The flight of the pigeon, in the care of a Swan
● By J. Chambless
Tom Swan of Landenberg has been caring for and racing homing pigeons for 60 years. (Photo by Richard Gaw)
By Richard L. Gaw
By his estimate, Tom Swan of Landenberg
currently owns between 140 and 150 flying computers – geniuses with
the power of flight – who continue to defy common stereotype with
breathtaking feats of extraordinary intelligence.
There is no marker at the entrance to Swan's home on Appleton Road that announces that he is a caretaker of racing pigeons, a passion he has cultivated since he was a child growing up on the farm his father Richard once owned next door. Indeed, the only evidence of his near life-long hobby is one that is mostly heard, in the occasional frantic flaps and pleasant cooing of his pigeons, that live in three coops beside his home.
In most American cities, pigeons are defined by residents to be “rats with wings,” a flying and polluting nuisance that owns a troublesome and never-ending presence that's become as familiar in city life as traffic and crowds. In truth, however what these city dwellers don't know about these birds could fill books: pigeons have the mental capacity to remember images and retain information for several years; that they can disseminate between different stimuli; that they can be taught – and have the ability to use – complex actions and response sequences; and, most of all, that they are gifted with a sensory power so advanced that they can find their way home from hundreds of miles away.
Swan is quick to point out an antique he owns – a homing pigeon messenger kit used by the American armed forces in World War II that enabled officers to transport messages tied to the legs of pigeons that contained crucial information.
“A lot of universities have done studies in order to determine theories of intelligence in pigeons, but I don't think they've reached a 100-percent conclusion,” Swan said. “They have found that pigeons have something that is located in their eyes that is sensitive to the gravitational pull of the Earth. When they are released for flight, they usually circle for a few minutes in order to get their bearings, and in those moments, they develop a sense of which direction they need to go in order to get home.”
There is usually a moment in a life, or a connected series of them, that helps to form what eventually becomes an interest, and if it is attended to for a long time, it slips into a deeper place where happiness meets curiosity.
For Swan, his 60-year love affair with caring for racing pigeons began in 1958 when he was 8 years old, when he and his brother Ken would catch and release random pigeons that would fly into their father's barn.
At first Swan, with the help of his father, converted a chicken house into a pigeon coop where he could care for his birds. Soon, he and his father joined the Newark Homing Club, where Swan is currently the President. His father maintained an interest until Swan was old enough to drive and transport the birds for training on his own.
Sixty years later, Swan and the many generations of pigeons he has cared for and trained, have never stopped. It's a life's fascination, Swan believes, that begins with the endurance of the bird itself.
“Up to 300 miles, the birds fly straight through,” he said. “If it's not excessively hot, they may fly for 600 straight miles. Sometimes the birds will come home with a little mud on their feet, so I know that they stopped somewhere to get water, but mostly, they'll fly until the last bit of sunlight, then spend the night on top of a building or a church, and then return home the next day.”
Pigeon racing, described as a “sport with a single starting gate and a thousand finish lines,” is a competitive activity that measures the flying time of a bird over a specified distance that is compared to other pigeons in a race. On a calm day and with the aid of a tail wind, pigeons can fly at speeds averaging 45 miles per hour, and as fast as 75 miles per hour.
Although its history can be traced to 220 A.D., modern pigeon racing originated in Belgium in the mid 1800s, and was introduced in the U.S. in the 1870s, where it reached its height of popularity in the 20th Century, particularly in the new York City area, where races were regularly held in Hoboken, New Jersey and Coney Island. The sport is still popular today; according to the American Racing Pigeon Union, there are 15,000 registered lofts in the U.S., and hundreds of pigeon racing clubs.
The pigeon has also figured prominently throughout history. News of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo first reached the world financial markets via homing pigeon, and Paul Reuter, founder of Reuter's News Service, first established his business by using homing pigeons to deliver financial news.
Before Swan enters a competition, he chooses which birds he would like to enter into the race. From his home, they are transported to the Newark Homing Pigeon Club, and then transported to the race, known as the “liberation point.”
In order to compete in a race, a pigeon must be equipped with a permanent, unique numbered ring or band that is placed on its leg at about seven days old. An electronic clocking system uses the birds' identification to record their arrival time by use of a tiny chip which can be read when the bird arrives home.
Race distances vary greatly, but Swan said that typically, the races held in the fall are for that year's newborn pigeons range from 100 miles to 350 miles. All-age birds race in the spring, at distances between 100 miles and 600 miles.
Over the years, he has entered dozens of competitions, and in some, he's done very well. In 1998, he won the Northeast Union Race, which began at Somerset, Pa.
“It was the largest race in terms of participation in U.S. history,” said Swan, who was a financial consultant for DuPont for 24 years, until he retired 20 years ago. “There were 715 participants from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, who entered 9,119 birds into the competition. We knew the weather conditions and wind would be favorable to racers in this area, but it was two weeks before we found out the overall results of the race.”
Swan later turned down an offer of $2,000 for the winning bird from a fancier in Taiwan.
When Swan goes on vacation with his wife, his two sons and daughter and their families, he'll rely on a local pigeon flier to tend to his birds, but for the most part, owning, caring for and racing pigeons is a solitary pursuit, he said. There is no timeline length for how long he intends to keep going, but so far, neither of his children seem interested in someday taking over their father's passion.
“Typically, if there is no one who has an interest, the club where a member belongs to will usually organize and auction of the birds to other fliers, and the proceeds go back to the family,” Swan said.
For now, however, the passion shows no sign of stopping. On a recent morning, Jim Kirwin, a fellow pigeon flier in nearby Kemblesville brought 54 of his birds to Swan's house at 7:30. Minutes after, Swan drove the birds – as well as 58 of his own – to a spot 30 miles away, in order to help the pigeons condition for an upcoming competition.
Ninety minutes later, as he was pulling into his driveway, Swan looked up from his vehicle. There they were, the little computers in the sky above him, circling and coming home.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.