Shannon Hiatt, 1950- 2014

When Dr Jon Esposito– vet, pigeon expert, above all old  friend, called this evening from El Paso, I had an odd apprehension, all too well  confirmed in his first sentence: “Shannon just died– they found him  in his pigeon loft, yesterday”.

One the one hand, it was an appropriate way to go, almost comedically perfect for the co- author of the single best text on pigeons in our day, with Jon.

On the other, one of the finest and kindest scholars and biophiles of my acquaintance was gone, and I felt a stab of remorse. Busy lives only 5 hours away had kept us in far too little touch (he had an aversion to email), and I somehow thought, as we do, that sooner or later we would catch up. Now we can’t.
Shannon was one of the dedicatees of Aloft, and in an eerie coincidence or synchronicity, the new edition came out the day he died.  I was so pleased I thought I would email him. Jon’s call came first.

Shannon had traveled many miles both geographically and intellectually, from youthful fundamentalist preacher to evolutionary biologist (while never scorning his roots) to writing teacher at UTEP, English prof, and writer. The best modern pigeon book by so far a margin you can’t see the others in the dust behind, his and Jon’s The Pigeon Guide (look it up, too tired for code), is the one book you will need to understand this amazing bird and its attractions. Just as in mine, the constant in his life through all its many places and faces was the underrated and much despised domestic Pigeon. I defy any “biophile” to read their book and come way un- tempted by the bird.

More as I know more…

Hans Windgassen, Pigeon Impressionist

The late Hans Windgassen,  Pennsylvania artist and lifetime pigeon fancier, was one of the most interesting thinkers–no, scratch that, we were all interesting thinkers!– in our pigeon rearing art and genetics group. He visited once, but we kept up a constant correspondence, and the genes of pigeons he sent– our tastes were similar– live on in my loft.

Recently I had a note from his widow, Barbara Polny,  and I asked if she had any of his pigeon portraits. She had one, and sent it, refusing any money. What she may not have known was that it was of one of my favorite breeds, the (German) Beauty homer, an ornamental descendant of flyers, with a distinctive profile and a long graceful neck.

(They really have that profile. Here is one from Patrick in Massachusetts, who crossed back to flying homer to get both ability and showiness– this bird has returned swiftly from a race distance of 300 miles, same day, no sweat! I want some young ones to fly…)

Here is a small Hans portfolio– me, the girls in their prime…

And a few international pigons, including flyers in Jerusalem and a breed we tried to cross back to but  couldn’t revive in our own lofts…


The rarest living pigeon, the tooth- billed,  has been photographed in Samoa.

It is better than the previous image, from Wiki, though still hard to interpret.

These are the only photos, ever, as far as I know. I would be happy to know I was wrong. Here is a nice Gould, not from life.

Its nearest relative might be the extinct dodo . I have just finished an essay for Living Bird on the most enigmatic & iconic un- pigeonly pigeons.  In it, I conclude that this Mogul version done in 1625 is the only one drawn from life.

Almaty Pigeons

Most readers will know that I love pigeons; some may know I am particularly interested in where domestic species come from, with emphasis on dogs and pigeons. The most pigeon – mad country I know is Turkey, which could be seen as a major source for western breeds. But the Turks say their breeds came down from the interior of Asia with the nomads.

 I was delighted when Dennis Keene, our  young scholar friend in Kazakhstan, told us he had discovered a pigeon culture there. We hope he will discover things like flight sports there, and other breeds. The first photo is him with a muffed bird; second a type I think he may encounter; third is of carriers in my loft. In the ancestral “Bagdad” type they came out of the Middle East, but it is said they too originated in Asia. I would love to find some there!

Gratuitous Pigeon Photos

Handsome birds, “Lebanons”.  I saw their like in Turkey a few years ago. Anyone know where I can find a pair or two for less than $250? Stupid regs make all imported birds impossibly expensive for all but the rich, and cause hoarding and inbreeding depression in the tiny gene pools that exist in the US.  I’m no fan of closed studbook pedigrees– I cross out and back again, until I have the “good’ phenotype with a wider genetic palette…

From my friend Warren, who has some of my “granddogs”,  I am getting some young of one of my favorite breeds, the wild, rugged old show bird called the English carrier. It no longer carries messages– that job long ago taken over by its partial descendant, the racing homer, but is still a strong swift flier. It has too much character (is too odd/ ugly/ finicky) for modern tastes, but it was once known by the Scottish handle “King o’ the Doo’s” [doves]. Darwin bred ones that could win best in show today; there is a good illustration in his book on domestication, “Variations”. Some of mine should come from the excellent pair in the first photo.

Pigeons vs Humaniacs

Chris Landauer of Border Wars sent me a note a couple of weeks ago on the ARista’s war on pigeon racing. Since then I have been roaming the Internet, too busy and too pissed off to to write a calm essay on the kind of people who would persecute old men, some of them who have made real connections to youngsters of different cultures, for being “racketeers” for betting on races. They claim it is cruel because some don’t make it home (they don’t know most ferals are more homer than not), and that some substandard birds are “culled” (and eaten), a practice and term that they seem to think unique to pigeon keepers….

It would of course be easy to sue the sport out of existence, of course; though the Queen of England and some wealthy Belgians fly birds,  the old working class cartoon character Andy Capp on the other side of the channel and ancient ethnics like my late grandfather in the US are more typical, as are young blacks and city Hispanos. And given its nature as a HOMING sport, its targets are stationary, unable to go underground. Add irrational fears of diseases that pigeons don’t even carry, the latest being bird flu…

And then I thought, to hell with reasoned arguments; better to go with my initial reaction. So here are some of the calmer parts of my reaction to Chris…

“God, Chris, I get so sick of it all.

” ‘It’s so crooool, but they are all old and they’re going to die soon so we’ll LET them’…

“And another human- animal hybrid culture, another meme, another selected association of unique genes goes back into the undifferentiated pond; another joy is taken from us, there is one less thing to distract the young from the all- flattening difference- ending locale- killing biophobic Almighty Screen. How many youths in how many places once took baskets of pigeons miles to ‘toss’ and raced them home, as I did? No more pigeons, hunting dogs, ferrets, horses but for the rich, ratting, snake catching. Oddly my grandson probably WILL do many of these, but will he be a social outcast for it? And WHERE will he do it?

“And me- my salukimorphs are wanted, and my hawks. But who will pick up my unique genetic stream and crosses when I am gone, my wild hawk- evading homers, my crossbred and reconstructed old Spanish pouter breeds? Eli is too young, and his parents still live in the city; US cities are banning them outright by name (Chicago, Bozeman) or just making it  virtually impossible to keep or God help us FLY them.

“No answers but… Pigeon racing CRUEL? What absolute bullshit. The only beings that never suffer are– DEAD.”

A last thought: vegetarian and fine writer Sy Montgomery, who wrote beautifully about them in Birdology, knows better, and has more wise biophilia in her little finger than all of HSUS…

Photos from Scotland and Turkey, where pigeon culture still not only exists but thrives. The last pix including the cupboard loft are in the restaurant in Urfa where I used to eat lunch.

Passenger Pigeons # 1

Trying something new here. I have either three or four new possible books on deck, though how I will find energy to do them all is a… challenge. One is natural history and ornithology, one a novel, long set -aside,  and I am not sure I want to say more about either it or the other one/ two yet. But the natural history has a neat 3000 word intro/ outline/ essay and a real plan, and I thought I might put that much in here as two or three excerpts, as the whole thing is only 3000 words.

I have developed the idea a bit, though more conventionally, in Living Bird; it may be available online there, as it was published a few issues back. My actual thesis is rather more radical: the PP, at least as we “know” it, is an ecological phenomenon. Human culture (Paleoindian burning, starting as recently as 12,000 YA) created it; human culture (as in our, colonial version) killed it. Read and ponder and let me know if you want to hear more. Since “Martha” the last PP, died in 1914, it seems an appropriate date.

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Feathered Tempest:
Improbable Life and Sudden Death of the Passenger Pigeon
pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played
between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of
the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest
roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden
fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of
life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no
diminuition of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners
subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the
continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter
or even a wisp of smoke.”
Leopold, 1947
the passenger pigeons increased, then suddenly their numbers
enormous, they would flatten ten miles of forest
they flew down to roost, and the cloud of their rising
the dawn. They became too many, they are all dead.
one remains.”
passenger pigeon was not just a bird. Calling it a “biological
storm,” as Aldo Leopold did, was an understatement; it was more
like a series of simultaneous biological hurricanes, blowing all the
time. At its population’s peak, four to five billion pigeons roared
over the forests and prairies of the east and midwest, a number equal
to the entire population of overwintering birds in the U.S.. A single
flock in motion could darken the sky over 180 square miles. One
recorded breeding colony in Wisconsin in 1871 was 125 miles long and
between six and eight miles wide. Such a flock could consume two and
ten million liters of food a day.
passenger pigeon is an icon, a symbol of the fertility of the
pre-Columbian world and our ruining of Eden. We Europeans came to a
world of abundance, cut down the trees, shot the pigeons, and hauled
out barrels of salted pigeons in railroad cars to the markets of the
east. By the 1870’s the birds were in retreat; in 1914, the last,
cutely named “Martha” after George Washington’s wife, died in a
zoo in Cincinnati. The pigeon’s extinction symbolizes the heedless
exploitation of a continent’s riches at the hands of our culture.
this is true, as far as it goes. But if you begin to consider the
conventional narrative, to look at the tale through contemporary
scientific eyes, it begins to look curiously thin.
a biological phenomenon could not have acted in a void. Modern
ecological thinking shows us that if you subtract a species that once
consisted of 40% of all the birds in North America, you lose or
change more than just a bird. Passenger pigeons fed on enormous
amounts of “mast,” the nuts produced by the dominant species of
the eastern hardwood forest: white oak, beech, and chestnut. Of
these, two are at least mildly in retreat today relative to other
species, one seems to have fewer “crops,” and one is ecologically
if not genetically extinct. Other species of plants also seem to be
affected. Berries from no fewer than eleven families were dispersed
by passenger pigeons, and some now rarely fall at any distance from
their parent plant.
pure physical effect of the flocks would have been like nothing that
exists on the planet today. The weight of the pigeons and their nests
damaged the forest like a hurricane, breaking limbs and even toppling
trees. But no hurricane would also leave inches of nitrogen-rich
droppings on the forest floor. Contemporary observers said the ground
looked “snow-covered” after the pigeons passed. The droppings
first killed grasses and understory vegetation, then promoted riotous
growth a year or two down the line.
species could not help but be affected. The recently-rediscovered
ivory- billed woodpecker prefers to feed in dead trees; could the
loss of such abundant provisions have contributed to its near
extinction? The pigeon’s demise may also have had an impact on
such creatures as the Bachman’s, blue-winged, and golden-winged
warbler, the Carolina parakeet, the eastern box turtle, and the
American burying beetle. The term “keystone species” has become a
part of our common understanding: a species so important that
knocking it from its place in the ecological arch causes a tumbling
cascade of change and destruction. The more one looks at the
passenger pigeon, the more it looks like the “mother of all
keystone species”.
first began looking into the importance of this bird during an
internet discussion among some friends, mostly naturalists and
biologists, on rare and extinct birds. Someone asked a question about
the pigeon. I had been reading about the Pleistocene extinctions, the
coming of humans to the continent, and about the effect of fire on
landscapes. Suddenly, all of these phenomena looked to be related.
Some of the “facts” about the pigeon and about pre-Columbian
America in general began to appear very strange. Things contrary to
our simple myths began to emerge from the mist.
the last glaciation, cold steppes existed as far south as the
latitude of modern Delaware. South of this ecosystem was an extensive
band of boreal forest, which also covered the Rockies, and much of
the plains south of glacial-edge steppes were forested as well.
Piñon-juniper savannah, better-watered than today, covered much of
the southwest. Tropical ecosystems in Mexico may have been drier than
today, but were in much the same place. Deciduous forest occupied
only a fraction of its later space on the continent.
where were the pigeons?

“Carrier” Pigeons and Pigeon Paraphernalia

So- called Carrier, ie messenger pigeons (sophisticated bird folks know they are Racing Homers, not the heavily wattled show bird of that name) have been in the news a lot lately.

Reid sent this article about a lost WW II messenger from the legendary Code and cryptography center Bletchley Park discovered in an English chimney; Tim Gallagher sent still another version. The “Weekend” Wall Street Journal reports on the French debate about maintaining a flock for disaster relief (I had thought the Swiss were the only recent European bird “employers”). Perhaps the fact that the Chinese fleet is large and expanding might give us a clue to their continuing relevance..

I have always fooled around with messenger pigeons and believe they are useful. The late great Grand Canyon guide Wesley Smith used to use them to carry film out of the Grand in the 70’s and so discovered the resident Peregrine population before the ornithologists (“Takes three birds– one for the falcon, one for the tiercel, and a good one for the film!”) I also collect pigeon paraphernalia and tools from all over the world. Here are, first, a bunch of message containers, both WW II US and modern Swiss high tech versions with Red Cross markings given to me by (excellent) filmmaker Jim Jenner (Google him), including a “backpack” for heavier loads; some Indonesian tail whistles, and a melodious Chinese gourd flute beside a flute- bearing stuffed bird from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Finally, some bangles as worn by birds in Turkey and Arab countries and a flying dewlap by Sir Terence Clark, wearing earrings.

I continue to insist, with Darwin and David Quammen (see “Superdove on 46th Street”), that even “street” pigeons are among our most interesting commensals…

Spanish Pigeon Sport!

La Suelta: a female with a marked feather is turned out with a pack of gaudily- painted males, flying pouters of the “Modern Deportivo” breed, who are… a bit hyper- macho; examples below. The one who seduces her home wins- it takes days. Big money prizes, state involvement– Suelta madness!