Jon Day

Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return

“A pigeon's sense of home is local and distinct, therefore: it is a place rather than an environment. In this, they are very much like us.”

There is a small corner of Stephen Fry’s masterful retelling of Greek myths where he admits the less-well known Hestia, keeper of the hearth, is perhaps his favorite goddess.

Creating and keeping a home, in both the psychological and literal sense, has an exquisite meaning and relevance to humanity. It is from home which things emanate and to home that things return.

In Homing, Jon Day‘s (born 1984) warm yet ofttimes hesitant devotion to raising and racing pigeons, he considerately ponders this odd couple: liberation and homing.

We leave and return. Why?

Bird nest. Featured in Paul Nurse's "What is Life?" in the Examined Life Library.
Pigeon nest and eggs I found (abandoned) outside our apartment. The yolk of an egg is a single cell and the basis of life, biologist Paul Nurse reminds us in his study of life. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Pigeons are “synanthropes”: creatures that live alongside humans, thriving in environments that we create. Not tame but no longer wild, pigeons move between the familiar, the banal and the annoying (‘pests’ is the animal equivalent of ‘weed’).1

And yet pigeons are extraordinary creatures, parallel to humans in many ways. “Despite the fact that they were non-migratory” Day writes “the pull of home is for pigeons more powerful than that felt by any animal.”

Once their home loft has been imprinted on them – something that happens when they are around six weeks old – homing pigeons will return to it for the rest of their lives. Even if kept away for many years they will, once freed, often try to make their way back. Pigeons can fly thousands of miles and will cross oceans to get home. The love – if that is the right word – that pigeons feel for their homes is so acute that they will sometimes die for it. In his diary Samuel Pepys recorded that during the Great Fire of London, while people scrambled to save their lives and goods ‘the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses.’

Like so many of our adult habits, Day traces his pigeon fascination to boyhood play.

There was a period in my childhood when my friend Nick and I used to rescue feral pigeons from the streets of London. Most seemed to die fairly quickly, succumbing to one of the many medieval-sounding diseases – ‘canker’ or ‘one-eye cold’ or ‘pox’ – which we read about in the pigeon-keeping books we discovered on an overlooked shelf in the local library. But one, a bird that for some reason we christened ‘Psycho’, thrived under our ham-fisted care.

Like novelist Haruki Murakami who ruminates on his running habit in the shadow of an upcoming marathon, Day’s backdrop is a 500 mile pigeon race, the 2018 Thurso Classic “one of the longest and most prestigious races in the club calendar.”2

Illustration of wood pigeon from RSPB. Featured in Jon Day's "Homing" in the Examined Life Library. Source: © RSPB
Juvenile wood pigeon. Illustration from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) an organization that educates, advocates and conserves birds throughout the UK. Learn more.

The liberation point – the point of opening the cages and setting the birds to flight – is more than 500 miles from their home nest.

I love that word. Liberation. It has such ample meaning. To us, it represents positive emotions associated with freedom.3 For a kept pigeon, the liberation point is the furthest point from home they will go (in that race) and thus the point at which they begin to return home.

Thus, as Day points out, one must be released and freed in order to come home.

In 1956 the German zoologist Gustav Kramer decided to test whether pigeons which were never allowed to fly free would be able to home successfully from distant release points. He conducted a series of experiments in which pigeons were kept from their fledging onwards, in an aviary which allowed them to exercise but never to fly outside the loft. Kramer discovered that his aviary-bred pigeons were no worse at navigating over long distances than were their free-flying companions. But they were much worse at getting back inside their lofts once they’d returned to their familiar territory, as they had no idea what they looked like from above. To know home, he concluded, a pigeon had to have been allowed to see it from the air at a young age. Birds that were not allowed to range would never be good at homing, therefore.

Day develops the intricacies of ‘homing’ alongside his own experience being a new parent and an expectant parent, and finds the themes dovetail nicely. As a new parent, I understood the homing instinct (or rather, nesting) as well as the alienation of self that comes with having a child. You leave and return to some psychological home.

“Melbourne, Australia” by Andrew Wurster. Wurster’s work features unpeopled landscapes of his home town, Melbourne. Common motifs include walls, closed doors, shut windows, barred gates and striking capture of suggested – but not seen – lives. His images evoke questions of home, community, childhood and the psychic nature of place.

I’ve felt agitated and paralyzed simultaneously and rather wonderfully, something in this book shifted the stuck-ness. As Day mentions, we are children, we adventure out in the world, build our understanding of things with guidance. Adulthood brings settlement, hastened by parenting, house buying etc. At some point we become the home, the thing something else returns to.

I felt the same each time I liberated them: a sense of soaring excitement quickly followed by an intense gnawing fear, a fear I found it impossible to ignore, and which persisted until I knew they had made it back home safely. There was little I could do to influence their flight, or to make them more likely to return: I simply had to wait and trust and hope. I had to learn to let go, to give the birds enough freedom for them to learn to home without giving them so much they would be lost.

But it is more than ‘Will they return or won’t they?’. When we become someone else’s home, we must constantly tend to that home fire. It’s natural to feel stasis coupled by agitation. Feelings momentarily subside when they do return.

Illustration of wood pigeon from RSPB. Featured in Jon Day's "Homing" in the Examined Life Library. Source: © RSPB
Adult wood pigeon. Illustration from The RSPB. Learn more.

I had to wait three days before I saw the first of them. I would like to say that I saw him fly in high from the north, dropping out of the clear blue sky and onto the roof of the loft, but it didn’t happen like that. I was upstairs in my study when Nataly called. There was a pigeon walking around the kitchen, she said. It looked familiar and was wearing a blue rubber race ring on its leg. I ran downstairs as quickly as I could. There, strutting around as if he owned the place, was Orange.

Finally, the return. A prodigal pigeon indeed.

Photo of pigeons. Featured in Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The compulsion to home is something pigeons and humans develop instinctively. Pigeons home through intense olfactory mapmaking, humans mainly use sight and navigational tools.

Learning how to be a home is, for many of us, a lot less natural and a lot more uncomfortable.

Photograph of Mark Hearld's home featured in Hearld's "Raucous Invention" in the Examined Life Library.
Collage artist Mark Hearld’s flight of pigeons and stairs at Pica Studios in York. Learn more. Photograph by Hermione McCosh.

Accompany Day’s enriching tale of home, family, pets, and deep, abiding agitation of life with Robert Macfarlane’s search for that which is wild, in life and self; Helen Macdonald’s love for a goshawk as a salve for grief; and John Bradshaw’s bright study of animals that make us irrevocably human.

And finally, perhaps a bit macabre to end on this note, but it’s worth a consideration in the arts of animal husbandry, Ted Hughes’ “The Dove Breeder” published in 1957:

The Dove Breeder

Love struck into his life
Like a hawk into a dovecote.
What a cry went up!
Every gentle pedigree dove
Blindly clattered and beat,
And the mild-mannered dove-breeder
Shrieked at that raider.

He might well wring his hands
And let his tears drop:
He will win no more prizes
With fantails or pouters,
(After all these years
Through third, up through second places
Till they were all world beaters …)

Yet he soon dried his tears

Now he rides the morning mist
With a big-eyed hawk on his fist.

From Ted Hughes The Hawk in the Rain