it right often enough! It is easy at this time of the year to feel that the birds are fat, as my old birds are for example, but once fit and in training the weight differentials lessen and it becomes harder to pick up small changes in body mass, weight and suppleness of muscle.  That is where your eyes come into the equation. You can see fitness in operation. Your hands  give you the second opinion. And remember that youthful talent doesn’t always successfully make the transition into the finished article. The wastage rate is high. Things other than fitness can come into play.

In the late eighties and early nineties, when I had access to computerised library searches, I had it in my mind to run such a search through the University Library and beyond to The British Library Document Supply in fact and to collect all the published research that I could find on the homing ability of pigeons. My intention was to try and make sense out of it all and to summarise it before publishing it in the fancy press in an easily understandable manner devoid of the specialised jargon so beloved of research scientists. I never published a word of course! The research was far too narrowly defined (“Ferromagnetic coupling to muscle receptors as a basis for geomagnetic field sensitivity in animals” is a typical example) and to be perfectly honest in some cases I just could not see where it was leading, never mind its validity to the real world of racing pigeons.

It is my belief that there is just about enough knowledge available in the world today to sort out the homing issue if two particular problems were to be addressed. Firstly that all the information collected by all the extremely specialised research workers needs to be pooled, collated and made available to all, instead of each researcher working independently on one aspect to the exclusion of everything else, and never considering other aspects outside of his/her particular field. Secondly, researchers must include pigeon fanciers or at least consult with them on a regular basis. And use trained pigeons if they are not to arrive, as they sometimes do, at illogical and ridiculous conclusions. For example the speed of a pigeon is given as 27 mph, but this is the speed of a pigeon trained to fly in a wind tunnel, and is nowhere near the real speed of a racing pigeon flying freely in the open air! The list goes on. It is “Alice in Wonderland” stuff, but rather typical of the work emanating from the rarefied atmospheres of those research establishments where the publication of scientific papers, regardless of their worth, is an end in itself! We need some commonsense here.