Home to roost: my life as a pigeon fancier

A few years ago my girlfriend Natalya and I moved house, from near the centre of London to the suburbs. Natalya was pregnant with our first child, and we were tired of the grotty house-shares and precariously rented flats we’d spent the last decade living in together. We were looking for stability and space, and eventually we found somewhere that felt as if it could become a home.

Our daughter Dora was born a few months after we moved. It was a difficult birth. She was readmitted to hospital and we spent weeks worrying about her weight and the fact that she wouldn’t feed. When we got her back home we tried to learn how to be a family together, but the idyll we’d been expecting, or hoping for, took a long time to arrive. We thought we were prepared for domesticity – we had done our research, read the right books – but we didn’t fully realise then that homes are ideas as much as they are places: psychological as well as physical structures.

Leyton, the area to which we had moved, was unfamiliar territory, a land of muscle gyms, chicken shops and scruffy parks nestling on the edge of London. Sometimes it felt as though we had moved to a different, wilder city. To the west lay the River Lea and the marshes which ran along its banks; to the east, the green span of Epping Forest. Natalya and I spent the summer after Dora’s birth pushing her around in a pram, exploring. We watched birds together: the kestrels that shivered over the marshes; the cormorants and herons that flew high overhead on their way to the reservoirs in the north. In the evenings, salvos of brilliant green parakeets would flit over our house. As night fell a flock of feral pigeons would fly in to roost on the roof and sing us to sleep with their liquid, gurgling coos.

Pigeons navigate partly by using an ‘olfactory map’: Kevin, showing off his white coat.

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Pigeons navigate partly by using an ‘olfactory map’: Kevin, showing off his white coat. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti

As a boy I had been fascinated by pigeons. Much to my parents’ dismay, I used to rescue injured birds from the streets of London and try to nurse them back to health. I kept them in an old rabbit hutch in my garden and rigged up crude splints to fix their broken wings. I loved pigeons because of their overlooked beauty and because they represented an intrusion of the natural world into my otherwise deeply urban childhood. I loved the way they managed to thrive in a human landscape, making their homes under rotting railway bridges and the wind-buffeted ledges of high-rise blocks. Not quite wild, they were not quite tame either. I had read about the pigeon’s homing instinct in Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, and I hoped the birds I rescued would stick around after they’d recovered from their injuries, but none of them ever did.

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Feral pigeons, and the hundreds of fancy breeds that now exist, are all genetic descendants of Columba livia – the rock dove – a species which originated on the cliffs of the Mediterranean and north Africa. They were first domesticated by the Sumerians 5,000 to 10,000 years before the birth of Christ, and since then they have flown through history. They flew out from Noah’s ark in search of land, and they flew through ancient Egypt to announce the deaths of kings. They flew over the Roman Empire and the battlefields of the First World War, and during the Second they flew across the sea bearing news from occupied Europe.

Since their domestication they have been revered as symbols of peace and domesticity, and reviled as dirty and diseased “rats with wings”. Pigeons have been used as a source of food, and their droppings have been valuable as fertiliser (and, later, as a key ingredient in gunpowder). But they are most famous as messengers, and over the years one variety – the racing homer – has been bred to have an unrivalled ability to find its way home.

A year or so after Natalya and I moved to Leyton I decided to revisit my childhood obsession. I now had space to build a proper pigeon loft (as fanciers call the sheds in which they keep their birds) and the time to care for a flock. I thought that keeping pigeons might teach me something about what home meant, and that by training them I would discover the new landscape we now inhabited alongside them.

‘Their feet were pink and reptilian’: Ketchup at home in Leyton.

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‘Their feet were pink and reptilian’: Ketchup at home in Leyton. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti

And so one cold January day I caught a train to Blackpool. I returned from the British Homing World Show of the Year – an annual Columbidae jamboree known as the “Crufts of the pigeon world” – carrying a cardboard box inside which a pair of pedigree racing homers shuffled nervously. The pigeons, named Eggy and Orange by Dora over breakfast the next morning, were beautiful. Their feathers were blue and grey, with a texture like velvet. Their feet were pink and reptilian, and their eyes the colour of burnt orange. Their necks had a rainbow sheen, like an oil-slicked rain puddle.

I had nowhere to keep Eggy and Orange at first, so for the next few days they lived in a lean-to by the kitchen, where they flitted between the sink and the drying rack, and shat all over the floor, while I built them a loft in my garden. It was heart-stopping to let them fly free for the first time. When I opened the door of the loft they immediately took to the air and disappeared over the rooftops. I didn’t see them again all day and I was sure they had gone for good, like the pigeons I had tried to tame as a child. But as dusk fell, hours later, two birds fluttered out of the darkening sky and landed gently on the roof, before hopping down into the loft. Eggy and Orange had returned.

I let them out every day after that, and quickly came to love watching them fly. On still days they would climb high into the sky until I could barely see them. When the wind was gusty they would stay close to the house, rolling over each other with staccato feints and dodges, like dolphins playing on the surface of the sea. Sometimes I’d invite friends around to watch them fly, but they were, on the whole, left curiously unmoved.

Homing pigeons imprint on their home loft when they are around six weeks old. From then on they will return to it for the rest of their lives, even if they are taken far away and released from places they have never visited before. Pigeons can fly up to 700 miles in a single day, but are capable of flying far further if their journeys are broken up. The love – if that is the right word – they feel for their homes is so acute that they will sometimes die for it. In 1845 a pigeon owned by the Duke of Wellington was released from Ichaboe Island off the coast of Namibia. It was found dead in a gutter one mile from its loft in Nine Elms, south London, having taken 55 days to fly the 5,400 miles home.

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“They always returned in the end’: Jon Day with Paul in his London garden.

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“They always returned in the end’: Jon Day with Paul in his London garden. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti

Within what biologists call their “familiar zone” – the area 30 miles or so around their lofts – pigeons navigate by pilotage: using visual cues and landmarks to orient themselves. During the first few months of their lives they will begin “ranging” – embarking on long exploratory flights, which allow them to build up the visual maps that will orient them for the rest of their lives. As Eggy and Orange matured they began to fly further away. Sometimes I wouldn’t see them all day, and would worry that they had got lost, or been taken by a hawk while exploring. But they always returned in the end.

Though the mechanism by which pigeons navigate around their homes is well understood, quite how they are able to find their way from unfamiliar places is still much contested. Charles Darwin, himself a keen pigeon fancier, thought they navigated by “dead reckoning” – keeping track of the route of their outward journeys and using a kind of instinctive trigonometry to calculate the bearing for home. But this theory was disproved when it was found that birds placed in darkened revolving drums before being taken away from their lofts were perfectly able to home successfully. Now most biologists believe that they use a variety of different systems to navigate, including, most extraordinarily, an “olfactory map” produced by tracking the changing intensities of wind-borne odours.

After they’d been ranging for a few months I began to train my pigeons to home from further afield. Whenever I could I took them out in a basket strapped to my bicycle, cycling a few miles in each compass direction around the loft before releasing them. Sometimes Dora would join me on these expeditions, and over time we came to learn our own familiar zone alongside the birds. We flew them from distant parks and from clearings deep in Epping Forest. We cycled up the River Lea and flew them from open fields on the edge of the M25. Once or twice I took the birds to work and released them out of my office window but I soon stopped, as I was worried my colleagues would notice what I was up to and object.

I wanted to know what it might be like to see the world from a pigeon’s perspective. Once, inspired by the experiments of a German apothecary named Julius Neubronner, who in 1908 patented his “method of and means for taking photographs of landscapes from above”, a system which used tiny cameras strapped to a flock of homing pigeons, I attached a tiny video camera to one of my birds and filmed its flight.

The summer after I got Eggy and Orange I joined a local pigeon- racing club. I was the youngest member by quite a margin, but the other fanciers – quiet, reticent men who were obsessed with the mysteries of pigeon navigation – were welcoming. They bred me some new birds, and soon I had 30 or so pigeons in my flock. I was fascinated by this strange community, and by the rituals of pigeon racing. Each Friday evening, during the season, the flyers would bring their chosen pigeons to the club to “mark them” for the race. Rubber rings stamped with a unique number were attached to each bird’s leg, after which they were placed gently into crates and loaded on to a lorry. They would then be driven overnight to the “liberation point”, from which they would be released the following morning to fly home. When they arrived back at their lofts their race rings would be removed and placed inside a special tamper-proof clock which recorded their time of arrival. As each bird flew a different distance, the winner was calculated by average velocity flown rather than total time taken.

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A few months before I joined the club, Natalya and I found out we were going to have another baby, and our son was born, at home, the night before my first pigeon race. The next day I sat in the garden with him in the sunshine, waiting for the birds to come in from Peterborough. I watched the skies until I caught sight of a line of black dots on the horizon. As they got closer two of the birds broke from the flock to fly down and land on the roof of my loft.

I rarely left home that summer. I went to work and to the pigeon club, but apart from that the four of us nested. Home became small: our needs local and immediate. Dora was growing up and taking more interest in the pigeons. We’d watch them fly around the house each morning, and wait in the garden for them to come home from races. I felt liberated by the smallness of our new lives. I’d learned that one of the pleasures of home is the pleasure of staying put.

I have been a pigeon racer for a couple of years now. I haven’t had much success: I’m a solid mid-table performer. My birds have flown far on my behalf, from Newark-on-Trent, from Wetherby, from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Orange has flown home from Thurso, in the far north of Scotland, over most of the length of Britain. It took him three days to cover the 504 miles. I still wonder what route he took, and the things he must have seen.

Homing: on Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return by Jon Day is published by John Murray on 13 June, priced £16.99. Buy it for £14.95 at guardianbookshop.com

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