Stories of pigeons returning home are legendary. So, too, are the stories of Randall Munger’s white doves.
Not even a broken wing could keep one of them away from the airy loft it calls home near Cherry Beach. The dove was holed up along Queen St. W. It hopped from rooftop to rooftop, making it back in 10 days.
Munger has been training pigeons and doves since he was 10 years old. They are easy to train, he says, and begin with time in a basket as 6-week-old “squeakers.”
“You start from 10 feet away one day,” Munger says. “Then 20 feet, then 40 and so on. Eventually you can drop them off in Montreal and they’ll fly home.”
Munger has turned his hobby — something that calms his mind when he works with them — into a business, Release A Dove. They aren’t released into the wild. That would be a terrible business model. But they return home to their loft, where they are fed and housed, free to come and go as they please.
White doves have become a staple of the wedding, funeral and event industries. They are, in fact, pigeons with the grey bred out.
Randall Munger is a long time “dove ranger” who has a large dove loft in the city. Munger provides weddings, funeral and special events with doves for release. The doves return to their loft from as far away as 800 kilometres.
They have long represented love, peace and spirituality. Twenty-six of Munger’s doves will be released by one of his “wranglers” at a funeral for two abandoned babies at Elgin Mills Cemetery in Richmond Hill on Tuesday.
On Monday he released 10 doves for the Star at Cherry Beach. One at a time, they took off from his hands, broke for the water toward Toronto Island, circled several times and then headed to their nearby loft, which they can enter and leave as they wish.
“No one really knows how they do it,” Munger said of their homing abilities.
Research on the subject has been “steeped in controversy,” according to Jonathan Hagstrum, a geophysicist in California with the United States Geological Survey. Birds, the hypothesis goes, have a map and compass function. Researchers have shown that birds can figure out its compass — north from south and so on — through the position of the sun or stars.
Yet no one has proven how, exactly, homing doves map their way home.
Experiments date back decades, and one of the earliest involved pigeons fitted with frosted goggles that were nevertheless able to fly home from more than 100 kilometres away.
They couldn’t land in their lofts, however, because they couldn’t see properly. The upshot: vision was only used on their final approach. Something else was at play.
For years, scientists thought homing was related to their sense of smell, much like salmon, who have the smell of their home stream imprinted on their brains when born and can swim out to the ocean and back to their stream of birth years later.
That didn’t make sense to Hagstrum, because odours can be easily lost and absorbed through the atmosphere.
“These scientists just cut out their olfactory sense — so they can’t smell — and then the birds have trouble homing,” Hasgtrum says. “Well, maybe that’s from the surgery. What smells are they homing in on? They’ve offered none of these explanations.”
How could a pigeon fly downwind if the smells are blowing away from it, he asks.
“Logically, it just doesn’t make any sense,” Hagstrum says.
As a geophysicist, he deals with sound. He postulates that pigeons pick up on distinctive sounds generated at specific locations from “microseisms,” tiny “infrasonic” sounds produced by the Earth that can easily travel thousands of kilometres.
He crunched numbers on thousands of homing pigeon experiments conducted at Cornell University in the 1970s, which he believes shows sound as the main way pigeons map their way home.
Of course, the peaceful doves must make their way through a gantlet of hostile birds such as Cooper’s hawks and goshawks, Munger says, as well as peregrine falcons.
“Thankfully,” Munger says, “there aren’t too many of those birds around here.”
Homing pigeons have saved countless human lives on the battlefield. One was shot in France during World War I as a “lost” American battalion tried to send a message to leaders to tell them to stop killing their own people. Despite losing a leg and being wounded in its chest, the bird somehow flew to division headquarters. Soon the “friendly fire” stopped. The bird, Cher Ami, (our friend) is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.