It was a beautiful creature, mostly gray with a luminous patch of pink and blue at the nape of its neck.

The pigeon that visited my sister, Jane, last weekend as she was working in her raised-bed vegetable gardens in Skowhegan also proved to be largely a mystery, only part of which we were able to solve.

On Saturday, June 20, Jane was watering her plants when the pigeon showed up out of nowhere and started drinking the drops of water that dribbled over the sides of the raised bed. It was hobbling around, seemingly with an injured foot, and it appeared friendly.

Jane soon realized the pigeon had a tag on one foot and a band on the other, with what looked like a tiny, rolled up piece of paper attached to it.

Could it be a homing pigeon? Clearly it was hurt and lost. She fed it water and bird seed, called the warden service and was referred to Avian Haven, a bird rescue in Freedom. A person there told her to try to catch the bird, place it in a box  and a person would meet her in Fairfield to pick it up.

My sister tried to capture it by throwing a towel over it, as she was told, but was unsuccessful. The pigeon, which had no trouble flying, high-tailed it to the peak of a roof across the street.

The next morning, Sunday, the pigeon was back, drinking water from a cup she had left near her gardens and nibbling on the seeds.

I visited Sunday afternoon and was determined to capture the pigeon, but after the second try, it flew again to the roof across the street, perching on the hot metal roof.

So, being the curious person that I am, I went online and read about racing or homing pigeons, which I learned are bred, registered and trained to find their way back home, even if taken hundreds of miles away and set free. The birds fly home by using what to me is a mysterious and fascinating ability to navigate by sounds, their internal sun clocks and existing magnetic fields. Their acute hearing allows them to hear sounds 11 octaves below middle C and that enables them to detect earthquakes and electrical storms.

I called Jane the next day, Monday, to ask if the pigeon had come back. It had, she said, but flew away again when her cat, Tootsie, rounded the corner of the house and startled it.

I called the American Racing Pigeon Union, based in Oklahoma City, to learn more about the pigeons and see if we could identify its owner. A very nice and knowledgeable woman named Deone Roberts, the organization’s sport development manager, gave me a crash course in racing pigeons. I have not the time or space to explain all of what I learned here, but most interesting to me is that these pigeons can fly 300 miles without stopping, moving between 40 and 60 mph — faster, if they hit a tailwind. In a competition, the bird that makes it home the fastest wins — not the one who makes it home first. Some older birds can fly up to 600 miles.

“They’re marathon fliers — they don’t flit around like other birds,” Roberts said. “Their pull is to go to their home loft.”

Their flight can be interrupted for any number of reasons, including injury, bad weather, the sudden appearance of a hawk, proximity to a cell tower or a loud sound such as from a large jet, Roberts said.

The pigeons registered in her union have bands around their feet that help identify their age, as well as their owners, but Jane and I could not get close enough to the pigeon to read the tags. Roberts said the racing union has 600 to 700 clubs and 9,000 members.

I checked in with my sister again on Monday and got the sad news that our pigeon had been struck by a car and died. Her neighbor, Ashley, read the black and white band on its foot, which bore the words “2019 Japan,”  and the numbers 32257. On the other foot was the rolled up note, attached with what appeared to be a tiny rubber band. Ashley read the note, which contained the name of a man who lives in Pownal, near Freeport. The note said he had cared for the pigeon for two or three weeks and let it go — the same day it flew northeast to my sister’s house in Skowhegan. That’s a distance of about 80 miles, but surely shorter as the crow flies.

On Tuesday, I called this man, Sam Morgan, who told me the story of how he had cared for the pigeon after it had been struck by a car on the road in front of his house.

“I was going out to get my mail and I saw feathers strewn around and then saw the pigeon,” Morgan, 29, recalled. “I picked him up and took him to a vet because he had a scraped leg. I rehabbed him for about two or three weeks, fed him water and wild bird seed. He was super friendly. He wasn’t all wild and crazy like most birds.”

Morgan said he placed the pigeon in a cage in his living room because he has two cats, and, after a time, they acclimated to each other.

“They got along fine, and he was pretty much hanging out,” Morgan said of the pigeon. “When he started feeling a lot better, I could kind of tell he was ready to get out.”

So Morgan carried the pigeon outside his house and set it free.

“He took two big laps around the house and he headed out, and that was it,” he said.

Morgan had previously strapped a note to the bird’s leg, anticipating that the owner would eventually read it.

“I was kind of hoping for the best and they’d call me and let me know he made it home,” he said.

But that was not to be. And Morgan, who works at Bath Iron Works but formerly had interest in being a game warden, was sad to learn of the pigeon’s demise.

“It was a little bit disappointing that it went down like that, but I guess it didn’t really surprise me,” he said.

A lover of wildlife, Morgan had once rehabilitated a crow that still comes back to visit him, and later, a barred owl that had been injured.

“I let him go, and I think I see him once in a great while,” he said.

Like me, Morgan had called the American Racing Pigeon Union in an effort to identify the bird’s owner, but a man at the organization’s office in Georgia said the pigeon, which was about a year old according to information on its tag, wasn’t registered with that union and likely had a private owner. Morgan said he told him it would not have flown here from Japan.

I emailed Roberts, the woman from the racing union’s Oklahoma City office, told her of the pigeon’s death and relayed to her the numbers and other information on its foot tags.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she replied in an email. “That’s a disappointing result. Unfortunately, many people order leg bands and they are not registered anywhere. That seems to be one of them. I’m so sorry.”

Morgan, Jane and I hope we may yet learn the origin of the poor pigeon, who touched our lives for a brief but memorable time, though we acknowledge the answer may remain elusive.

“Who knows where he actually came from,” Morgan mused.

 

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 32 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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