BOOKS: Pigeons

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2006:

by Andrew D. Blechman
Grove Press (841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003), 2006. 256 pages. $23.00

An enthralling study, this book covers the whole spectrum of
topics associated with pigeons, once revered and respected as
messengers, now often reviled as “rats with wings.” Author Andrew
Blechman explores both the methods and motives of pigeon fanciers,
who often devote their whole lives to breeding and racing their
birds; military messengers, some of whom still use pigeons in
places and situations where electronics are impractical; and
recreational pigeon shooters, to whom the birds are no more than
challenging targets.

Primarily a pigeon admirer, Blechman tries shooting pigeons
himself, unsuccessfully, and eats pigeon meat in a late chapter,
even offering a recipe for pigeon pot pie.
Among the many noteworthy employments of pigeons, Julius
Reuters established the Reuters News Agency on the wings of pigeons.
As the back cover mentions, “A pigeon delivered the results of the
first Olympics in 776 B.C., and a pigeon first brought the news of
Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo more than 2,500 years later.” Some Al
Qaida cells reputedly use pigeons to evade high-tech surveillance.
Hundreds of thousands of pigeon fanciers around the world
participate in pigeon racing, in which fanciers see whose birds can
find their way home fastest from remote locations–and the sport is
growing in popularity in the Far East as fast as it declines in the
Orienting themselves by the earth’s magnetic field, pigeons
can sprint for hours on end, with incredible homing navigation. A
racing bird is expected to fly 500 miles in about eight hours,
without stopping for food or drink.
Blechman describes the state of these birds when they arrive
home, emaciated and open-billed, desperate for air, food and
water. Primarily a blue-collar pursuit in the U.S., pigeon racing
in Europe is patronized by aristocracy and even royalty. Belgium is
the centre of the pigeon-breeding world, with prices for top racers
reaching up to $200,000.
Much human use of pigeons has been viciously exploitive.
Blechman includes a chapter about the annual pigeon shoots formerly
held in Hegins, Pennsylvania, the most public of many similar
events. Focusing on the birds and the shooters rather than the
activists, Blechman leaves to others the role of Hegins as one of
the focal causes of the early animal rights movement, and as the
place where now nationally prominent animal rights activists Steve
Hindi and Heidi Prescott first won recognition–Hindi as a shocked
hunter who switched sides, Prescott as the first demonstrator to run
in front of the guns to try to save wounded birds, soon followed by
Steve Simmons, Alex Pacheco, and dozens of others during the next
several years. –Chris Mercer

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