Wednesday, November 25, 2009


San Francisco Chronicle reports:

Cirrus the wonder pigeon will fly across the country early next week on his way back to his home in a suburb of Wichita, Kan. This time he'll take the plane.

His flight inside a special U.S. Postal Service mailing package will be the last chapter of a saga that took the bird from his pigeon loft in Kansas to a patio deck in Point Richmond on the shores of San Francisco Bay. His trip covered 1,700 miles and took more than four years.

Maybe he flew here, but no one knows for sure.

"It is absolutely amazing," said Olene Sparks, who discovered the pigeon on her deck on a cloudy afternoon last week.

She could tell this was no ordinary pigeon. For one thing, he was almost pure white, with a few gray marks. Most pigeons around here are muddy gray.

For another, the bird had an aura about him.

"He wouldn't leave," Sparks said. "He kept wanting to come into the house. I could see that he was a sweet bird, a nice bird."

Sparks is fond of animals, especially cats. But her cats are too timid to approach a pigeon with personality, so she brought the bird inside and took him under her wing. She knew neighbors who were fond of birds. Alma Wainscott, who has parrots and cockatoos, lent a large birdcage. Kevin McMullin knew about pigeons from his experience in rescuing a couple of orphaned pigeon chicks.

Wainscott and Sparks named the bird Cirrus.

"He came out of a cloud, and he's white," said Sparks. "So it fits."

As it turned out, Sparks was right: Cirrus is no wandering street pigeon; he is a thoroughbred and his trip West was an odyssey.

Sparks and her neighbors noticed that the wayward pigeon had a blue band on his right leg. It said WICHITA KS and had a serial number. There's no place to hide in the Internet age, even for pigeons, which can live up to 15 years. An Internet search led the pigeon detectives to the Wichita Friendly Pigeon Flyers Club. The serial number led to Chuck Miller, who works in the aircraft industry, lives in the Wichita suburb of Haysville and is a pigeon racer.

"I remembered that bird, of all the birds I have," he said in a telephone interview. He has about 100 birds, 50 racers and 50 breeders.

Miller said he bought the bird at auction for $150. He had good bloodlines - the father was a champion from the noted World of Wings loft in Oklahoma City; the mother was from pigeons owned by Leo Claussen, a noted Belgian pigeon racer.

Pigeon racing is one of the world's oldest sports, and homing pigeons, once used to carry wartime messages, can travel long distances. Miller's racing birds have flown over 500 miles in 12 hours, the time registered by computer chips attached to a leg.

"You know racing homers are like thoroughbred racehorses," Miller said. "The better the bloodlines, the better they race."

Flew the coop
Miller thought Cirrus might be a winner too - until he flew the coop.

"Well about four years ago, I guess, when I was trying to settle him"- a pigeon racing term for getting the pigeon to return to its home loft - "I let him out and sometimes, when they get outside they just go," Miller said ruefully. "He just kept going."

Nobody can say why or where the bird went. At some point, he must have realized he wasn't in Kansas anymore and lost his bearings or upset his homing instinct. It might be that the bird was picked up by another pigeon racer, taken to California and released. Or maybe he flew from loft to loft. Or maybe, he flew all the way to California, over the Midwest, over the Rockies, over the desert, over the Sierra Nevada. About 1,700 miles as the crow flies.

"Can you imagine the things he's seen?" said Miller.

The bird isn't talking. He's no stool pigeon.

Cirrus spent only a few days in Point Richmond. Sparks located Dave Canning, who belongs to the Fremont Pigeon Racing Club. Canning had space in his loft in the East Bay and took the bird in.

"He was totally exhausted, and a little sick," Canning said, "His spirit was low."

Canning gave Cirrus some medicine and put him in with a female pigeon. "He's looking good now," Canning said.

Canning had planned to ship Cirrus back to Kansas on Tuesday, a trip that takes two days by Postal Service. But the post office advised him to wait because of the Thanksgiving holiday. The post office is no place for a pigeon on turkey day.