Flights of Fancy
written by Roger Brunt
Founder of Salt Spring Island's "The North American School of Outdoor Writing"
It is no exaggeration to state that Timothy Hume is a man with a mission. In fact, he admits that about himself quite readily. It would also be accurate to state that Timothy Hume is a man with passion, and that pigeon is pigeons—Rock Doves, Racing pigeons, Homing pigeons, Carrier pigeons, Tumblers, Rollers, Egyptian Swifts, Frill Breasted pigeons, Pacific Kites, Thief Pouters-- you name the breed, he loves them all.
Like almost everyone with a passion, Timothy’s began when he was a quite young, just eight years old. “My parents had given me a three-speed bike for my eighth birthday,” recalls Timothy. “There was a kid down the road who wanted it, and he said he had something he would trade for it—something very special. I could hardly wait for him to show me this ‘treasure chest’ of his, or whatever it was going to be. When he finally brought out a pigeon and placed it in my hands, something happened, some sort of deep spiritual connection occurred. I just knew this was my destiny. I looked into that bird’s eye and could envision its journeys of hundreds of miles with the landscape falling away beneath its flashing wings. Somehow, it was almost like that bird and I were one.”
Timothy’s mother and father weren’t quite so enthused when he came home and told them he had swapped his brand new three-speed for one lone pigeon, “…but they were understanding,” smiles Timothy.
There was a family connection with pigeons, and perhaps his parents recognized that this passion that seemed to be lodged in their son’s very bones was come by honestly. Timothy’s Dad’s Grandfather had raised pigeons, supplying Carrier pigeons to the King of England for use in both World Wars. The birds were extremely important in relaying messages that could not be intercepted electronically, and, in spite of all our modern technology, pigeons are still used in many countries today. Timothy told me that in France there are still lots of Carrier pigeons in use. In Switzerland, the Swiss Homing Pigeon Society took over the birds from the Swiss military in only 1997. In New Zealand, there is a group of spelunkers (cave explorers) that uses Carrier pigeons to fly exposed film (nowadays mainly picture cards from digital cameras) from remote areas back to base camp. The same is true of a river-rafting company in the western US that uses Carrier pigeons to fly film from the deep canyons of the Colorado rivers they explore back to their headquarters.
The use of pigeons is not only for military and commercial purposes. In New Zealand there is also a Pigeon Postal Service from the Barrier Islands to Auckland, and Carrier pigeons fly blood samples from an island off the coast of France to a mainland laboratory for processing. Not many people know that the Reuters News Service began with Carrier pigeons in Germany.
But back to Timothy, and his great love for these remarkable birds. Once he had one bird, it’s no surprise that he went looking for more. “We were living in the Penticton, in the Okanagan, at the time, and I teamed up with two kids I’d met while sweeping out boxcars to get grain for pigeon feed. They were also raising pigeons, and we’d go on ‘pigeon hunts’ together. We’d head out at night with flashlights, scouring old barns and abandoned outbuildings wherever wild birds could be found. At night, hanging from the girders below highway bridges, sometimes it got pretty hairy.”
Within a matter of months Timothy was raising his own birds. “At first, my Dovecote was an old apple box nailed to the outside of my windowsill. I was breeding birds in my bedroom; at night they’d roost on the footboard of my bed.”
Timothy has come a very long way since those early years. Today, his pigeon loft towers above Dovecote Gallery just off Beddis Road where Timothy lives with partner Amarah Gabriel. His Dovecote is an architectural marvel, home to more than 100 birds of various species and colors. Amarah told me Timothy submitted photos of his Dovecote to a pigeon-fanciers’ website and it was ranked second in the world. As well, his Dovecote has garnered more positive comments than any other on the site. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve been looking at pictures of Dovecotes in books and magazines,” says Tim. “I always wanted the best Dovecote I could build. I know that pigeons don’t need a palace,” he adds with a smile; “the palace is for me.” Tim is especially proud of the fact that all the timber for his Dovecote was milled from trees cut right on the property. “Even the sand for the foundation came from here.”
I must admit, the first time I saw Dovecote Gallery I was puzzled. I was with a group touring various artists’ studios and I wondered why, along with all the paintings you’d expect to find in a gallery of fine art, anyone would create so many large paintings of pigeons in such exacting detail, and each with an unusually intimate focus to them. But just as we were leaving the property, someone pointed into the sky and shouted, “Look at all the pigeons!” and suddenly I had one of those “light-bulb-moments as 30-or-more birds wheeled and turned against the sun. At that moment, it dawned on me that, of the three floors of the gallery, the top two were in fact a beautifully crafted pigeon loft—in fact, the first real Dovecote I had ever seen.
One of the first questions I asked Timothy was why he paints the birds in such exacting detail and in such an intimate way. As it turned out, the answer is two-fold.
First, Timothy showed me his downstairs workshop where a nearly completed painting of a beautiful pigeon rested on his easel. It was an exquisitely detailed profile of the bird that won this year’s Upper Canada National Pigeon Championships that Timothy had been commissioned to paint by the event organizers.
The other painting Tim showed me was a large four-foot by four-foot canvas more like those I had seen in the gallery. It again showed a pigeon, but this one was tenderly cupped in a pair of hands. “For me,” Timothy told me, “it’s all about the feeling for the birds that comes through my hands.” To me, it seemed like this was the exact same feeling Timothy experienced when he was eight years old, and he’s been re-capturing it on canvas ever since.
Aside from the paintings in the workshop, several of Timothy’s beautiful bird carvings rested on a windowsill. “Besides being an extremely knowledgeable pigeon fancier and excellent artist,” Amarah told me, “Timothy is also a sculptor of some renown. The Queen of England has one of Timothy’s sculptures,” she said and I had the feeling that if she had not mentioned it, neither would have Timothy, a man of many talents, and considerable modesty.
The last thing Timothy showed me in his workshop before we headed over to the Dovecote was a case filled with the actual containers that Carrier pigeons take with them when they fly. There were small fire-cracker-sized leg capsules just large enough to hold a rolled-up message, and there were also larger containers (big enough to hold a vile of blood) complete with harnesses that attached to a pigeon’s chest.
And finally (and, to me, most fascinating of all) there were inch-long “flutes” from China and Indonesia (some capable of playing two and three notes at once) that are attached to the base of a pigeons’ tail feathers so that a “flight” or “team” of birds (also called a “kit”) becomes not only a visual extravaganza, but an acoustic one as well. Later, when Timothy flew 30-or-so of his birds for me, four were fitted with tail flutes. As the birds wheeled and dipped in ever-widening circles high above us, the whistling of the variously toned flutes intermingled with the rush of the wind through the bird’s wings. I have never had anything to do with pigeons before but, none-the-less, the sight and sound brought a tightness to my chest as if I was standing on some far Tibetan cliff-top with just the ringing of the mountains in my ears. Timothy believes the flutes evolved from the “whistling arrows” used in ancient times to terrify enemy soldiers—whatever their history, the sound they produce is unforgettable and deeply moving.
But all this detail is just background to what raising pigeons is really all about—flying them. I didn’t realize that pigeons live in their Dovecote most of the time, and are only released when their owner wants to “fly” them. I thought they lived more like free-range chickens that, if you think about it, are “homing birds” too. Chickens are free to come and go, but they know where they live and come “home” to feed and sleep every night.
But pigeons are not kept like that, in part because if they were just turned out they would begin to forage and it’s unlikely neighbours would appreciate up to 100-or-more pigeons foraging in their gardens. Another reason they are not just turned-out on their own is that the predation rate by hawks is very high. Even as careful as Timothy is, in an average year he losses around 25 per cent of his birds to hawks; in an especially bad year losses can be as high as 50 per cent. When a pair of peregrine falcons sets up housekeeping in the neighborhood and are feeding their young, they can easily take two or three pigeons each day.
The “flying” of pigeons is a sight to behold. The birds are turned out not just in haphazard flocks at the keeper’s whim, the flights are often choreographed as carefully as an opening-night-performance of Riverdance. Birds may be selected for colour and species and speed and style of flight. Twenty dark birds may be selected, with five white ones added in to create a contrast, or 20 whites and 20 darks and 20 gold, much the way an artist lays down colours to create drama on a canvas. Pigeons can fly at 50 to 60 miles per hour. Some, known as Wind Flyers, can reach speeds of 100 miles per hour when they use vortexes created where the wind funnels between trees or over rocks and cliffs. “Teams” of birds are often flown together that exhibit different flying patterns and characteristics. One flock may be circling higher and higher, another may be flying evasive maneuvers through the trees, yet another may be rolling and tumbling as they pitch towards the ground. In olden times, Timothy told me, the Emperor of China would fly 1000-or-more birds all at one time, all choreographed for colour, speed, and flight-style, much the same way the Chinese fly ornamental kites in competition. What a sight that must have been; 1000 birds-or-more with tail flutes keening in the wind as they circled high above the palace, their dark silhouettes etched against the blue sky like notes of music upon a pristine parchment.
In India, bells are attached to Rollers and Tumblers, pigeons that are champion acrobatic flyers. The sound of the bells tinkling every time the birds turn over is like a waterfall, a veritable celestial symphony.
The complexity of the choreography of flying pigeons is amazing. Breeders can even take advantage of pigeons’ relationship with air-born predators, and here on Salt Spring there is no shortage of them. Peregrine falcons, Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, Red-tailed hawks, Merlins, and even ravens all love to eat pigeons, and each has a hunting style of its own. Sharp-shinned hawks are stealth hunters. They will crouch in the shadows near the Dovecote. When the pigeons land to doze in the sun, they swoop in, killing with one quick blow. Likewise, the peregrines kill by striking their prey, but this takes place mid-air. Falcons are the fastest bird in the world, attaining speeds of 200 miles per hours as they rip through the sky like a bullet. When they collide with a pigeon, it’s all over in a quick puff of feathers.
Even in the Dovecote, the birds are not entirely safe. Timothy has seen a determined hawk fly right inside and take a bird off its perch. As well, he must keep a constant watch to make sure the coop is safely buttoned-up against ground-dwelling predators—mink, raccoons and cats. A single mink once got into the Dovecote killing 28 adult birds, and all the young of those birds froze to death; the total loss was 59. This represented not only a cumulative loss of years of training time, but a considerable financial loss as well. Tim told me it costs $25 to $30 to “get a bird” in the air; champions and top breeders can be worth several hundred dollars each.
But even the pigeons’ responses to predators can be incorporated into the flights of the birds. If Timothy knows there are hawks around, he releases his “Falcon Team” of older, experienced birds that are very strong flyers that hawks can’t catch. If pigeons can stay above a hawk, they are safe, he says, and his Falcon Team knows this. When a flight of birds is released that flies very high, regardless of predators in the sky, other birds can be released that believe there must be predators present because of the high-flying flock. This allows the pigeon master to choreograph separate flights of birds at the same time. They might be the Falcon Team and the Treetop Team, in whites and darks and golds, but there is one thing for sure, they are spectacular.
As well as raising and breeding various types of pigeons, Timothy is creating two breeds of his own. The first he has named Pacific Frill Breast. They are pure white birds, unique in that they have a line of criss-cross feathers down the centre of their breast. He’s also developing a breed he calls Pacific Kites, because they like to glide as they fly, something unusual in pigeons.
When I thanked Timothy for all the time he spent with me he said he enjoyed it. “I’m the only pigeon guy on the Island and I don’t get a chance to talk pigeons that often,” he said. In fact, I’m on a mission to get more people on Salt Spring involved in raising the birds. When I’m on my own it is very hard to breed all the various lines of birds. Both time and space constraints come into play—there’s just so much one person can do. It would be wonderful if more people got involved in this ancient past time.
If you are interested in learning more about raising pigeons, Timothy and Amarah can be reached at 250-537:0051. Tim’s e-mail # is firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger M. Brunt, First North American Serial Rights
Mid Island Racing Pigeon Association
Duncan , BC V9L 2M5