Spotted on Ocracoke: A Homing Pigeon
Text and photo by Peter Vankevich
The storm system around the beginning of October (2010) brought out a sense of the isolation of Ocracoke. The ferry system closed down for several days, electric power went off and on, and school was closed for a day. Yet, the island missed the torrential downpours that hit the mainland, and we were faced with lots of exhilarating wind and just a bit of rain (a mere few inches). Two wonderful and packed concerts took place at Deep Water Theater and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. To live on Ocracoke, you have to like interesting weather. This leads into our topic of interest this month, a beautiful and somewhat surprising visitor.
Here’s the story: On October 2, as I was riding my bike through the village, I notice Mickey Baker wielding a large fishing rod and shaking it towards the roof of her business the Mermaid’s Folly, located just across from the Community Square. As I turned to get a better a view, I saw a pure white bird on the roof. Above it on the ridge were several gulls. “What’s up? “ I asked. “The Laughing Gulls were harassing this dove that just showed up. I threw some corn up for it,” she said. Indeed, the dove seemed contented to be eating and was not at all disturbed by the rod, the gulls or us humans.
The bird in the photo appeared to me to be a homing pigeon. My curiosity was peaked. How did it get there? With a stroke of Serendipity (a word these days that is ingrained in the Outer Banks culture), the Island Free Press recently did a nice profile on Hatteras Doves, run by Liz Browning Fox, her brother Lou Browning and his wife, Linda Meyer Browning. They raise and train white homing pigeons and will release them at weddings, birthdays, funerals and other commemorative events.
So I sent them a photo of it and Liz confirmed that it is indeed a Rock Dove/homing pigeon noting the yellowish eye rings and finely feathered nares. Equally important she confirmed that it wasn’t one of theirs that may have strayed off. They band all of their birds with a Hatteras Doves insignia and each bird’s individual name such as Breeze, Cloud, Diver and Swede 16. The Ocracoke bird does is not banded.
So what are Homing pigeons? They are a variety of the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) which can be found in almost every community but Ocracoke, that have been selectively bred to find their way home over extremely long distances. Originating in the Middle East, they have been around for more than 3000 years. Also referred to as Carrier Pigeons, they have been used to transport messages rolled into small tubes and attached to their legs, a very important mode of transport over the centuries, especially during times of war. They are capable of finding their way home from distances or more than one thousand miles. A lot of experiments and research have been conducted in trying to learn how they are capable to returning to their roosts from unknown locations. Do they rely on a sense of direction (compass theory) or location (map theory) or a combination thereof? Reliance on the sun, the earth’s magnetic fields and even a hypothesis called Olfactory navigation which is an odor map that these pigeons would use by associating smells of the home loft with the directions from which they are carried by winds have been postulated. The problem with the last theory is that, unlike the Turkey Vulture, pigeons do not possess a strong sense of smell.
I once unexpectedly witnessed a release a few years ago when on a birding trip to Cape May. On a nice fall Saturday morning at a long distance I noticed a flock of white birds take to the air. Too small to be Snowy Egrets I thought. With the use of a scope, I saw a church steeple and was able to determine that they were dove/pigeons. I marveled at how they kept together, flew in a tight flock around and around then headed away. Another time I was on the Delaware Bay when I watched a single white bird flying rapidly across the water and then along the beach. That couldn’t be a rare Ivory Gull I initially thought. I managed to take a nice photo of it and determined that it was a white homing pigeon that may have somehow separated from its flock and was perhaps heading home on its own.
So how did this bird suddenly appear on Ocracoke? Very possibly the storm system with its high winds may very well be a factor. Since it is not banded, for now it is a bit of a mystery. Its sudden presence recalls one of my favorite movie endings. Robert Redford, a high stakes poker player who got caught in the political intrigue of the 1959 New Year’s Cuban revolution due to a romance with Lena Olin visits Key West a few years later. Lighting up a cigarette and looking south to Havana (the movie’s name), he launches into a soliloquy and concludes with what may equally apply to Ocracoke: You never know who may show up. Somebody blown off course. This is hurricane country.