Some people consider them rats with wings — but Red Deer County pigeon breeder Jeffrey Bondy prefers to think of his birds in more heroic terms.
After all, a homing pigeon named Cher Ami is now perched in taxiderm-ed state in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
All school children in the 1920s knew Cher Ami helped save 194 American soldiers by delivering a message with their lost battalion’s coordinates during the First World War.
A grateful soldier later carved a tiny wooden leg for Cher Ami to replace one that had been shot off by the Germans. And the pigeon was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for heroic service.
So far, Bondy’s birds haven’t distinguished themselves in as noble a way, but they’re highly intelligent, says the co-owner, with his wife Carolyn, of Gablehouse Farm and Gardens, southwest of Sylvan Lake.
His 18 picturesque pigeons, with iridescent feathers, recognize their names when called — and always want to investigate whatever he brings into their coop.
“They have curiosity,” adds the retired nurse and photographer who helps his wife raise and market daylilies to retail and wholesale customers.
As their flower business draws families with children to the farm, the couple decided to take in some pigeons — because “every farm should have some animals,” says Bondy.
He had just finished reading the book The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, and was intrigued by the mystery surrounding homing pigeons.
Nobody understands how these bird can always find their way back to their nests — sometimes flying hundreds or thousands of miles.
Some guess it’s their keen eyesight or smell. Other people believe they can navigate by the sun, or sense the magnetic forces of the Earth. Bondy notes there are magnetic properties in pigeon wattles, the fleshy growths on top of their bills.
But the puzzle of their mapping mechanism is “where the wonder lies. If we knew, it wouldn’t be so intriguing,” says Bondy.
He and Carolyn have amazed children at community gatherings by releasing their pigeons a couple of miles away from home, then driving the children back to their property — always to find the pigeons have arrived first.
“The kids love it. They say, ‘How do they do that?’ They can’t believe the pigeons are already here,” says Carolyn, who tells them the birds can fly faster than the highway speed limit.
The fastest pigeons have been known to fly is 144 km/h.
While pigeon racing is popular from China and the Middle East, to Europe, and even in Alberta — the Bondys don’t race their birds.
Their banded pigeons can come and go as they please. Once a new bird spends at least six months on the farm, it will always return — except if killed by a feral cat, hawk, owl or coyote.
Bondy admits there’s a high mortality rate. The goal was to get up his flock up to 30 birds, but even with supplementing it with additional pigeon purchases, the highest count has been 24.
The Bondys say they enjoy sharing their hobby with visitors.
“The children are usually quite happy to hold the birds,” said Bondy — although adults are a bit more nervous.
A large pigeon named Archie rules the roost, strutting more aggressively than the other males, but even Archie lowers his head protectively when his soft feathers are petted.
Bondy believes all creatures have a purpose. And he hopes his birds will inspire people “to take a closer look at all the things around you” that most of us take for granted.