Carrier pigeons still bring messages on the wing.
By Erin Kedzie
Were I to receive a message by carrier pigeon, I imagine it would find me on the balcony. Twilight would settle, and the bird would be a speck against the clouds until — plunk! — he would alight in a puff of feathers and extend his note-carrying leg to me. Such are my fancies.
It’s no surprise that we have such romantic associations with the carrier pigeon, but their messages have carried dread as well.
Consider Peter Winn’s blackmail notes in Jack London’s The Night-Born or the news of battle from history’s greatest warriors, like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne and Genghis Khan.
Texas has its own unique history of fanciers and their carrier pigeons, and the tradition unfurls itself into the present day.
First, some basics.
Carrier pigeons are a variety of the species that enjoys your bread crust offerings on city streets. Rock pigeons (Columba livia) are the talkative residents of cities across North America. Carrier pigeons have the extra tagline domestica, and they are specifically bred to be airborne mail carriers. These birds are sometimes referred to as “homing” pigeons because of a special instinct: a knack for returning again and again to their keeper and home.
A carrier pigeon keeper is known as a fancier. One meaning of the term refers to someone who breeds to a standard of excellence. Another refers to a person who “fancies” his or her hobby, skill or pet object. Put it all together and a pigeon fancier is a sportsman/devotee hybrid who raises the bird for sport — or to maintain the tradition of sending messages via domestica.
Here in Texas, homing pigeons are noted for carrying a specific kind of message — the military variety.
Carrier pigeons are sometimes linked with the symbolic dove of peace, but they also made their way into the wreckage of World War I. They found a home amid the airplane hangars and marching men of Call Field (in Wichita County, up near the Oklahoma border), one of 32 U.S. Army Air Corps training camps set up in 1918. The property was equipped with a row of lofts to house the special bird. Wartime pigeons proved invaluable by delivering military messages with a 95 percent success rate, largely due to their ability to sense magnetic fields and ultralow sound frequencies to find their way back home.
That same year, the birds excelled in certain military experiments at Fort Sam Houston. They could be released from both planes and balloons and reach their destinations unimpeded. This meant that calls for assistance could be made in a jiffy; pilots could dispatch a message close to its destination and continue onward in flight. After these discoveries, pigeons were sent out from the fort to all aviation fields across Texas.
As a faithful steward of wartime updates, the San Antonio Express-News informed the public of the state’s use of carrier pigeons and joined in on the craze a couple of decades later. During the World War II era, in 1938, the newspaper acquired a flock of pigeons and used them to carry sports photos from photojournalists to their publishers. Unlike the WWI military correspondence, these deliveries were a lighthearted contrast to the ongoing news of World War II.
There’s also at least one report from the ’30s of our robust South Texas oilmen incorporating domestica in their drilling operations. If they were a hundred miles from the nearest city and several miles from the nearest telephone, it could be a trial to deliver those daily drilling reports. Rather than make the trip personally, they utilized their pigeon-raising hobby. In the span of a couple of hours, a pigeon could deliver the report and return again, saving the busy oilman valuable time in the field.
Skip ahead to the fanciers of today.
Michael Bencal says his PigeonGram message service is a throwback to the past. His homing pigeons carry messages through the air just as their predecessorsdid, most notably during times of war.
Meet Michael Bencal, keeper of the PigeonGram lofts in Hallettsville. PigeonGram is a bona fide pigeon mail delivery service, complete with flat rate and priority mail options. A pigeon will carry your message over yawning stretches of rural Texas before the post office takes over to deliver it to the final destination.
“You’ve got both old and new technologies paired together,” Bencal says. “It’s a combination of two opposing ideas.”
Bencal has looked after his own lofts since 1967, when he and his father began to house their own flock. For him, it’s been 48 years of hard work and reward, but PigeonGram was a natural outgrowth.
“They seem to understand the map of the earth and plot their courses,” he says. “I thought it was just a natural extension of having pigeons. Why not bring pigeon mail to current times?”
The PigeonGram loft looks like one elongated green house. The eaves hang low, and there are numerous spaces for the birds to fly in and roost. Though lofts can vary aesthetically and in size, their primary function is the same — to be “home” on the pigeons’ homing radar, where they can nest, feed and recover from their trips.
There are breeding standards for those who pursue the hobby. Fanciers register their pigeons in a variety of national pigeon organizations and then in smaller clubs throughout the country. Each bird is given a numbered band so it can be traced back to its keepers if lost.
Bands include letters and numbers that indicate any national registration, the year of registration and any smaller club participation, as well as additional digits unique to the pigeon and its club.
National organizations, like the American Racing Pigeon Union and the National Pigeon Association, act as town squares through which members can build community, share their interests and find other fanciers. Not all members even own lofts — but they have a united avian interest.
With about eight clubs in cities from Amarillo to Elmendorf, many Texas fanciers are involved. They join the ranks of fanciers Texas has known since the 1930s and earlier.
The joining ligament? A desire to diminish distance.
The Army boys of Call Field stayed on task with the Army boys of Fort Sam Houston, and 1930s reporters lent a sense of relief and togetherness to sports fans. People spread across a vast state had a way to reach each other in a personal way.
This means that Bencal is similar to the oilmen of 80 years ago. Both are equipped with a sense of nostalgia and forward thinking that can unite people. Past meets present, and a little bird helps seal the gap.
“It’s not instantaneous like the Internet or a phone call,” Bencal says. “It’s an actual correspondence from somebody who took the time to send it to you, and a lot of people value that.”