by Mark Daul
When you were young, sometimes the things you remembered were scary and daunting. I must have been about 12 years old when I befriended Jimmy Boyce; he was about five years my senior. Boyce lived two doors from me in Niagara Falls at the time, and in my eyes, he was a homing pigeon racing expert. He knew everything about racing homing pigeons. No one had more expertise or equipment or more pigeons than he did.
I was always fascinated when Boyce would take his pigeons out in a special cage, over to Hyde Park at first, then later to Buffalo, Batavia and other points farther east. Boyce could drive and I couldn't. He was in a homing pigeon club and would race these birds from a far away point and release them there.
These birds carried a band around their leg, so when a bird arrived back home, the band was recorded along with the time. I don't remember how the band worked, but it was read by some kind of mechanical clock and automatically recorded as to what the date and time of day or night it was. The "homer" was judged by the time it took to fly back home from a certain distance. These specially bred European homing pigeons could fly for hours without tiring.
The club's competition involved what pigeon would return in the least amount of time, with the member owning the bird being the winner. Racing seemed to take place every Saturday and/or Sunday.
Prior to this, I had only heard of pigeons being instrumental in the two world war efforts. When I saw what Boyce was doing, I was even more impressed.
As time went by, and with both of us raising families, we grew apart. One day about four years ago, I discovered we were both living in the Town of Porter. One day my son mentioned his name and told me about this great guy who lived across the street from him, and how they popped a few brewskis in their yards together. Eventually, I did get to reintroduce myself. I always wanted to ask if he remembered that I was the younger guy who admired him and his birds so many years ago. I never did get that opportunity, as Boyce passed away in February 2014.
As I look on the brighter side, I learned quite a bit from my friend. I learned the importance of these racing/homing birds during the two World Wars, even going back into ancient times and how they carried crucial messages over long distances. Also how some pigeons were used to carry vital medicines that weighed up to 2 1/2 ounces to distant places. They were called carrier pigeons, and later passenger pigeons. Last year, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon's extinction, with all three (homing-carrier-passenger) bred for similar but specific reasons. In fact, there is an active organization called "Revive and Restore," and this group aims to restore the passenger pigeon from "extinction."
During World Wars I and II they were known as messenger pigeons; enemy soldiers would try to shoot the messenger pigeons out of the sky because they knew they were carrying important information that couldn't be transmitted secretly by radio communications. It was a dangerous job for those birds. The German military even employed hawks to intercept messages carried by the pigeons.
Medals were given out by the British for these heroics, called the Dikin Medal. Of the 49 Dikin Medals awarded from December 1943 to April 1947, 31 were awarded to pigeons. The Dikin Medal was created in the United Kingdom by Maria Dikin in 1943 "to acknowledge actions of gallantry or devotion during the Second World War and subsequent conflicts."
According to the American Racing Pigeon Union, "One United States Homing Pigeon, called 'G.I. Joe,' was awarded the Dikin Medal for bravery by the Lord Mayor of London for saving over 100 British soldiers in World War II. 'G.I. Joe' is the only bird or animal in the United States to be given this high award."
Pigeons are still being used today by the British and U.S. military troops. As the ARPU stated, "In March 2003, U.S. media reported that Marines stationed in Kuwait received an avian force - a company of pigeons. Meant to be the equivalent of a canary in a coalmine, the pigeons rode with their caretakers to detect chemical attack."
If you would like to have your own homing pigeon race team, you can buy a team of six for $495 plus $85 shipping. Or you could buy a race team of six racing pigeons that are Belgium stock for $430 per six, plus shipping. If you really want exotic racing pigeons, you can buy a pair of Belgium or German stock birds for $212 each, but you can only buy by the pair plus shipping. That would be $224 plus $75 shipping.
•The carrier pigeon breed was established some 3,000 years ago. It is believed they were brought to America in the early 1600s.
•White doves, those released in weddings and other special ceremonies, are considered white homing pigeons, and they'll fly right back to their trainer.
•The pigeon you see today that hang around parks, under bridges and by hay lifts are called "Rock Pigeons."
•From bill to tail, the average pigeon is about 13 inches. Males are bigger than females, and larger than doves.
•Scientists think that, once pigeons mate, they stay together for life.
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