JIM HALE: BIRDMAN OF BONE ISLAND
I met with local seafarer and pigeon potentate, Jim Hale. The subject of our meeting was pigeons. Yes, pigeons.
Long before VHF radio, mariners depended on pigeons to carry important communications ashore. Trained for specific routes, the reliable birds were trusted to deliver life saving messages in all conditions. There have, however, been exceptions.
“In the late 16th century, the King of Prussia developed strong desire for North African cherries. This craving led the king to ship six-hundred of his prime homing pigeons to Algeria. Once there, the birds were fitted with one delicious cherry each and released. They returned to the King’s palace within hours. The King not only liked cherries, he liked fresh cherries. It’s good to be King,” Hale said and keenly eyeballed the cherry floating in his Pina Colada.
Key West is home to many unheralded champions. One of the most unusual is Jim Hale’s race-winning pigeon, Sandy.
“Her full name is Super Storm Sandy.” Hale said. “She’s a descendant of the European Rock Dove, from which all racing pigeons are descendant. Super Storm Sandy won the North American Breeders Cup Race on the same day that the real super storm Sandy hit New York in October, 2012.”
Hale’s grey colored bird came in first after four-hundred miles and a field of two-thousand birds!
Hale, a thirty year inhabitant of the Rock, continued, “Pigeons can fly up t0 sixty miles an hour in light winds and, based on GPS tracker information some have attained speeds up to 113 MPH with a good tail wind. Well-trained birds can stay aloft for fourteen hours and use their own body mass for energy during the flight. A racing bird can lose up to a third of its weight during a long event! Pigeons are the only animals on the planet capable of doing this efficiently.”
Hale paused, flapped his arms and warmed to a subject he knows well. “The European Rock Dove has been clinically tested and found to have the same level of intelligence as an eight-year-old child. When it’s cold outside, the New York City pigeons sometimes ride the subway along with other passengers. They are the second oldest domesticated animal. Dogs are first and horses third.”
“Before the war on drugs, in the 1980’s, US Coast Guard search and rescue aircraft were funded to carry three pigeons, in a glass pod, under the helicopter’s belly. The birds were trained to spot survivors in the water. Their eyes are two hundred times more powerful than human’s.” Hale blinked. “The pigeons recorded a ninety-eight percent success rate during the day and never tired or lost focus. The birds knew if they spotted a human in the water and pecked a certain electronic card that alerted the pilot, a piece of corn dropped in their feed bowl. Simple. Thermal imaging is good at night but, once you’ve been in cool water for awhile you don’t have much of a thermal image.”
Hale currently houses and feeds over 100 birds. His birds consume six-hundred pounds of high grade food per month! Breeding and racing Key West Rock Doves is Hale’s undisguised passion.
Born into a ranching family in northern California, Hale grew up with big animals, big land and big sky. Half a mile away, his next door neighbor raised pigeons. The neighbor knew of young Hale’s interest in birds and explained that the pigeons on his farm were bred to be food, not pets. As a six-year-old boy, with a fascination for pigeons, Jim was not pleased to hear this but changed his mind after a tasty fat-bird dinner at the neighbor’s.
One afternoon, young Hale came across an injured barn pigeon. The wild bird apparently fell out of its nest and lay helpless on the ground. He reached down and retrieved the feathered lump. Hale tended to the bird and fed him wet/dry dog food by hand. “It’s all I had as a kid,” he shrugged. “I named him Pidgy. He lived in a little barrel outside my second story bedroom window. It wasn’t long before Pidgy started flying but, he always came back to me. Pidgy liked to ride on my shoulder and peck at my earlobe. He made cooing sounds, soft, like a cat purring,” Hale said and rubbed a well-pecked lobe. “The little guy, Pidgy, used to follow me around. If I rode five miles on my bicycle, Pidgy followed. He sat on my friend’s roof and waited for me to leave, then followed me home. He did all kinds of crazing stunts to impress me on the way to my house. Once he plowed into a pine tree. I shouldn’t have laughed,” Hales eyes moistened, “but I did! I guess I fell in love with pigeons.”
Hale’s white European Rock Doves are used primarily for happy, formal functions like weddings, birthdays and divorces.
“Keeping doves does require some knowledge,” Hale explained. “Back in the eighty’s, a fellow arrived in town to start a wedding planner business. We talked a few times but nothing came of it. A few weeks later, I heard about the guy from a captain friend. He told me the wedding planner wanted to keep everything in-house to save money so he went to a pet store and bought two beautiful white doves. He made a tropical white lace, covered cage and charged the bride’s father accordingly. On the blessed day, the planner showed the beautiful birds to the bride and groom. Everyone cooed and aahed and then boarded the vessel, bound for a memorable wedding at sea. At the arranged moment, with all eyes on the bride, the groom and the birds, the planner opened the cage and shook the white doves free! Unfortunately, after a few flaps, the pet-store trained birds found they were unable to fly and dropped into the water a few feet from the boat. Ploink! Ploink! The crowd watched in horror as the flailing birds floated away in the wake and, in a final moment of disbelief, one dove became part of the food chain after attracting the attention of a trailing barracuda! Apparently this happened a few times, but I didn’t know anything about it until a tour boat captain said, ‘Hey Jim, what are you doing, man? I keep seeing your birds floating around in the drink, what’s up?’”
After we stopped laughing like idiots, we agree that the story was, Not Funny, and had another round.
“I’ve done two weddings where I released a pair of white doves. Some people call them love birds. Each time they flew away in opposite directions and kept going! Two weeks later I learned both couples had already divorced… At another wedding, though, a couple that had been divorced for a few years, decided to get re-married. I let the birds go. At first they went in opposite directions, then turned and flew back together! Another weirdulation.”
Hale pecked at a cracker and launched into another white bird story.
“Not long ago I was the best man at a wedding for my friends, Andy and Suzy Jo. I asked a buddy to handle the release for me. One-hundred pure white doves, ready to go. ‘Don’t-point-the-cage-at-the-audience,’ I reminded him several times as we walked to the beachside ceremony. Well, when the time came he pointed the cage at the crowd and, before I could stop him, the birds escaped. Instinctively lightening their loads, they bombarded the entire wedding party. ‘At least their shit’s white!’ someone cried, trying to calm the assembly. It didn’t work. Cell phones were drawn, video cameras turned on and thirteen people were rushed to the dry cleaners. Other folks, outside the drop zone, said it was the best wedding they’d ever seen!”
Back to white birds. For many years white pigeons were thought to be inferior racers and were used mostly for ceremonies.
According to Hale, “The old wisdom is, ‘You can’t win a race with a white bird.’ I think it’s still a common misperception in the racing community.”
Hale intends to disprove the aged assumption.
This year, two of Hale’s pure white, Key West Rock Doves, are entered in both the 2013, four-hundred mile, North American Breeders Cup race held in Minnesota (his bird won last year) and the four-hundred mile World Ace Challenge held in Texas. The birds will travel around the world via the US Postal Service. Hale is a sincere fan of the Postal Service. “The post office has been great over the years and I’m honored that they will take my birds and keep them safe,” Hale said. “Pigeon racing is a huge, worldwide business and like any sport where money is involved, people can be nasty. Take the Chinese, for example, who are not known for fairness but are among the biggest racers in the world. They spend millions each year on birds, breeding and racing. Fees to enter a race can be fifteen hundred dollars per bird, or more, and one international race in Barcelona hosts sixty-thousand birds, all released at one time (see pigeonracingpigeon.com.) Big money! Every racing bird is fitted with a registration band containing a country code and a number. These bands are secured on the bird’s leg when young and eventually become part of the leg itself.
With over one-hundred birds to care for Hale still finds time to carry out pigeon rescue in the Keys. “The Cubans are very fond of pigeon racing.” Hale said. He has rescued scores of banded birds that strayed from the Forbidden Island, only ninety-miles away. “Most racing birds from Cuba arrive in the spring, I don’t know why. Many of them arrive with their chests slashed by hawks’ talons during the crossing. I guess the trip is rough for everyone.”
Jim Hale would like to host a world competition in Key West someday. “Key West would be a major attraction for the world-wide pigeon racing community. If anyone is interested in setting up an international race, give Jim a call!
So, if you find a banded pigeon, give Jim the bird!
BIRDMAN OF BONE ISLAND
Two hours before dawn, a singular pigeon winged towards Key West, a small paper tube affixed to its chest. It was late August, 1938. The bird quickly determined the most favorable altitude for a northeasterly flight and settled into a rhythm, a rhythm that would remain unchanged for three-hundred-twenty-eight miles. At sixty miles per hour and one-thousand feet above the calm sea, it didn’t take long for the bird’s keen eyes, two hundred times more powerful than a human’s, to spy the island of Key West in the distance.
With no thought of failure, the determined bird flew northeast toward its loft on Petronia Street. The airborne courier hit the landing board at ten in the morning, six hours after leaving the island of Grand Cayman in the northwest Caribbean Sea. The barely winded bird strutted into the loft, beaked a couple kernels and took a nap.
Nearby, the owner of the loft, Miguel Santoro strutted out of a local eating place after consuming a meal of black beans, pounded pork and guava duff. Miguel knew his digestive tendencies and decided, for the sake of all concerned, that he would not go into or near an enclosed space after such a meal. The birds had no such fears but appreciated Santoro’s courtesy.
It was the next morning before Santoro noticed the note and unrolled the damp paper.
Have come to grief in Grand Cayman…driven aground near Cayman Brac …towed for repairs… 2 weeks work in Bodden Town
Advise families, home soon, Capt D. Steadman, Master-Schooner Maitland Adams*
*This is a fictional account and entirely the doing of Reef Perkins’ overly fertile imagination.
Note from the Editor:
Author, Reef Perkins has recently published his new and very entertaining book, “Sex, Salvage, and Secrets”.
Reef Perkins has led a colorful life – combat veteran, smuggler, and salvager. He tells all in this funny and fascinating memoir. From near death at the age of four to “the Pimple Years” to the Jack and Jill Dude Ranch to fighting In Country in Vietnam to Key West Daze, you’ll encounter real-life adventures that are more entertaining than fiction. AbsolutelyAmazingEbooks.com