The Great Race and Beyond

winnerpigeon

One of the most prestigious international sporting events was held a few weeks ago: the 21st annual South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR).

More than two thousand pigeons competed in the February 8th final, with three hundred of them completing the approximately 306-mile flight from liberation point to loft in under twenty-four hours.1 This year’s winner, Little Miss Nikki, was one of two top-ten finishers from the United States. Other countries well represented near the top were Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Pigeon Fandom

The SAMDPR has been compared to the Super Bowl and the World Series.2 While pigeon racing, of course, attracts only a fraction of the attention given other sports, it has big-name supporters and big money behind that support. Famous enthusiasts include Queen Elizabeth II and former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, whose relationship to pigeons goes back to his adolescent days in Brooklyn, NY.3

Like other sports, pigeon racing has unfortunately also experienced its share of ethical issues. In recent years, allegations of doping4 and cheating5 have emerged, which are not surprising considering the large prize amounts and six-figure pigeon auction prices.6 Problems have been reported as well regarding the treatment of bred pigeons in a few incidents7 and the risks racing conditions can pose for the birds,8 among other issues.9

Aside from these concerns, the sport continues to fascinate—as does avian racing in general.10 Pigeon racing has even inspired paintings by Andrew Beer and influenced the poetry of Geoffrey Hill (“Scenes from Comus”) and Rebecca Goss (“Pigeon Love”). In addition to the world of racing, pigeons have a long and significant history as messengers.

Sources:

  1. “Race Directors Report,” 2/16/2017. South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race: https://www.samdpr.com/news/gn20170216.
  2. Ganus Family Loft: http://www.ganusfamilyloft.com/.
  3. Blechman, AD. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 5–6, 163–165.
  4. Macur, J. “Pigeon Racing: Faster and Farther, but Fair?” 10/25/2013. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/sports/pigeon-racing-doping.html.
  5. Criddle, C. “Pigeon Cheating Scandal: Champion Bird in Race from South of France Never Left Its Oxfordshire Loft,” 7/29/2016. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/29/champion-pigeon-racer-in-scandal-after-winning-bird-from-south-o/.
  6. “World Record Price Paid for Belgian Racing Pigeon Bolt,” 5/21/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22613247.
  7. Harrabin, R. “Is Pigeon Racing Cruel?” 3/27/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-21938429.
  8. Breen, J. “Racing Pigeons among Birds that Meet Their Doom against City’s Skyscrapers,” 9/13/2016 DNAinfo | Chicago: https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160908/downtown/racing-pigeons-among-birds-that-meet-their-doom-against-our-skyscrapers.
  9. Opar, A. “Mike Tyson to Star in Reality Show on Pigeon-Racing, A Sport Linked to Raptor Deaths,” 3/17/2010. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/news/mike-tyson-star-reality-show-pigeon-racing-sport-linked-raptor-deaths.
  10. Arizona’s Chandler Chamber Ostrich Festival, for example, entertains its gatherers with races involving ostriches and emus, respectively. See that event’s official website for more information: https://ostrichfestival.com/2017-attractions/.

 

Much Ado ‘bout Bird Poo

birdpoop

People have long exploited birds, predominantly for their feathers, meat, and eggs. Among the least likely item on such lists includes something the average person today would consider to have little or no practical purpose—poop.

Yet, for centuries human ingenuity has discovered incredible ways to utilize this waste product, ranging from ingredients for generating munitions to creating skin care products. Here’s the scoop on just a few items, some still in use today.

The Obvious One—Fertilizer, of Course

Anyone who has parked his or her car near some trees only to return hours later and find the vehicle splattered with white, pasty dung has experienced the typical revulsion towards bird poop. The scorn of municipalities that’s frequently directed towards pigeons is due in large part to their unsightly feces on sidewalks and building walls (1). Similarly, the massive amounts of droppings left behind around walkways, parks, and statues by the common starling, a bird that roosts in large numbers, has in turn resulted in animosity toward the migrating creatures (2). In suburbia, larger birds are problematic. To maintain areas clear for human activity, officials now drive flocks of Canada geese away from public lakes, golf courses, and waterways (3). With this almost war-on-birds mentality, you’d think that for many folks, birds are more often than not a nuisance.

But not all poop is reviled (nor the birds that produce it). In some areas of the world, bird feces—known as guano—once fueled a lucrative fertilizer industry. The extensive layers of droppings left by Guanay cormorants, brown pelicans, Peruvian boobies, and other seabirds along Peru’s coast (4) have long been recognized by the native people there as a highly valued farming resource (5, 6). By the mid-19th century, outsiders had discovered that such areas in the Central Pacific and the Caribbean harbored what was colloquially called “white gold”, to be claimed, mined, and exported (7). The fertilizer craze of this period—growing populations require more food—resulted in naval skirmishes, piracy, forced slave labor, and island land-grabs (8). Since that time exploitative processes, from guano extraction to overfishing, have devastated this region’s bird populations (9, 10). The mountains of bird feces once deposited in these spots are no more.

An Explosive Combination

Doves are revered as symbols of peace; so, one may be surprised to learn that their droppings were once used by the British monarchy as a munitions ingredient (11, 12). Long before the marvels of modern chemistry, people relied instead on natural collections of potassium nitrate or saltpeter, a compound necessary for making gunpowder. Although not readily abundant, potassium nitrate turns out to be prevalent in… you guessed it… dried pigeon and dove feces. And since the citizenry’s dovecots were ideal sources for such dung, the British government laid claim to all saltpeter in those structures, making laws permitting agents of the crown to scrape and dig up the material (13). Bird droppings, thus, played an important, if oft forgotten, role in British history.

“No Fun” Beautifying Facials

Truth indeed is stranger than fiction, as yet another case clearly demonstrates. The bush warbler “nightingales” (uguisu) in Japan are known for their song, but the birds have quite a reputation, too, for what’s dispatched from their other end. Due to its moisturizing and restorative effects, their poop (uguisu no fun) has been used for centuries in that country as a skincare product. In particular, the droppings were applied to remove the white make-up worn by courtesans (geishas) and Kabuki actors. Such face paint traditionally contained lead and zinc, which were harsh on the skin, and the uguisu no fun’s urea and guanine helped combat the make-up’s damaging effects (14). Today, some spas in the United States charge more than $150 for a “Geisha facial”, and apparently, many celebrities are smitten with the treatments (15, 16, 17). Who knew that people would actually pay that kind of money to have sanitized bird poop applied to their face? I guess, as Alix Strauss of The New York Times says, “When it comes to fighting aging, many of us will try anything” (18).

A “Crappy”—but Popular—Form of Fundraising

And when it comes to the introduction of any new form of entertainment or fundraising, consider that folks will also line up to try a novel spin-off on an old game, especially if it involves bird feces—hence, the growing popularity of chicken-poop bingo. The rules are similar to the original game but in this version, of course, there are chickens and excrement. As the birds peck for food along a numbered grid, their droppings randomly fall, indicating the next spot to be called on players’ boards. The Wall Street Journal’s Stu Woo notes, “At least a few decades old, the chicken antics have become a popular staple at fairs, festivals and fundraisers in small-town America, and beyond.” (19) To the chagrin of animal rights activists, the game has made its way to New Orleans; Austin, Texas; Columbia, Illinois (20); Louisville, Kentucky (21); Durham, North Carolina (22); and other cities throughout the U.S.

Overall, who knew bird poop could serve so many functions? After researching this topic, I know I’ll never look at the unsightly mess on my car the same way again!

Sources:

  1. Blechman, A.D. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 1-2.
  2. Squires, N. “Rome’s eternal problem – starling droppings”, 11/27/2008. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/3531770/Romes-eternal-problem-starling-droppings.html.
  3. Saslow, L. “Canada Geese: It’s Love and Hate”, 7/14/2002. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/14/nyregion/canada-geese-it-s-love-and-hate.html.
  4. Wilsdon, C. Smithsonian Q & A: Birds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. pp. 200-201.
  5. Vergano, D. “Bird Droppings Led to U.S. Possession of Newly Protected Pacific Islands”, 9/26/2014. National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140926-pacific-island-guano-national-monument-history/.
  6. Hager, T. The Alchemy of Air. New York: Broadway Books, Random House, Inc. 2008. p. 29.
  7. Vergano, D.
  8. Hager, T. pp. 25-36.
  9. Wilsdon, C. pp. 200-201.
  10. Vergano, D.
  11. Blechman, A.D. pp. 1-2.
  12. Cressy, D. Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. p. 132.
  13. Cressy, D. p. 132.
  14. Freeman, S. “Geisha Facials”, 1/11/2010. HowStuffWorks: http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/beauty/skin-treatments/geisha-facial.htm.
  15. Freeman, S.
  16. Connell, C. “The most cringe inducing facial ever: The good news – it beats Botox. The bad news – it’s made from birds’ mess”, 5/28/2014: DailyMail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2641957/The-cringe-inducing-facial-The-good-news-beats-Botox-The-bad-news-birds-mess.html.
  17. Strauss, A. “Skin Deep: Fertilizer for the Face”, 7/4/2012. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/fashion/fertilizer-for-the-face-beauty-industry-turns-to-animal-secretions-and-droppings-for-ingredients.html?_r=0.
  18. Strauss, A.
  19. Woo, S. “Bingo! Henny the Hen Just Made Her ‘Mark’ on No. 16”, 10/22/2012. The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443749204578048740198716834.
  20. Woo, S.
  21. Havens, S. “Lady cluck: Chicken poo bingo featured at this weekend’s Flea Off Market”, 11/6/2014. Insider, Louisville: http://insiderlouisville.com/uncategorized/chicken-shit-bingo/.
  22. Blythe, A. “Durham Farmers’ Market hosts chicken bingo fundraiser”, 12/20/2014. News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/12/20/4419181_chickens-leave-their-mark-on-bingo.html?rh=1.

If the Human Spirit Had Wings

cagedBluebirds

We look up to songbirds. Literally, of course, as when tilting our heads toward their tree-branch perches, but, moreover, metaphorically. Colorful bundles of energy, capable of such pleasant songs and distant journeys, these little creatures easily stir the imagination. What better symbols for the human spirit and its highest aspirations?

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Musicians and writers have often viewed our winged neighbors as emblematic of humankind’s greatest qualities, those aspects that inspire us, that make us feel whole. Feelings that lighten our state of being, for instance, can easily be likened to birds in flight. Such sensations people usually describe as elevated, as if no longer weighted, effortlessly able to rise up off the ground and towards the sky.

Joy is such an emotion, both beautiful and at times fleetingly whimsical. Birds are sometimes thought to embody it. You’ve likely heard of the bluebird of happiness. Well, Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird: A Fairy Play in Six Acts, an early twentieth-century children’s drama about the search for this small creature of delight, may have given birth to this now-popular expression in Western culture (1). Of course, many poems celebrate birds for the joy they provide. Percy Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark” and William Ernest Henley’s “The Blackbird” are just a couple examples.

Compassionate and wishful aspiration is another emotional state that can be depicted as bird-like, descending to comfort us with its uplifting song. Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” speaks of how such optimism “perches in the soul”.   Even as it provides its tune in the harshest of circumstances, the little one never begs for a “crumb” (2). Another poem of comparable sentiment, “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, relates the comfort serendipitously discovered from a little creature’s “full-hearted evensong / Of joy”. Despite the cold winter wind and frost, the bird seems to offer “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware” (3).

Besides happiness and hope, birds can act as proxy-symbols of a naïve desire that’s unharnessed from reason and calculating restraint, as demonstrated in Robert Graves’s short poem “Love Without Hope”. Here larks in song fly away from their young romantic captor towards a sophisticated and unattainable love interest (4). Numerous examples in verse abound, of course, involving similar characteristics.

“For the caged bird sings of freedom”

The caged or ensnared songbird, in particular, ranks among the most powerful of metaphors. Symbolic of the desire to overcome oppression, the imprisoned creature can represent both the basic needs of the individual as well as a segment of society. Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” “sings of freedom” (5), a theme taken up in Alicia Keys’s song of the same title and the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “Sympathy”. To fly is to be free, to fully express one’s nature, unhindered by others’ imposing, self-serving agendas. The profoundly spiritual appeal of such sentiment is expressed by the Biblical author of Psalms 124. Employing a similar metaphor, the scriptural song likens the “soul” of an entire nation (Israel) to an escaped bird rescued by God from its enemy captors.

A few songs present the bird within a cage as a metaphor for a dualism in which the spirit or mind animates the body.   In such a manner, for example, the necessity of being on good terms with one’s self is poignantly conveyed by a verse in Tori Amos’s “Crucify”. “You’re just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird”, she croons, suggesting the deadening effects of guilt and suffering. Another example looks beyond this life. The narrative within Sting’s “The Language of Birds” focuses on an elderly pigeon keeper whose “soul was still trapped in the cage” (6). Only upon death is the man at last released from his own “cage” of corporeal confinement.

“Planted on the starlit golden bough”

Also invoking bird imagery, William Butler Yeats’s poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” address old age, death, and the quintessential search for the eternal. The first piece describes the speaker’s quest, alluding to some transcendent, avian-like form for his spirit, fashioned “as Grecian goldsmiths make” (7). Furthering this vision, the second poem expresses this figure as “More miracle than bird or handiwork” (8). What perhaps could we expect of a form that both seeks and represents the unbounded, the spiritual, the otherworldly? Regardless of this creature’s exact nature, Yeats taps into an allegorical power that has long associated birds with the soul, an idea that I’m hoping we can further explore later.

As Joseph Campbell noted in conversations a few decades ago with journalist Bill Moyers, “The bird is symbolic of the release of the spirit from bondage to the earth…” (9). Poets, musicians, and others within the arts have long understood this connection between our feathered neighbors and the heart’s profound yearning for freedom and happiness.

Included here are just several examples of this theme, most relatively recent. Next week’s post will look back thousands of years at some of the oldest.

Sources:

  1. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (1st Edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  2. Dickinson, E. “Hope is the thing with feathers”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.
  3. Hardy, T. “The Darkling Thrush”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173590.
  4. Leithauser, B. “A Poet of Piercing Valentines”, 2/13/2013. The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-poet-of-piercing-valentines.
  5. Angelou, M. “Caged Bird”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948.
  6. Sting (official website), “Language of Birds” (lyrics): http://sting.com/discography/lyrics/lyric/song/596.
  7. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. First Scribner Paperback Poetry edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996. pp. 193-194.
  8. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). pp. 248-249.
  9. Campbell, J., with Moyers, B. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Book, Doubleday, 1991. p. 23.

“Tweeting” Before Twitter

tweet

For more than two thousand years, birds have played a critical role in the conduit of human communications. People have used winged messengers for delivering notes to their lovers, relaying time-sensitive news to fellow reporters, and dispatching crucial strategic information to troops during wartime—saving perhaps thousands of lives in the process! One could say that long before instant messaging and social media, these were the original, old-school forms of “tweeting.”

A Little Bird Told Me…

Many of us today are acquainted with fictional accounts of bird messengers, such as the owls in the Harry Potter books and films or the ravens in the Game of Thrones TV series / A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Parrots feature prominently in Chinese folk tales. In one story from Szechwan province a talking parrot plays matchmaker between a beautiful servant girl and an unmarried aristocrat (1, 2). In other stories, such birds frequently divulge partners’ infidelities (3, 4). All in all, despite the fictional nature of these depictions, the idea of humans using avian messengers is not far-fetched.

Birds have long been known to report the goings-on of folks to others and at least thought to have the ability to do so. The author of one book in the Old Testament exhibits a wariness towards birds for this reason, stating that they could potentially disclose what one has said back to the powerful and affluent (Ecclesiastes 10:20). According to Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would return regularly to report back to him the news and events of the day (5). And the Greek god Apollo supposedly learned about his lover’s unfaithfulness from a raven (6).

Avian Express Messaging Systems

While a few species of birds can be taught to speak human languages, training birds to carry written messages has been widely demonstrated as the most practical means of long-range communication. In the South Pacific, islanders have used frigatebirds to transmit attached messages between locations separated by sea (7, 8, 9). More than a century ago, a few folks in France explored the possibility of using swallows to carry letters and military-related notes (10). However, the most celebrated avian courier traditionally has been the dove or pigeon, with a history dating back to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome (11).

Throughout centuries in Europe and the Middle East, people have employed pigeons for transferring information. The ancient Greek city-states used them for relaying results of Olympic events (12). In the twelfth century, the Sultan of Bagdad established communications via pigeons between territories in Syria, Egypt, and what is today Iraq (13). Later, in the 1800s, P.J. Reuters, founder of the news agency that bears his name, briefly relied on pigeons to pass stock price info from the European cities of Brussels and Aachen (14).

War Pigeons

Relaying wartime messages was perhaps the most important use of pigeons. The French utilized them extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (15). By the time of both World Wars, many countries, including the United States, either had a war pigeon program or were developing one. When other forms of communication could be easily compromised, these birds proved quite reliable and as a result prevented countless casualties. Of the WWI pigeons, Cher Ami is probably the most famous, completing his mission despite suffering several serious injuries from enemy fire, including losing one leg (16). G.I. Joe ranks as the most illustrious war pigeon of WWII. Arriving in just the nick of time, the bird’s message thwarted a planned U.S. bombardment of an Italian town recently held by the Germans, sparing the lives of allied soldiers and residents there (17).

As to the homing pigeons’ incredible ability to navigate to their “home” site, scientists have proposed several hypotheses. The birds may use a variety of “compass” and “mapping” methods (18). Some research indicates that pigeons find following the streets and highways below helpful for navigational purposes (19). And a study published in early 2013 suggests that the birds rely on low-frequency sound waves to “map” their way to their destination (20). As more research accumulates during the next few years, a greater understanding of this amazing skill is sure to emerge.

Sources:

  1. Yolen, J. (editor) Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 90-94.
  2. Roberts, M. Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. pp. 9-14.
  3. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 317.
  4. Tresidder, J. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. p. 153.
  5. Hamilton, E. Mythology. New York: Mentor, Nal Penguin Inc., 1973. p. 308.
  6. Hamilton, E. pp. 279-280.
  7. Werness, H.B. p. 188.
  8. Brinkley, E., Humann, A. in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Elphick, C., Dunning Jr, J.B., and Sibley, D.A. (editors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf / Chanticleer Press, 2001. 167 ff.
  9. Terres, J.K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980. 402 f.
  10. Harting, J.E. “Training Swallows as Letter Carriers”. Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History. Third Series, Vol. XIII. London: West, Newman and Co., 1889. pp. 397-399.
  11. Greelis, J. “Pigeons in Military History”. The American Pigeon Museum: http://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org/military-pigeons.html.
  12. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. “The Use of Pigeons as Messengers in War and The Military Pigeon Systems of Europe”. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard. London: W. Mitchell and Co. 1886-1887. p. 111.
  13. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. p. 111.
  14. “Chronology: Reuters, from pigeons to multimedia merger”. Reuters (U.S. Edition): http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/19/us-reuters-thomson-chronology-idUSL1849100620080219.
  15. Dash, M. “Closing the Pigeon Gap”, 4/17/2012. Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/closing-the-pigeon-gap-68103438/?no-ist.
  16. Dash, M.
  17. Razes, J. “Pigeons of War”, August 2007. America in WWII magazine: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/pigeons-of-war/.
  18. “All About Birds: Navigation”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/navigation.
  19. Davies, C. “How do homing pigeons navigate? They follow roads”, 2/5/2004. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453494/How-do-homing-pigeons-navigate-They-follow-roads.html.
  20. Ghose, T. “Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved”, 1/30/2013. LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/26714-how-homing-pigeons-navigate.html.