What happened to the missing racing pigeons?
jeanniejeanniejeannie.co.uk BLOG Thursday 15th Julyday July 2021
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
What happened to the missing racing pigeons?
Thousands of British homing pigeons mysteriously disappeared during races across the country on Saturday 19 June, with as many as 250,000 released in competition that day and only a fraction arriving at their intended destination.
One race from Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, to the North East of England saw 9,000 released but only around 4,000 reach their goal, while another race between Swindon in Wiltshire and Swansea in South Wales saw thousands more vanish without trace.
“We’ve seen one of the very worst ever racing days in our history,” said pigeon fancier Richard Sayers of Sayers Bros & Son from Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, part of the East Cleveland Federation, who lost an estimated 40 per cent of his flock in the disaster.
“Most of the breeders I’m talking to are blaming the atmospheric conditions – possibly a solar storm above the clouds that created static in the atmosphere – but no one really knows.”
Homing pigeons use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate but their sense of direction can be interfered with by a geomagnetic storm.
Dene Simpson, race controller for the South West Wales Federation of pigeon fanciers, recounted his traumatic experience to The Daily Mail, explaining: “We’d let ours go from Swindon at midday on the same Saturday – that’s a 92 mile journey with the wind behind them, so it shouldn’t have taken that long.
“But, of the 1,400 that went out, only about 200 to 300 made it home. And when we looked on social media later on we saw that lots of other federations around the UK had experienced something similar.”
Like Mr Sayers, Mr Simpson suggested an unusual weather event was to blame for the disappearance of the pigeons.
“The forecast had been overcast in the morning but with good visibility – by the afternoon there were clear blue skies back home in Swansea, which is why I think something invisible to the naked eye occurred, something that messed with the birds’ internal sat nav and caused them to veer off course drastically,” he said.
“There was definitely something strange going on that day because there were hardly any wild birds in the sky at all beforehand, it was just dead up there. Personally, I’ve not ruled out a series of mini tornadoes being to blame.”
Ian Evans, CEO of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA), was also baffled, telling The Sun: “We became aware quite quickly that something very unusual was happening.”
“I have never heard of anything like this,” he said. “On the face of it, the weather conditions were good. But in the event, thousands of birds simply didn’t return.
“Something happened that disrupted their navigational abilities. We believe it may have had something to do with solar wind activity.”
While a freak weather event does appear to be the most likely explanation, Met Office spokesperson Nicola Maxey told The Times that there has been “nothing unusual” in the atmosphere to impact the birds’ behaviour.
“Looking at space weather, there has been nothing unusual that has happened in the last few weeks,” she said.
“It has all been business as usual. There has been some low-level geomagnetic activity but just fairly regular occurrences, nothing strange or extreme that we haven’t seen lots of times before.”
How many have been returned?
Since the initial story of the strange mass disappearance broke, some of the birds have put in belated reappearances.
“I’d like to think the number missing today is a lot less and it should get a lot less over the next few days,” Mr Evans told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that week.
“Pigeons are actually very clever. If they do get tired and into difficulty they’ll find another pigeon loft where they can rest up and the people there will take care of them. Then when they’re fit enough and healthy enough, they will liberate them to return home.”
The Independent has contacted the RPRA for an update on how many have come home to roost.
There have also been reports of individual birds pitching up in unexpected places and identified by the registration tags tied around their legs.
One from the Peterborough race was subsequently found in West Cork, Ireland, according to The Cambridge Times, with a woman in Clonakilty spotting it perched on her windowsill.
“We have tried to catch him but even though he is approachable he manages to thwart all our attempts,” she said.
“He is perched on our bedroom window and we have been feeding him with bird seed and water… We have already saved him from a neighbour’s cat who made a rush at it. It doesn’t appear to be streetwise where cats are concerned.”
A resident of County Mayo found another of the Peterborough birds dead in her garden.
In better news, The Sun reported another sighting in the Spanish holiday resort of Santa Ponsa, Majorca, prompting some lovely PhotoShop work from the tabloid and a “Wish Coo Were Here” headline.
The British expat who spotted it told the newspaper: “We’ve got millions of wood pigeons here and feral ones in nearby cities like Palma, so they’re easily identifiable. I had friends who used to keep pigeons.
“I know the difference. This one was a racing pigeon. It was well looked after, glossy and groomed. It was disorientated and tired.”
According to Mr Simpson, one of the birds belonging to a member of his federation has turned up in the Netherlands.
“It’s upsetting for the boys because they’ve reared these birds by hand, really looked after them,” he said.
“And, while money is the last thing on anyone’s mind at a time like this, pigeon fancying can be an expensive hobby. Losing this many birds will have cost a fortune.”
Further suspected sighting of the missing pigeons have also been reported on social media:
The RPRA, incidentally, offers advice on how to care for lost pigeons and report your discovery.
Why are we asking this now?
The story attracted widespread interest across the world last month and was reported everywhere from The Times of India to NPR in the United States, but, three weeks later, its cause remains a mystery, with some news outlets excitedly proposing a “Bermuda Triangle” lurking in the skies above the British Isles, an idea that overlooks the fact similar episodes have been reported in Belgium and Portugal.
While some birds have returned or been rescued, many are still missing and, without an explanation of its cause, the possibility remains that it could happen again, a source of likely concern to breeders.
A major weather event like the solar storm or mini tornado suggested by the fanciers would appear to be the most likely explanation but, that avenue of inquiry having been shut down by meteorologists, we are left without a clear understanding of what caused this strange occurrence, rarely heard of in a sport whose traditions date back as far as Rameses III and Ancient Egypt.
Independent reader tigger444 offered an interesting suggestion in a comment under our original story by pointing to a precedent in American science writer Arthur Firstenberg’s book The Invisible Rainbow (2017), which records the disappearance of 90 per cent of pigeons from races across the US in October 1998 and explains: “The trigger for the two weeks of sudden bird disorientation was apparently the commencement of microwave rain falling from satellites.”
Firstenberg blames the recent launch of 66 Iridium satellites by Motorola a month earlier to support its new mobile phone network and connects the phenomenon with the discovery by Canadian researchers in the late 1960s that “bird feathers make fine receiving aerials for microwaves.”
Whatever the truth, homing pigeons are too often unkindly written off by some city-dwellers as “rats with wings” but actually have a noble tradition of public service, delivering vital communications across battlelines in both World Wars, which is all the more reason to be concerned for the plight of our feathered friends now.
TOP TEN OF THE DAY
10 of the UK’s best open-top bus rides
- 100 Purbeck Breezer 50 Poole to Swanage, Dorset – Operator: Morebus
The Purbeck Breezers have great year-round open-top routes. Breezer 50 came third last year in a UK poll of scenic bus routes (beaten only by routes through the North York Moors and Scottish Highlands). Usually, the 50’s USP is crossing over to sandy Studland Bay on the chain ferry but this summer the ferry is out of action so the bus has to go the long way round. It follows a similar route to the Breezer 40 – through the time-warp town of Wareham and past the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle.
Adult dayrider £9 (up to two under-7s free with a paying adult).
Hourly all year, with seasonal variations
- 599 Bowness to Grasmere, Cumbria. Bowness on Windermere to Grasmere, Windermere, Lake District, Cumbria – Operator: Stagecoach
Of three spectacular open-top bus routes in the Lakes, the all-year 599 is the most central. It rolls from Bowness to fell-ringed Grasmere, with its gingerbread and art galleries, past a series of lakes. Running along the shores of island-dotted Windermere, Rydal Water and Grasmere, it stops near both of Wordsworth’s former houses. Dove Cottage is due to reopen in late August (for a couple of months) and, two stops before, grander Rydal Mount and Gardens is where the poet spent his last four decades – with views over woods, hills and water.
Dayrider ticket from £8.50 adult, bike 20p extra if there’s room. Combined bus and boat tickets available. Until 27 October up to every 20 minutes, winter timetable more restricted
- A1 Penzance to Land’s End, Cornwall – Operator: First Kernow
Leave Penzance station on the A1 Atlantic Coaster bus and you’re soon cruising down Western Promenade, with Mount’s Bay on the left, past palms trees, bowling greens and Newlyn’s seafront art gallery. A few stops later is the Lamorna pottery – for cream teas and ceramics in an old milk factory. The bus rolls on through woods and ancient fields dotted with burial chambers, wayside crosses and stone circles. There’s a detour to Porthcurno before it speeds westward to the gorse-cloaked granite headland at Land’s End. Near whitewashed houses and craggy views, there’s the much-photographed sign to John o’Groats, 874 miles away at the far end of the UK.
From £1.40 for a short hop single to £9 return.
Hourly, every two hours from mid-September
- Needles Breezer, Isle of Wight – Operator: Southern Vectis
This ride heads across Tennyson Down for a vertigo-inducing climb up the road from colourful Alum Bay to the Needles Battery. The Needles (three unmistakable chalk stacks with a lighthouse on the end) are directly below, and the closest views are via a National Trust tunnel through the downs. The bus takes a circular route from maritime Yarmouth, stopping at classic landmarks including thatched St Agnes church and the Dimbola gallery, a museum in the house where Victorian photographer Julia Cameron lived and Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a regular guest.
Adult single £5, day ticket for all Isle of Wight buses £10 (the island Wight has several great buses and the Downs Breezer is also open-topped).
9 March until 3 November, every 30 minutes in summer, hourly from September
- Bridlington Beachcomber to Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire – Operator: East Yorkshire
The Bridlington Beachcomber heads north along the coast to the chalk cliffs at Flamborough, with their old lighthouses and huge seabird colonies. From Brid’s sweet factory and animal park (discounts with your bus ticket), beside the beaches and up on to the headland, there are dramatic shifts of scene. On the way, the Beachcomber stops outside Sewerby Hall, a Georgian mansion with a zoo and 50 flowery acres of garden.
Single £2.50, day ticket £4.50. Bridlington service: every two hours until 1 September. There is also a Scarborough Beachcomber that runs at least every half an hour between North and South bays until November
- Llangollen to Pontcysyllte, Clwyd – Operator: Routemaster4Hire
Two hour-long summer tours leave riverside Llangollen on open-toppers: head up into the wild hills of north Wales to a cafe near the Horseshoe Pass, or along the valley to Britain’s longest, highest aqueduct: the Unesco-listed Pontcysyllte. Carrying the Llangollen canal over the pretty River Dee, it was built by Thomas Telford and opened in 1805. The bus stops there for half an hour, giving those brave enough time to walk along the aqueduct’s stomach-dropping towpath, 40 metres above the wooded valley below.
Adult £8, senior/child £5, all-day ticket (for both tours) £15.
1.10pm and 3.30pm Sunday to Wednesday in August, Sundays only in September,
- Skegness Seasiders, Lincolnshire – Operator: Stagecoach
Eleven characterful, candy-coloured open-top buses ply the seafront at Skeggy each summer. There’s onboard music, linked discounts at local attractions, and the buses are painted to match their names (Rocky is striped like a stick of rock; Sandy sports sandcastles). Collect badges on board six different buses and claim a Seasider goody bag from the travel office. The 20-minute route passes Fantasy Island theme park, with its rollercoasters, and the first-ever Butlin’s resort, still going strong after more than 80 years.
Adult dayrider £4.50 , children £1 with a paying adult.
Easter to the end of October; up to every 10 minutes until 1 September, then less frequent; runs in winter, but isn’t open-top
- Whitby Town Tour, North Yorkshire – Operator: Coastal and Country Coaches
This hour-long sightseeing tour heads over the River Esk on to the cliffs to visit the ruined abbey, with its new £1.6m visitor centre and interactive Ammonite Quest attraction. The bus starts near the arch of replica whalebone and the bronze statue of Captain Cook, overlooking the harbour, and runs west along the clifftop North Terrace before turning inland towards Whitby’s museum and art gallery in sloping Pannett Park. BBC North West’s John Mundy voices the weekday commentary; at weekend, live guides to tell visitors about the Bram Stoker and Lewis Carroll connections and other local stories.
Day ticket £7, local singles from £1.
Hourly most days until 3 November, more in summer
- 69 Thanet open-top, Kent – Operator: Stagecoach
Ramsgate boasts elegant terraced gardens and restaurants by the harbour (as well as Britain’s biggest Wetherspoon’s, in an Edwardian seafront pavilion). Thanet’s open-topper runs to Dickensian Broadstairs from near gothic St Augustine’s Church in Ramsgate, built by Augustus Pugin, who lived next door and was buried there. The bus goes on past a maritime museum in a quayside Clock Tower, a big network of wartime tunnels, and the house in Broadstairs (now a museum) that inspired Betsey Trotwood’s cottage in David Copperfield, not far from the real Bleak House.
Single £2, day ticket £4.50.
Hourly every day in school holidays, then weekends to the end of September
- 1 Weston-super-Mare to Sand Bay, Somerset Operator: First
This 20-minute jaunt along the coast in a half-open-top bus starts on Weston’s Royal Parade, looking over the sands towards the rebuilt pier. It trundles along the seafront past the new stone arch and, soon after, there are top-deck views across the Bristol Channel towards Glamorgan. From the last stop, stroll on beside the bay to Sand Point, a grassy promontory with salt-swept summer flowers and rising skylarks. Somerset’s other open-topped coaster, route 20, heads south from Weston to flat, popular and sandy Burnham-on-Sea.
Single £2, day ticket £3.70 (bus 1 only).
Every 30 minutes, hourly on Sundays and in wint
DON’T FORGET TO LAUGH EVERYDAY
INSPIRATIONAL QUOTE FOR THE DAY
“Find a voice in a whisper.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Happiness is…A ride on a coastal open top bus.
GRANDAD’S ONE LINER JOKE OF THE DAY
A priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar and the bartender says to them, “what is this… a joke?”
Love is…fantastic, amazing, wonderful!
A time to ride the A1 Penzance to Land’s End, Cornwall open topper…A time to ride the Whitby Town Tour, North Yorkshire open topper
1948 Alcoholic Anonymous founded in Britain.
1953 John Christie who was responsible for the deaths of at least six women is hanged in London.
1958 Julia Lennon is killed by a drunk driver
BOOK OF THE DAY
Click the picture to read more.
RETRO HIT RECORD RAMBLINGS
Reflections of a Top Hit Record
Top most influential UK bands and solo artists
Click the picture to read more.
©2021 Phil M Robinson