Tommy Burke Part 2
Tommy Burke, pigeon man extraordinaire, was no leek grower, and in a land of leek growers, this irked him. If they couldn’t beat him with the pigeons his leek-growing contemporaries lorded it over him with their alleged superiority in growing show leeks. He was a determined and stubborn little man so this had to change. At the time nearly all of his allotment was concreted over and hosed down weekly. He never let his birds peck around the place. They were either in the air or in the loft, except on Sundays when they were let out for a bath.
Tommy set to, ripped up some of the concrete path just outside of his pecking square, constructed a leek trench and spent a year getting it right. In due course he entered the leek club, in the social club that we then used as our headquarters, and duly won the Perseverance CIU Club Leek Show at his first attempt. The winning leeks (nobody knew where Tommy had got them from, but they hadn’t been obtained locally) went into the pot together with those left in the trench, which was dismantled and concreted over. And that was it. He never showed again. Once more, he’d made his point.
By then I was his disciple and he had found himself a young helper. On our visits to the station for his regular training tosses he always gave me the same instructions. “I’ll cuddle up to Betty” he’d say, Betty being the unattached woman who ran the parcels office, “and you lift up the basket a bit whilst she’s weighing it.” You would never believe how little a 25-bird pannier can weigh! As I grew older my interests changed and I attempted to change the system. “Mr Burke” I asked, “why can’t I cuddle up to Betty while you lift the basket?”His response was brief, to the point, and accompanied by a clip around my ears. The words “too young” were all I could faintly make out through the ringing noise in my head.
Tommy Burke had two “Loft Managers” in the years that he raced from the allotment in front of mine, who did the birds when he was at work, he himself did early mornings and evenings; both men lived quite close to me and I lived quite close to the lofts. They were Andra Joyce, who was quite badly physically handicapped and Charlie Gribble. This wasn’t his real name, as I had seen letters addressed to his house under different ones, and rumour had it that he was a deserter from the army.
Nora, his hard working wife, (Charlie never went to work but spent all his time at the loft for, which he was undoubtedly paid a small sum of money) left him some money every day to buy her cat some fish pieces. Charlie considered this an absolute waste of money and religiously donated it to the local bookie and that cat lived to a ripe old age on a diet comprising solely of milk and bread and whatever it could catch! I never bothered watching or shadowing either of the “Loft Managers.” The organ grinder had me hooked-not the monkeys, they were just part of the furniture, so to speak.
I watched Wilfie closely though, as did Tommy. You had to! Wilfie lived in the Workhouse attached to the local hospital, the same Workhouse where the late Catherine Cookson once worked in the laundry as a young woman. Workhouse isn’t a word you hear much these days, but that is what we called it then and that is what it was. Uniformed men not nurses were in control, and their charges were called inmates not patients who, every Sunday, were walked out around the streets Crocodile-file wearing their “Sunday Best”.
Tommy and I called Wilfie “Bishop Auckland” because of his obsession with the well-know amateur football team and town of that name and he was a fixture around our lofts. Being a “trusty” he wandered about most of the time running errands for the staff of the Workhouse and putting their bets on for them, but to the pigeon men on the gardens Wilfie was the source of high quality, white- enamelled hospital watering cans with hinged lids!
We both had them, all you had to do was ask and one would turn up, there wasn’t much wrong with Wilfie’s memory even if he was a touch simple. The only trouble was his delivery method, you see only a six foot high boundary wall separated our lofts from Harton Hospital and the can would always come sailing over this wall. At varying heights and speeds and at any time of the day or night!
Not a problem should you find it lying amongst the vegetables when you got there in the morning, but if you haven’t seen thirty or forty youngster react to a white watering can suddenly thumping into their midst, right out of the blue, well, you haven’t lived! I was in his cabin when Tommy’s youngsters went their forty different ways as one of Wilfie’s cans came over the wall, and was well impressed. I didn’t know that language like Tommy used then even existed!
Wifie might have been a bit simple but he wasn’t that simple, he heard Tommy all right, and got the message and we never saw him for days! I always wore a tie then and whenever I talked to Wilfie he would say in his rapid, nervous way, “I wish I had a tie like that, oh I would love a tie I would, I wish I had a tie like that” so one day I took it off and gave it to him, and in return he insisted on giving me a silver tassel from off his Albert, which I still have. I can picture him now scuttling away up the street clutching my tie to his body and talking delightedly to himself. When I next saw that tie it was holding up his trousers!
Tommy was very aware of the world around him. It was probably fostered by the dangerous environment in which he worked, red hot rivets are no joke, and besides he was naturally curious as to what was happening, to whom, when and for why. Nothing escaped his notice as regards his birds and little else other besides. To help him in this he had a large mirror fixed high up inside the front of his sitting cabin through which he could watch me and my Uncle Tom, who flew behind him, and what was happening in the hospital yard.
He could also see right into the hospital mortuary if the doors were open. I was in his cabin the day they brought in this man who had been overcome by fumes and fallen through an inspection hatch into a riverside tank of Benzene, and been in there for several days before being found. Apart from being dead he was also a fire risk, so he was brought in to the morgue with the doors open on an un-covered, rubber-sheeted stretcher. I can still hear Tommy’s words, “by” he said, “he’s got a bad look Rod”. They don’t come any worse!
Perhaps, in view of all this, I should not have taken to spending most Sunday afternoons in my own cabin doing a spot of serious courting with my then girlfriend, but I did. I most certainly should have had the cabin door secured by something more solid than a hook and eye! It happened to be a windy day you see, most of the action was taking place on the carpeted floor, and neither of us was what you would have called adequately dressed. In fact we weren’t dressed at all when the catch gave way, and the door blew open.
Tommy was on the roof of his loft tarring it over. He heard the door slam back and looked across, leaned on his brush, beamed at us both, and said, in a very pleasant manner, “good day for it, eh?” And he wasn’t referring to repairing his roof. I never did manage to shut that door with my foot and couldn’t get Betty near the place during daylight hours until I had fitted a bolt big enough have secured Fort Knox. Thereafter, in pigeon circles, I was greeted with knowing smiles and winks every time I went to the club. Word had spread. Tommy had seen to that!
My one-time near neighbour, the late Peter Bengston, who flew as P. Bengston & Son, won the Up North Combine Young Bird National, from Welwyn Garden City, in 1948. Tommy Burke, who flew as Burke Bros., also of South Shields, won the same race in 1949. I was 10 years old at the time of Mr Bengston’s win. And I had never heard of Tommy Burke.
His name began to surface about five years later as I was serving my time in the sport, hanging about the allotment sites, helping out some of the old established fanciers in the hope of getting birds or eggs off them, but it wasn’t until 1959 that I got to meet Tommy on a proper footing and began to realise just how good a fancier he was.
He had to move his lofts from the edge of the old Daisy Field and had obtained the allotment immediately in front of mine on the Texas gardens. Being on an upstanding wage at the time I “pulled a sickie” and took the day off to help. As we stripped down the nest-boxes I found a nest-pan containing two newly hatched youngsters and drew Tommy’s attention to them. “Throw them in the field” he said, “unless you want them. The father has four wins and the mother with two wins is off “The Little Docker” which I knew, as did everybody in the pigeon club, was his foundation stock hen. A survivor of a disastrous young bird season who pretty much won the young bird averages that year on her own.
I was very young then, but not stupid. I ran back to my loft and killed the only two youngsters of a similar age that I had. They were off the one and only winner I had at that time, but I never hesitated. That was the turning point in my youthful pursuit of better birds and of breaking into the ranks of those fanciers considered to be always in with a chance at the inland races.
Tommy was having a break when I got back, red-faced and out of breath, standing there looking at his watch. “Not bad son” he said, “all that you need is the right food and a bit of training.”I had no idea what he was talking about!
A stout little man, with a tendency to go red in the face when he became excited, and an odd staccato way of speaking, Tommy worked in the local shipyards as part of a riveting squad. He was the “holder-on.” Big Joe, the gentle giant who often turned up at Tommy’s loft was also part of that squad. Both pedalled their ancient bikes everywhere, solid sit-up-and-beg jobs lacking even three-speed gears, sporting old-fashioned brake systems and with seats like tractors. All training of the birds was done via British Rail, the birds being transported to the local station on an old hand-built wooden two-wheeled barrow which frequently collapsed.
“Give me a hand to the station will you Rod” said Tommy as the barrow collapsed yet again. He and I carried the pannier between us and as we waited for the train Tommy saw me looking at the birds, about 25 of them, “11 Fed winners in their Rod” he said. He said it almost as an aside, as a statement of fact, not a boast. It was yet another pointer to the calibre of man and birds, a statement which, after all these years, still impresses me.
And so Tommy Burke came to move into the allotment in front of mine and my education into the arcane sport of pigeon racing began in earnest. There were no deep and meaningful conversations between us, no apprentice sitting at the feet of his master situations, Tommy wasn’t that kind of man, not a natural speaker, but he led by example and I learned by watching him, and how I watched him. He knew that he was being watched, I knew that he knew, and he knew that I knew that he knew. And so I learned. And copied every move he made at the loft.
It was enough to make a grown man weep but Tommy never complained about being shadowed. If he let his birds out, once, twice or three times a day, mine went out. If his flew for an hour, mine flew for an hour. If he trained, I trained. I knew what he fed to his birds, so I fed it to mine. The big and obvious drawback was that I hadn’t got birds as good as his and I really needed them. I only had two of his and they were both hens. There was no point in beating about the bush, so with the brazenness of youth I asked him to sell me a pair of silvers, as silvers I had been told, were always good stock pigeons.
“£5 the pair” said Tommy, “I’ll tell you when they’re ready.”I was earning £4.10s. a week at that time My mother allowed me to keep the ten shillings, 50p in modern money, so I began saving up what I had left after buying my pigeon corn etc. When Tommy told me they were ready I had about half of the necessary money and my father “loaned” me the rest. Two beautiful silvers. Tommy took the money from me and put the birds in a cardboard box. As I was leaving he called me back, and with the words “you’ll need to feed them son” put half of the money back in my hand. My father saw none of that!
The following year, with a small team of youngsters, largely of Tommy’s blood, I was ready to break eggs with a stick, as they say, but so was Tommy. He won 11 club races (56 members), six of them Federation wins, but I won the young bird averages despite Tommy winning six of the seven young bird races. How come? The old time and distance proper system was still in operation in our club and I beat Tommy by one hour in a very strange first race, which advantage he steadily whittled down to ten minutes by the last young bird race when I was a close second to him.
I was embarrassed. Tommy wasn’t. “Rules are rules son” he said and he made a point of sitting at my table at the annual presentation, applauding enthusiastically as I got up to receive the trophy. That was the kind of man he was. The same man who, in his declining years in the sport, also made a point of coming to our presentation to receive his one and only red card of a very, very poor season. They don’t make them like him anymore.
He made his name at the inland races, not because he couldn’t fly the long distance but because he didn’t want to. Let me tell you about the two seasons that he did fly the longest race on the race programme. To this day I still think that he was giving a metaphorical two-fingered gesture to the sniping of jealous certain nonentities in the club who used to whisper, behind his back, that yes Tommy was a good pigeon man, but he couldn’t compete at the distance. He could. And he did.
The story goes roughly like this. He borrowed a pair of good five or six year old recently retired channel birds from a friend of his in the West Durham Amalgamation and settled them to his loft, no mean feat when you realise he hadn’t a car and had to travel the twelve miles or so to collect them by bus whenever they went home in the early stages of this process. The cheq.hen was the only bird on the day in our club from Bourges, 570 miles, in her first season with Tommy. The cock returned the next day.
The following year both went to Bourges again. There were no day pigeons and Tommy had to work a half shift on the Sunday so he asked me to time in for him if anything came before dinnertime. The dark cock dropped in at 9.30 am with no rubber on. I was aghast, what would he think if I got one after the Dark cock and won the race? I needn’t have worried about this as I clocked the cheq hen in about half an hour later, to win the race for him. Tommy promptly gave both birds back to his friend and never flew another Bourges race in his life!
His family of Vandeveldes originally came from James Lucas and H. Crabtree of Blackpool and maybe Tom Askew of Workington, but I’m not certain about him. Mealies, blue pieds, red pieds, yellows and silvers they were a fantastic cross into any other good family, the Buschaerts of their day, and imposed their colours upon their young. They were bred by Tommy on a best to best basis; he even went as far as pairing race winners to other winners at exactly the same distance.
Their only drawback it seemed was a predisposition to illness and arthritis. The hens stopped laying eggs at about six or seven years of age and the cocks tended to hobble about as they got older. Any good cross ironed these problems out and fanciers soon stopped buying pairs off him but purchased all cocks or more often all hens instead. Tommy had to sell to survive in the sport. He had no choice. That was just how it was.
To summarise, I learned my trade from a fancier who was a man ahead of his time. Who set the standards for sprint racing in my Federation and farther afield? He was a relentless racer and trainer. If they came poorly they got more work, more training and more races.
Let me tell you about a pigeon called "Whiplash." He got his name because of the way he dropped in from exercise and races. He always arrived from races hanging high and vertical above the open door and suddenly swooping down with a loud clap, clap, of his wings. Not unlike a whip being cracked.
"Whiplash" was already a star, having won four or five races, when he went to a 230 mile race and was missing on the night. I let him in mid-morning the next day as his owner had to go to work. Back he went the following week to a 290 mile race and was again missing on the night, appearing about lunchtime on the Sunday.
The following week was the first cross- channel race, about 350 miles. "Whiplash" went back. On the Monday morning, long after his owner had left for the shipyards I saw him on the step. All huddled up and looking thoroughly sick. I let him in yet again.
It was high time, I felt, that Tommy got some advice from me. A complete novice! So I told him, with all the confidence and arrogance of youth, that if he didn’t stop racing the pigeon he would lose it. He simply smiled: the kind of smile adults use when their child says something quite meaningless or does something particularly stupid.
The next Saturday was once more a 290 mile race. We got a stiff one. Of about 8 hours as I remember the race and "Whiplash" murdered our Federation. Oh I knew which pigeon it was when he arrived. There was no doubt about that. He hadn’t got his name for nothing, but there was nowhere for me to hide. My garden wasn’t big enough! Tommy never uttered a word. A hand appeared above the spikes of his racing loft. The gesture, aimed in my direction, said it all!
Cause and Effect
“Don’t worry too much about the loft. What you really need is a good cabin to sit in and a concrete platform to walk on.”I have never forgotten those words, spoken to me as a boy when I had sought the advice of a much admired and respected older fancier as to what kind of a loft I should build! I wore out quite a few wooden platforms with my constant pacing to and fro on race days before the wisdom of the old man’s words eventually sank in. And concrete platforms became the order of the day. Wooden ones, it seems, are only for fanciers with fast pigeons. Distance birds require more hard-wearing materials! In the uncertain, maritime climate of the North East of England, where the vast bulk of pigeons are raced to lofts on allotment sites, a cabin to sit in is essential for survival if the time that should be spent at the loft is spent at the loft. For many years I had a very good cabin indeed. Complete with carpets, bed-settee, heater, cooking facilities and of course an old, but comfortable, armchair. A place to sit and review past events and plan future ones. Old and battered it may have been but I would not have changed it for a new one! In fact that chair pre-dated the cabin by at least five years, being put carefully into storage long before it was ever used.
W.H.Davies wrote “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Many fanciers are so burdened by the sheer logistics of managing their (usually too large) teams that they develop a blind spot. They have not got, or choose not to find, the time to stand and stare. I never stand if I can sit. Nor sit if I can lie down. And this is where an armchair comes into its own. When the chores are done it’s a place to sit and contemplate. Enjoy the peace and quiet. Review the whys and wherefores of last season. In quick succession. Put ones brain into neutral and let it wander. Exploring past happenings. Events that had a beginning and an end. An explanation. Reasons why. Cause and effect. And this is where it all began. Where this article came from. An armchair.
“Cause” means nothing more than “to bring about.” “Effect” is simply “the result or consequence of the action or actions constituting the cause.” Crystal clear. It follows then that every single happening must have a cause. Whether it is easy to identify or not. Even when the cause is unknown some unwanted happenings can be prevented from happening again. Generally speaking though knowing the cause makes controlling the effect that much easier. Let me tell you about a pigeon I once owned called “Morning Sickness.” Her name had nothing at all to do with pregnancy. But because she made me pretty sick in the mornings! It illustrates but one way of how to deal with unwanted happenings whose cause is obscure. This young hen was perfectly well behaved (although a little timid and flighty) until I stopped racing her after four races or so. And then my troubles started. I would let out 40 youngsters in the morning and 39 would return. When I arrived back at the loft after finishing work there would be nothing waiting to come in so I would let my 39 young birds out and when they came back and I counted them I would once more have 40! Only once did I see this hen flying around. It was late evening and she was flying hard and high. The rest of the time she was conspicuous only by her absence. She was never seen on the loft or on the nearby rooftops. In fact it took me a whole week to find out exactly which bird it was that kept going missing!
So, in an attempt to sort out this highly undesirable trait I let her run for a couple of weeks with my old birds in the hope that she might pair up, or at least show an interest in one of the old males and stop her wandering ways. Show an interest she did, but apart from some desultory matings, being very immature she couldn’t establish herself in any permanent way. After two weeks in the breeding end I let her out to exercise with the old birds and, as usual, she went missing until the evening so back in with the youngsters she went. And was kept in for three weeks before being let out again. With exactly the same results as before. So I “solved” the problem, or at least got rid of it, in the best way that I could. By only letting her out in the evenings. Because I’d noticed that, on the odd occasion or two when she had been actually present for the evening fly, she had stuck with the batch and always came in with them. Regardless of how many daylight hours were left for her to fly in. This was what she wanted to do and this was what she did.
I had previously tried keeping her short, even very short, of food but it had made no difference whatsoever! Hungry or not, if let out in the mornings she wouldn’t come in. I have no real idea what was causing this behaviour and can but speculate. Was it her highly-strung temperament? Or was she simply working off a super abundance of energy left behind after I had stopped racing her? Or what? It is my opinion, based upon her general condition, that when she was missing she was flying all the time and not just sitting about somewhere, out of sight. Whatever the cause of her behaviour, and there must have been one even if I couldn’t see what it was, the effects of it were plain to see. I hadn’t so much cured the problem as sidestepped it. It always makes me smile when I hear of a “bad” fancier with a champion pigeon and his contemporaries are asking each other how on earth has he, of all people, got a pigeon like that or conversely when a “good” fancier has management problems with a particular pigeon or family of pigeons and keeps asking himself and his friends “why me?” I smile because the answer in both cases is simply that the pigeon does not know who it belongs to. Or whether the fancier that owns it is a “good” one or a “bad” one. A pigeon lives where it lives and behaves as the good or bad individual it is. And that is that!
In my time in the sport I have had many pigeons that were real “fliers.” Birds that would fly all day long about their home area, even into the darkness, and have come to the conclusion that it is a mistake to think that this is in any way indicative of that pigeon’s potential as a good long distance racer. It might turn out like that. Or it might just as well not. The odds that it will or it won’t being just about even. Let me give you two examples. Of one that made it and one that didn’t. The year was 1973 and I bought a smoky blue cock as a youngster from a local auction sale. It was a bird with an impressive ancestry of distance flying. It was also of a nervous temperament. And from the word go a real flier. Long after the rest of my birds had come in he would still be going strong. Shying away from the loft and doing huge town - encompassing circles before coming back to the loft for another look. There never seemed to be enough sky for him to manoeuvre in, and as his constant shying off the door made the other pigeons nervous I often had to resort to locking the rest in. And him out. This did not work the way I had intended it to. I had hoped that by being excluded from his home he would become eager to get in and I would later find him hanging on the loft front. Not so. The blue cock would take one last look at the loft as if to satisfy himself that he really was locked out, and promptly drop in the middle of the rough pastureland behind the loft. And remain there all night. Perhaps, just perhaps mind you, he would deign to come in the next day. As a mature adult I sent him twice to Bourges, 570 miles. At which distance he proved himself to be as big a plodder as I have ever owned. On both occasions he did nothing than came home. In his own time. To be fair to the bird, his first son, a pigeon equally as nervous as his father, did fly some good races for me. As a young bird.
The other side of the coin involved a dark pied cock, given to me as a youngster, who came from a family of “fliers.” Nervous, highly-strung, temperamental pigeons. With a tremendous record of success on hard days. At the highest level. Up to 500 miles. This dark cock was every bit as much a flier as the aforementioned smoky blue cock. Except that he never ever slept out in the fields and turned out to be a good distance bird. He too would fly long hours after the others had dropped and would also approach the open door many times before eventually entering. The difference between him and the smoky blue was was that, when he made up his mind that he was going in, he went in. His approach then would be both low and positive. I used to tell people that if ever he was my first pigeon home from a race, and missed the door first time, that I wouldn’t bet a bent penny on whether he would come in next time around, or fly around all day. Well, that day came. From a distance of over 400 miles. And miss the door he did! The recovery circle around the loft was wide and deliberate, taking in the local railway station half a mile away, but then he went straight in and finished up 27th Open from an entry of 17,195 birds, his “lap of honour” almost certainly costing me three positions or so on the result sheet. So there you have it. It is my opinion that this “fly all day, the door isn’t big enough” type of behaviour is purely and simply an indication of temperament and not of class. The prime cause being the pigeon’s nature, the effect of which is what we see --- and have to come to terms with!
Of course the fancier himself can sometimes be the cause of birds behaving badly. Pigeons that are “bent” or have a “kink” in them are more often than not perfectly normal until some event changes their behaviour. I once had a very timid bird, timid despite the fact that it had been given to me as an egg and reared in the happy, relaxed, easy-going environment of my racing loft where the birds were free to come and go at will. No forced exercise. No chasing about. It was never any real trouble to me until I accidentally scared the wits out of it. It was a pure reflex action on my part. As I was getting them in one day this bird turned and tried to fly past me. Without thinking I grabbed it in mid-air, as I am sure many fanciers will themselves have done, catching it at the second attempt. And that was it! Thereafter that bird watched me like a hawk and whenever I tried to get my birds in it refused to join them, flying from loft to loft and unsettling the rest of the flock. It would just not go in. I tried locking it out. Missing feeds. Even hiding myself in an attempt to make it go in of its own accord. But to no avail. It’s confidence had gone. It’s nerves were frayed. And I had no control over it. Eventually and inevitably this bird took to leaving the batch and dropping onto the roof of the loft. Finally a state of affairs was reached where it wouldn’t fly with the others. Wouldn’t go in. And by it’s constant fluttering from loft top to loft top it was destroying the discipline of the team and pulling the other youngsters down. An undisciplined team of pigeons is no good to any man, and I had worked hard establishing my control over them, so it had to go. I disposed of it very shamefacedly knowing full well that the whole sorry affair had been my fault right from the beginning . For all I know I might have ruined a champion before it ever saw the inside of a training basket. Reflex action or not I should have been aware of the consequences of such an action and let that bird fly past me on that very first day. I can do that now.
Individual youngsters are often labelled as being “stupid” by fanciers who ought to know better. Merely because in some particular aspect or other their behaviour is out of the ordinary compared to the others. Admittedly their antics can be odd, and non-conformist when measured against their loft mates, but because their owners do not understand the reasons behind this behaviour they should not assume that there are none. And that the pigeon must be “brainless.” This is not normally the case. I like to think that whilst brainless pigeons and brainless fanciers undoubtedly do exist, it is fortunately uncommonly rare for them to be found side by side in the same loft! A couple of examples of pigeons wrongly labelled as “stupid” will probably suffice to show that behind the most aberrant of behaviour patterns there are usually very sound reasons as to why this is so.
One year I bred a particularly fine-looking cheq cock. From a half brother and sister mating. And I had great hopes for it. But it was not to be. At an early age, when just dancing about the sky, he was swept up (with several others of his peer group) by a belated North Road liberation from a site less than 20 miles away. It was on a Monday morning and it caught me and a lot of other local fanciers out. He was reported about a month later, from a loft 25 miles South West of mine. I collected it and marked it with a coloured plastic ring so it was easily recognisable and identifiable for special rehabilitation treatment. This never happened, because two days later, on August 5th, whilst I was on holiday, my partner decided to keep it hungry and use it to attract the race birds down. This way it would just walk about and get a good look at it’s surroundings. According to him, it walked out of the loft, cocked an eye up at the sky, and shot off in roughly a South West direction. Naturally I rang up the fancier who had originally reported it, but he hadn’t seen it and I soon forgot all about it. Then one of those strange coincidences that happen from time to time in pigeon racing occurred. Three weeks after making that phone call a Ph D student from another department, who is also a personal friend of mine, walked into my office with a pigeon in a box. The date was August 31st. His father, who races pigeons about 20 miles West of me had got this bird in. It looked like a good pigeon and it was carrying a ring which showed it came from my area. So please would I take it home with me and pass it on to it’s rightful owner? I opened the box out of sheer curiosity and there it was. My young Cheq cock! The bird had developed nicely since I had last seen it, but had stopped moulting, and was still carrying seven old flights. Not wishing to lose it once more it went in with my old birds and was never let out again. Becoming a stock pigeon. On September 8th it began moulting afresh, falling to pieces in the typically dramatic way that lost pigeons do upon their return to their real home. And what a fine specimen it turned out to be, breeding some good racers for me at the distance.
So, looked at superficially, this would appear to be a classic case of a “stupid” youngster. One which would go into anyone’s loft. But this is not so. What actually happened in this case, and also in the cases of youngsters which repeatedly go into another loft, sometimes only yards away, is this. These birds get lost at a time when they have not safely and sufficiently identified themselves with their home lofts and area, and so have grown confused and uncertain as to where they wanted to be. And by the time they get back, one way or another, to where they should be, they have undoubtedly partially settled their loft attachment mechanisms on the place where they had found food and shelter when they most needed them. The lofts to which they keep returning . In the case of my youngster, once back in my loft it had insufficient time to grow accustomed to both the loft and area before it was let out again. Significantly, when it did turn up, it wasn’t that far from where it had first been reported. All the time it had been away it had, of course, been developing both mentally and physically. Growing older and more mature. The end result of this being that what my student friend gave back to me was a pigeon with little or no attachment to my loft but a fairly strong attachment to a loft it couldn’t find again. Even if it knew roughly in what area it was.
It was now a bird way past the age of forming any attachment to its home loft. The pigeon was, by now, far too strong on the wing to do this, and therefore lacked a fixed, permanent loft bond. Normally young pigeons form the loft attachment at a time when their physical development is insufficient for them to stray too far from home. This acts as a safety mechanism that prevents them wandering away and getting lost. So, my young Cheq cock, by now physically capable of flying at least 100 miles, still did not know where it lived. And the odds on settling it successfully were no longer those that would appeal to any betting man as being reasonable. And I am not a gambler! Stupid? No. Confused? Yes. A classic case of retarded normal development. But no case for condemning the bird to oblivion. So into the stock loft it went and there I rest my case.
At one time I raced on a strip of allotments about 100 yards long. Each garden was no wider than say 20 yards. 6 lofts in a straight line. One behind the other. My loft was painted black and white, as was the one in front of me and the one behind. There were sound economical reasons for this, which are not the concern of this article but money was tight and the paint was cheap! None of us had much trouble with pigeons going into the wrong loft, other than the odd youngster now and again. However, on one fast 150 mile race, I had the nasty experience of watching my Blue Pied hen, “Spotty”, a really bold-looking pigeon and a spectacular finisher, streak out of a batch and rocket over my head into the loft behind me! She was my pool bird that week, and at that time I hadn’t won many races so I was absolutely mortified ,and watched in speechless disbelief as my neighbour, who also happened to be my uncle, ran into his loft after her. It wasn’t until he came out carrying the pigeon and said to me “it’s not mine Rod” that I was able to collect my wits and tell him, in no uncertain terms, uncle or no uncle, just exactly whose pigeon it was! I finished up third club that day and I can still vividly recall the incident. It was many years later when I finally got around to asking myself why. Why should a well-settled three year old hen like “Spotty” do a trick like that? A similar thing happened to a fancier I know, racing to a not dissimilar set-up to me, on the occasion of a hard Young Bird National. Only he had the desperate experience of watching three of his go over his loft and into the loft behind. Not just the one! They were handed over, clocked in, then disposed of. His neighbour argued for clemency on the grounds that “they are only big stupid young birds” and was told, somewhat vehemently, that they “are not growing up into big stupid old birds!” Stupidity had nothing to do with their behaviour. Or “Spotty’s.” Confusion certainly had.
My blue pied hen, arriving at the home end after a very fast sprint race, had been confronted with the choice of three lofts, very close together and each of the same colour. I have no doubt that when she started to pull out of the batch she knew exactly which loft she was heading for but during the very short amount of time available to her to adjust her downward trajectory my flirt birds were out of sight and my neighbour must have got a flap of wings out of his at exactly the critical moment. Upon which she would, in her tense and excited state, reflexly respond to the attraction of movement on the ground by heading straight for, what to her would seem to be, the safest option. Other pigeons moving about equating with security. And thus went into the wrong loft. It was a mistake. As simple as that. Had my neighbour not got her in immediately she landed I am certain she would have collected her wits, looked around the place and made her way back to my loft. ASAP. She never made that mistake again and went on to win other races. Returning now to the case of the three youngsters that had made a similar mistake. Without knowing the exact circumstances prevailing on that day, I can’t be sure of the reasons why, but I do know that the weather conditions would have induced real physical and mental fatigue in most of the birds in the race. And that the combination of circumstances at the home end must have had a lot to do with it. One way or another. I know both of the fanciers involved. And whilst I can sympathise with the one who could do nothing but watch as his birds shot into the wrong loft I can assure him, and everyone else, that big “stupid” youngsters don’t necessarily grow into big “stupid” old birds. Those three, unfortunately, never got that chance!
It is a widely held belief within the fancy that good pigeons either re-settle to a new loft location very easily, and quickly, or never really settle at all. But is this true? My best stock cock, who in his day was also my best racer, re-settled to my loft first time out and never returned to his old home. And he was a four year old purchased from a fancier racing about three miles behind me. Yet I gave a late bred hen to a friend a mere 900 yards away and in 14 months I would estimate that he has let her out some 40 times, and she has never even circled his loft before coming back. So what gives? Well, I have long contended that the ruling factor governing a pigeon’s drive to get home at all costs, even under adverse conditions, is if it has reared young in the loft it regards as home. And that this drive is strongest for the loft in which it reared it’s own first young. When extreme physical and mental fatigue are present the average pigeon will return not to the loft it was bred in, nor to the loft it happens to be breeding in now (unless of course these are one and the same) but to the loft in which it reared it’s first young. In the case of this late bred though this did not apply. She was the exception to the rule. She never bred in my loft and has reared more than one round in my friends loft. Yet given the slightest chance she will return to me. All through winter, spring, summer and autumn she has returned. Leaving behind her mate, eggs and young. Never has she done anything less than make a beeline for my loft. Despite the fact she doesn’t get fed and is never allowed to spend a night in m loft! She goes into a small wire-fronted kitchen cabinet in the cabin. And is never fed in there unless I know that she is not being collected for a day or two. I have chased her away by waving a flag. Throwing stones. Ducking her in the bath. And rolling her around the garden in a biscuit tin. It makes no difference whatsoever. Open the loft door six inches and she will scramble in over my feet showing obvious signs of recognition and pleasure. Lock her out for the night and she will sleep leaning up against the loft door. Such is her attachment for my loft. But why?
My friend, a good fancier in his own right and myself have spent hours pondering over this question. And have come up with one explanation that kind of half makes sense. My loft then was quiet and secluded. Usually always open. And the pigeons were un-pressurised and not harassed in any way. By me, anything or anybody. My friends loft is, like many others in this area, on a set of open allotments where perhaps 30 lofts lie in close proximity to each other. Co-existing side by side with poultry keepers and gardeners. The place is always busy. Noisy. And chaotic. With no high fences allowed the birds have very little privacy and have to live with whatever turmoil is going on. The sky and the surrounding fields are also busy with big batches of pigeons flying about or sitting in the fields. At all hours of the day. From first light until nightfall. There are roads between the allotments so there are always cars going to and fro, and despite the presence of a few dogs, those gardens harbour a higher than average density of cats. Because of this most of the fanciers avoid the open-hole system and only exercise their birds, twice, maybe thrice a day. John and I think that this hen prefers the peace and quiet. The freedom to come and go. The security. The tranquillity. And everything else that goes to make my loft and its environment so different from his. And that this overrules all the other factors that would normally come into play. Such as her mate and young etc. This is quite possible. We don’t have a better answer!
That different pigeons have different temperaments, and hence react differently to identical circumstances, is indisputable. This same friend of mine has another bird which I gave him and which he is also trying to settle. And which I know that he will the next time he has it out. How do I know? Because the pigeon told me so. Last weekend. This bird, a cock, was very late bred and in order to get it to fly I had to resort to taking it ever increasing distances away from the loft and releasing it in stages. Beginning at the bottom of my garden and ending at the railway station 300 yards away. At first the pigeon used to panic so much at finding himself on his own that he would fix his eyes on the lofts, streak up the side of the railway line and fasten onto the first bit of my garden he came into contact with. Usually this was the chicken wire mounted on angle brackets above my fence as a cat deterrent. And he would cling desperately on to this. Like a House Martin clinging to a wall! Gradually, as he gained confidence in himself and his powers of flight, he began flying freely of his own accord, and gave up on this fence-clinging habit. That was a year ago. I loaned him to my friend for stock purposes and as this pigeon has never been raced nor ever will be raced I had no objections when my friend proposed that he should settle it to his loft. First time out the cock came around the corner of my loft like a bullet and went straight in. But on the second occasion, despite the fact that my loft was open and the hens were out playing on the grass, the bird reverted to its old habits. Coming around the corner and clinging on to the first bit of fence he came to. Hanging onto the wire netting for dear life. Just like old times. Things for him had changed. He knew it and had reverted to his old anxious ways. Thus telling me that next time out he would not be back. And he wasn’t. Ever!
Pigeons, like children, are attracted to anything different about their fellows. Even if that difference or differences seems insignificant to the fancier. And they can be just as cruel. Consider, for example, minor eye conditions. Common enough in young birds and something that would normally clear up by itself. But no pigeon with such a condition should ever go into a racing or training basket with other birds. Not because of the risk of infection spreading to the rest (a lot of eye abnormalities are not infectious anyway) but because of the attraction that the affected eye will hold for the other birds who will peck curiously and incessantly at it, and cause further, sometimes serious, damage. A small observation I admit but one often overlooked, and a reminder that anything that stands out as different in the world of racing pigeons, whether it be an abnormality or not, disease or not, will be instantly noticed. And investigated. Usually to the detriment of the bird concerned. That is simply how it is.
As I mentioned earlier incidents occur which are totally and absolutely the fault of the fancier. And they can often be attributed to nothing more than a lapse of concentration or an error of judgement on his part. Nobody is perfect and pigeon fanciers, being normally pressed for time, take chances. I do myself. Sometimes they come off and sometimes they don’t. Then you have to ask yourself the question “was it worth it?” Strong Westerly winds are the bane of my life. And I no longer take chances on them. But I used to. I had two lofts set at right angles to each other with a cabin in between. One faced East and the other faced South. The least troublesome winds are the Easterly’s which cause only minor problems for approaching birds. Because the normal approach would then be downwind they have to take a different tack. Nothing takes off or lands downwind. Neither birds nor aeroplanes. There is no control this way. The old birds know this and come in from the reverse direction to normal. The youngsters have to learn the hard way! But gale force Westerlies are a real menace Those lofts were in the lea of some trees which effectively meant that when the birds from the East facing loft are let out on these winds they get about 15 yards away before they feel the full force of the wind pressing them downwards and forwards. With a 7 foot fence looming up at them! They try desperately to get enough lift in time and often those nearest the ground just cannot get the height. They can’t get enough air under their wings. And they can’t manoeuvre.
I have always been aware of this, and taken a reasonable amount of care in letting them out under these conditions. But you get careless and accidents happen. The fence is topped by a foot of chicken wire and a single strand of barbed wire. Painted white. Despite this, more than once, birds have either bounced off the wire netting or caught the barbed wire. On windy days I let them out in smaller groups. Try to time the releases between gusts of wind. And even stand in front of the open door with a cane thus forcing them to fly over my head in order to achieve the necessary height. But it is still risky. On one occasion, when I should have known better than to let them out, four out of a batch of ten hit the fence. Three got their feet up in time to clutch at the wire netting and dropped into the vegetable patch, but the fourth was so badly injured that I had to destroy it. It was my fault entirely. Under those conditions birds just can’t claw their way up into the sky in time. And then there is the fence. For the sake of trying to stick to a rhythm and to keep it going I had taken an unnecessary risk. And hadn’t correctly assessed the prevailing situation. I am sure that we have all done something similar. At one time or another.
Whilst on the subject of birds struggling to get enough lift there are those birds, apparently fit and healthy, which, even on completely calm days have a real problem getting airborne. The seem to “lose” their wings. Lack any power. And get up on a wing and a prayer. Flying lopsidedly upwards. The local pundits cry “Salmonella/Paratyphoid”,but is it? These same birds, a week or two later, are often back to normal. I see this kind of thing many times a year, as I am sure most fanciers do, and I find it only mildly puzzling. My finger points in the direction of sports injuries. A strain. A bump. Damage to the supracoracoideus muscle which powers the up-stroke of the wing, and so on. Rest works wonders. A lot of pigeons must get lost through being sent to races in this condition, simply because if fanciers don’t look out for it, by watching their birds taking off and flying whilst at exercise, they will probably not notice it. And basket their birds straight from the loft completely unaware of any wing weakness. Wing lameness can be caused by many things. Including infectious agents. But it must be looked out for or it will be missed.
It is interesting and instructive to watch the reactions of young birds when they encounter something different for the first time in their lives. Animate or inanimate And I am referring on this occasion to the harmless Rook. A paper kite shaped like a hawk. And the real thing. A Sparrowhawk. Their reactions were a treat to watch. And still are, with any batch of immature youngsters. The Rook was one of two, flying, for them, at an exceptional height on a really fine summers evening. The youngsters were themselves at a great height and the Rooks had attracted their attention by the way they were behaving. Not slowly and steadily flapping along as usual, with half of their wings missing, but soaring, gliding, and generally playing about. My youngsters moved in. As a compact group. And danced round and round the Rooks in tight little circles, occasionally diving and twisting below them, before tightening up again and resuming their circling. All the while drifting steadily Eastwards with the two Rooks, until they tired of this game, and losing height they reverted to the more normal dashing young bird flight.
With the hawk-shaped kite they were much more wary and circumspect. Circling it at a distance in an even tighter batch than before and, this was particularly noticeable, at no time did they venture beneath it! They stayed on the same level or above it. Well above it. The fabric kite was a strange object to be inspected. But with care. To be shown all the respect due to a dangerous but unknown predator. They didn’t know what it was, but knew it could be dangerous, so, at all times they were ready to take evasive action. Sticking in tightest little bunch imaginable. The old “safety in numbers response” elicited in birds the world over when in the presence of an aerial predator.
When they eventually did encounter their first Sparrowhawk the response was spectacular. Something to see. Even though they were in no danger whatsoever! The batch was coming in to land. Four of them had actually gone through the door and the rest were swinging around the loft when a big brown female Sparrowhawk materialised out of nowhere, as they do, and lobbed over the fence. All the birds in the air saw it at the same time. Those in the loft didn’t. Had it been hunting for real I would have had one less youngster that night. For sure. It was merely passing through, not hunting, but the effect on my young birds was galvanising. As one the flock bunched up and went from zero feet to a great height at a speed that I for one had not thought them capable off. Amidst a veritable shower of droppings as they all reflexly lightened their load! There was absolutely no messing about. It was full acceleration and all systems go. The Rooks and the paper kite hadn’t been for real. Those youngsters may not have known chalk from cheese prior to this experience but when the real thing came along it was instantly recognised for what it was and reacted to. It was quite amusing to watch the batch as they circled at altitude, necks stretched out, heads swivelling round and round looking for a Sparrowhawk which was long gone. The few on the ground peered upwards at their loft mates in obvious bewilderment. Wondering what on earth the panic was all about. The batch returned to the loft. Eventually. With a show of great caution and over quite a long period of time. Only those few on the loft front persuading them that it was safe!
Pigeons are gregarious by nature. They feel safer, and are more comfortable, in the company of their fellows, especially in uncertain or dangerous situations. As an example of this notice how they behave after having a bath, when they are at their most vulnerable. Being wet does nothing for the normal aerodynamics of a pigeon! And they know it. They can then be seen actually lying against each other in the grass. Even normally aggressive males tolerating the presence of other males. Feeling safe in this way. And at peace with the world. The ideal state of mind. For both bird and fancier!
In concluding this series I should like to repeat the words of one of my early mentors. A man I had the utmost respect for. He always said that “there is more to pigeon racing than just winning races.” And to end with these few lines from the great English poet W.H.Auden. For me, they encapsulate the very essence of our sport :-
“To have a special interest of one’s own,
Rock gardens, marrows, pigeons, silver plate,
Collecting butterflies or bits of stone;
And then to have a circle where one’s known,
Of hobbyists and rivals to discuss,
With expert knowledge what appeals to us.”
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