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After Tens of Thousands of Pigeons Vanish, One Comes Back

At first the whole thing seemed preposterous. No way this could happen. Tom Roden, 66 at the time, was standing at the door of his home near Manchester, England. “I was just setting out on a walk with my dog when I saw him,” he told a reporter. “I recognized him straight away because of his white tail feathers.”

It was a pigeon. His pigeon. It had been missing for five years. Suddenly it was back. Why? And where were the tens of thousands of pigeons that vanished with him?

Picture of homing pigeons being released for a race
Photograph by the Asahi Shimbun via Getty

It had a name: Champion Whitetail. In 1997, Roden had sent Whitetail and a bunch of other racing birds to France, 430 miles south, to compete in the Royal Pigeon Association’s centenary cross-Channel competition, a major long-distance pigeon race with cash prizes that attracted 60,000 bird entries. The contestants, quietly cooing, were brought to a field near Nantes and released at 6:30 in the morning—that was the race’s motto: “At dawn we go.”

Picture of the logo of the Central Southern Classic Flying Club with a pigeon flying through a sunrise

At the signal the birds took flight and, following a deep pigeon instinct, dashed at speeds as high as 50 miles an hour straight back toward their roosts, or “lofts,” all across England. This is something pigeons do. It’s called a homing instinct, and even though many of these animals had never been to France before, didn’t recognize the land below them, and had to cross a wide channel of ocean water before finding the house or roof or backyard from which they came, normally most of these racers would have find their way home.

Whitetail was expected to arrive early, because he was a champion. He’d already won 13 races in his lifetime, had flown across the English Channel 15 times, and had finished the Central Southern Classic from Lessay in northern France against a field of 3,026 birds with the winning time. He was a bird to watch.

So on Sunday, June 29, 1997, Roden was doing just that—waiting at home and watching for Whitetail, who could be expected to land at, well, Roden was hoping for a 2 p.m. or so arrival. Maybe earlier. He waited. And waited.

But Whitetail didn’t show.

A few of Roden’s birds did arrive later that day—but not Whitetail. The same thing was happening all over England. Tens of thousands of birds belonging to hundreds of English pigeon racers never made it home. They simply disappeared. There’d been no storm on the Channel, no ferocious headwinds, no giant gusts, nothing that would explain why so many birds would suddenly vanish. Where did they go?

The newspapers dubbed this “The Great Pigeon Race Disaster.” And for the next five years nobody could say what happened until Roden, standing at his front door, saw Whitetail calmly land right there in front of him. Could it be, he wondered? So he went and checked the ring attached to one of the pigeon’s legs, “and his ring number confirmed I was right.”

Picture of pigeon fancier Tom Roden holding his pigeon, Champion Whitetail, who disappeared during a race and was missing for five years
Photograph by PA, TopFoto, The Image Works

Whitetail was back. “I was absolutely amazed,” Roden told the Manchester papers. “He must have a phenomenal memory to recognize his way home after all this time.” For a 16-year-old pigeon, he looked spry and healthy. Pigeons tell no tales, of course, but his reappearance meant whatever it was that pushed tens of thousands of pigeons off course hadn’t killed them all. More than a few scientists were curious.

When they checked, not only was the weather on that day in 1997 largely clear—with no sudden changes in barometric pressure, no unusual fogs, no interference in the magnetic field (which pigeons use to navigate)—but nothing obvious seemed amiss.

That’s when a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, John Hagstrum, had an idea. What if birds navigate by hearing sounds we humans can’t? Earlier experiments had shown that pigeons can hear tones 11 octaves below middle C—that’s way, way below our human range. What might they be hearing?

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Here’s a hint: Jennifer Ackerman, in her new book The Genius of Birds, describes another bird mystery. This one took place in eastern Tennessee.

It was April 2014, and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, were testing whether a population of tiny golden-winged warblers … could carry geolocators on their backs. The birds had arrived only in the past day or two after a 3,000-mile journey north from their wintering grounds in Columbia. The team had just attached the gizmos to the tiny warblers when all the birds suddenly flew the coop, spontaneously evacuating their nesting grounds.

Where’d they go? Why would so many birds all scatter at the same time? Ackerman says that later scientists learned [H.M. Streby et al, “Tornadic storm avoidance behavior in breeding songbirds,” Curr Biol (2014) doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.079.] that a gigantic spring storm, a supercell, was heading toward Tennessee at that very moment—one that “would spawn eighty-four tornadoes and kill thirty-five people.” When it was still 250 to 500 miles away, the warblers seemed to hear it coming—the deep rumble of storm reached them, and so the birds scattered, flying every which way, even as far as Cuba. When the storm passed, they all returned and began to breed.

Can birds hear subtle changes wafting long distance through the air? John Hagstrum thinks they can. Not just warblers, but, in our case, pigeons may be able to sense soft, low background noises—the sounds of swells in the ocean, the swishswash of waves, changes in air pressure—and can read those sounds as they bounce, wavelike, off hillsides, cliffs and other steep terrain. “Similar to the way we see a landscape,” Hagstrum told Ackerman, “I think birds are hearing it.” These low, low natural sounds are carried on “infrasound waves.” Those waves exist. That we know. They may help birds read the map below them and teach them how to find their way home.

Thinking about the Great Pigeon Race Disaster, Hagstrum noted that our 60,000 pigeons were heading north from Nantes in France at speeds varying from 20 to 50 miles per hour. The fastest birds, he figures, might have reached the Channel Crossing on or about 11 a.m. that day as they headed to their various homes in England.

Drawing of the map of a homing pigeon race route from France to England
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Could something have interfered with their ability to “hear” and “read” the terrain below? Something unexpected? Violent? Different?

Hagstrum cast about and noticed that on the day of the race, the fastest commercial airliner in the world, a Concorde supersonic transport (SST) just happened—at 11:20 to 11:30 that morning—to be flying across the birds’ flight path along the English Channel. The Concorde SST in its day was an impressive piece of engineering. It flew so high that passengers could look out the window and see the sky above darkening, glimpsing the edge of space. It traveled at twice the speed of sound (1,354 miles per hour) and so could make the trip from Paris to New York in just three and a half hours. It was also beautiful …

Picture of the Concorde Supersonic Transport
Photograph by Travel Pictures, Alamy

… but a Concorde in flight leaves its mark—in sound. As the plane gathered speed once it broke the sound barrier at 750 miles per hour, it would have created a shock wave that would have traveled quickly and widely back toward the ground—and back toward those pigeons. The pigeons would have noticed.

Drawing of the homing pigeons race path from France to England, interrupted by the Concorde supersonic jet
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Any jet moving through the air faster than the speed of sound creates a shock, laying down, says Hagstrum, “a sonic boom carpet” almost a hundred miles wide that would certainly have, as Ackerman writes, obliterated “the pigeons’ navigational, acoustic map, completely disorienting them.”

If Hagstrum’s idea proves true, we can imagine what happened on that day. The birds took off, heading north toward England. The Concorde took off, heading west toward America. When the birds and plane crossed paths, the sonic boom trailing off the Concorde so discombobulated the pigeons that, like the Tennessee warblers, they scattered in every direction, flying east, west, north, and maybe even south again, back to Nantes.

Which brings us back to Whitetail. We now know where our champion pigeon spent at least the beginning of his missing five years.

To Monsieur Tom, ‘Interested in Pigeons’

A few weeks after Whitetail’s return, a letter arrived at Roden’s house, addressed to “Monsieur Tom Roden, Interested in Pigeons, Hattersley, England.” It came from Jean Bouchard, resident of Nantes, who wrote that sometime on the day of the cross-Channel race in 1997, he walked into his small garden and found, sitting there, exhausted, a pigeon.

The pigeon had a ring with a number on it. Bouchard wrote down the number and decided to keep the bird for a while, until it “built up its strength.” He built him a birdcage “to protect him from neighbour’s cats” and then, several weeks later, took him to the local natural history museum, where he presumes the pigeon was released.

When, years later, Whitetail’s return to Manchester hit the Internet, Bouchard saw the story, compared ring numbers, and wrote Roden: I’m the guy who found your champion. Your bird was my bird.

Detail of Photograph by Photograph by PA, TopFoto, The Image Works
Detail of Photograph by Photograph by PA, TopFoto, The Image Works

Which leaves me wondering: How come this pigeon, which had outpaced thousands of competitors and crossed the Channel 15 times without a hitch, ended up dazed and exhausted a few miles from the start of his race? Had he gotten sick? Or had he gone hundreds of miles north, hit a shock wave, lost his bearings, reversed direction, and ended back where he started?

We can’t ask him. Even if pigeons could talk, Whitetail was 16 when he returned to England. That’s extremely old for a homing pigeon, even a domesticated one. I imagine Whitetail is beyond talk now. Concordes aren’t flying any more. Tens of thousands of pigeons remain missing. Were they sonic-boomed? Maybe. Where did they go? Nobody really knows, but closing my eyes, here’s what I see …

… An old pair of pigeons, long past their racing days, are hobbling along a busy Polish sidewalk. They have a strange fondness for fish and chips, and when I listen very closely (at 11 octaves below middle C), I sometimes catch them humming snatches from “God Save the Queen.” They seem a little confused.

But that’s just me.

John Hagstrum’s infrasound theory has its critics. A Danish biologist, Henrik Mouritsen, wonders if birds can even hear infrasound. There’s no experiment that proves they can. For the moment, the evidence is based on correlation. Birds behave as if they hear something, but cause and effect are still untested. It’s also possible, Mouritsen thinks, that the reason those warblers left Tennessee was not because they heard wisps of a distant superstorm but because of changes in atmospheric pressure. We just don’t know. Much of what I write here can be found in Jennifer Ackerman’s wonderful new book, The Genius of Birds.

23 thoughts on “After Tens of Thousands of Pigeons Vanish, One Comes Back

  1. The scientific discovery of infra sound noted in this story is going to help us understand many other species and how they communicate. I study raccoons and I am sure they use infra sound to alert the dominant raccoon when their territory is in need of defending. Turtles I believe also use infra sound to signal for help. Baby turtles in the nest ready to hatch may signal and that is how raccoons are alerted to the nest site. They hear the baby turtles calling.

  2. Hello my life time hobby has been pigeons, I’ve raced them and kept them as pets and not once over my 59 years have I been explained how pigeons actually find their way home. I found this article very interesting and fascinating. I’ve had birds come back 12 months late but what an amazing feat for whitetail to Thank you for sharing this story and all the best of health and happiness to all
    Cheers Russell

  3. The Concorde must have benn heading West toward America, not East. That would not be beneficial for flight times, even at supersonic speed

    1. Maybe a noise in Krulwich’s neighborhood made him forget his directions just as he wrote that sentence, Lucas Appelman.

    2. Thanks so much for pointing out this error, Lucas. We’ve updated the post to reflect the accurate flight path of the Concorde.

  4. 1997 in France,
    A long distance pigeon race be
    A mysterious circumstance –
    Pigeons disappeared eerily!
    Tens of thousands of birds took flight –
    Somewhere, somehow just disappeared.
    The reason never came to light.
    Something did happen – something weird!
    Champion Whitetail was found nearby,
    On the same day as was the race,
    Sitting, too exhausted to fly,
    With no words to explain his case.

    Abducted by aliens that day,
    But Champion Whitetail did get away!

  5. It’s an interesting theory, but why didn’t most of the birds continue an hour or two later, once the plane had passed?

    A sonic boom and thunder are similar enough, and it’s not like birds didn’t evolve with thunder storms, so if every thunder storm caused birds to get lost and die by the thousands, they never would have survived as a species.

    It’s possible, perhaps even likelier than not, that the Concorde did affect these birds. But there’s a lot of questions unanswered.

    1. Yes. Thats exactly the question that remains hanging. Birds and other creatures are known to use electronagnetic fields to navigate instinctively. But such a huge time lag wouldnt seem to apply in that case. So were the thousands of pigeons never ever seen anywhere between the start and finish points, in all those years? Simply amazing and needs to be researched.

  6. Thanks for sharing your story, very interesting theory. You must have been delighted to have Whitetail back home. Regards, Asma.

  7. Stop Using Pigeons in games. This it torture and useless. Pigeons atr not meant fot that. FREE THE PIGEON FRO THESE GAMES

  8. PETA conducted a 15-month undercover investigation into some of the largest pigeon-racing operations in the U.S. PETA’s investigators documented massive casualties of birds during races and training, rampant “culling” (killing), abusive training and racing methods and illegal interstate gambling. http://www.peta.org/features/pigeon-racing-investigation/

    Since pride and profit are often the compelling factors in pigeon racing, owners have little use for birds who can’t or won’t win. One racer told PETA’s investigators that the “first thing you have to learn” in pigeon racing is “how to kill pigeons.” Another recommended killing these gentle birds by drowning them, pulling their heads off or squeezing their breasts so tightly that they suffocate.

  9. Racing pigeons is as cruel as is racing greyhounds. It’s not only Concorde booms that threaten these animals–they are at the mercy of other human interference, predators, environmental problems/weather, and so on.

  10. Whitetail is lucky to have survived. A 15-month investigation of U.S. pigeon-racing operations by PETA revealed that in many races, more than 60 percent of birds get lost or die after being forced to fly through storms, being attacked by predators, being shot by hunters, colliding with electrical lines, or succumbing to exhaustion. Being taken far from home and forced to fly Pigeons are devoted to their mates and their young. Racers often purposely separate pigeons from their families so they will be desperate to fly home. Many never make it.

  11. With so many potential dangers to these animals and so many lives lost, it is confusing to me that people who allege to care about pigeons continue to force them to race to, for many of them, their deaths.

  12. Jerry Palin, an electronics engineering researcher testing hearing on animals at Princeton University’s Audio Research Labs in 1970, told me (a racing pigeon fancier), that a pigeon’s
    hearing is very poor, nothing like a dog nor ours. Hence, I suspect the Concorde theory is
    nothing but rubbish.

  13. If you’re trying to make me feel bad for this guy who sends pigeons out to their deaths then it’s not working. Pigeon racing is cruel, period.

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