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Consumer Reports

Pigeons become homing force for one man's stormy journey

By Eric Sorensen | (KRT) SEATTLE "These words have flown with the wings of a dove."

Better writers have written better sentences, but none could be more true.

I wrote it in May on a scrap of notebook paper and handed it to Bob Glass by the pigeon coop behind his home in Des Moines, Wash. Earlier last month, Glass strapped the note to a bird that was trucked to Salem, Ore. It flew back to Des Moines the next day, covering more than 170 miles at an average of 46 mph.

In the process, Glass and I were part of an ancient ritual, once a sport of emperors and kings that relied on the pigeon's homing instinct to bring word of far-off discoveries, military battles and capricious economic markets - Instant Messenger quite nearly, on the wing.

Today in Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States, the art of breeding and racing pigeons has thousands of followers and costs thousands of dollars, with each fancier effectively owning a small sports franchise.

For Glass, a flannel-clad former tavern keeper, the birds are among the finest of hobbies, an Old Northwest throwback for an Old Northwest guy pushing 71.

He is working class, having lived in Seattle outliers such as Everett, Kirkland and Bothell. He left high school for the Army and wanted to fly on combat missions in Korea because it meant an extra $18 in the paycheck. He fished from a rowboat, boxed and drank a lot.

"My life wasn't a pleasant life," he said recently after telling how he could take cash from his tavern and blow it on rounds of drinks at a bar across the street.

He has literally been tried by fire and remains rattled by the experience.

In all this, pigeons have been an oasis. He raised them as a kid, pulling chicks from overpasses and rearing them by hand. Decades later, he started raising birds again and discovered a redemptive, all-consuming passion.

"My wife is a widow," he said recently of Arline, whom he married 49 years ago. "But it keeps me young."

These are not your city pigeons, but they do owe a lot to their common brethren.

Both birds are of the same species, Columba livia, or rock dove, with the city and racing birds descending from a long line of hardy cliff dwellers.

They are built to fly fast over long distances without making many mistakes - good skills when you want to range widely for food and in the territory of the occasional falcon, said Richard Johnston, emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and author of "Feral Pigeons."

They mate for life and take turns feeding their young. Even the male can make a protein-rich "crop milk" produced in an expanded part of the esophagus.

Their ability to find home is profound, but it makes good sense.

"There's something about a home base that gives an individual an advantage in times of stress, for example, bad weather or a predator," said Johnston. "If you can find your home quickly and directly, that might mean the difference between survival and otherwise."

Just how the birds find their way is only vaguely known, but various experiments lead researchers to believe they fix their position by a combination of the sun, stars, geomagnetism, landmarks, even sounds like ocean waves.

The American Racing Pigeon Union says the birds have been bred as pets, food and message carriers for some 5,000 years.

The Caliph of Baghdad organized a message system of post offices and postmasters in the 12th century. The Reuters news service of today has its roots in Baron Paul Julius von Reuter's pigeon post, which in the mid-1800s had 200 homing pigeons flying the 25 miles between Verviers, Belgium, and Aachen, Germany.

The best-known rock doves served in wartime, counter to the dove-of-peace image.

Cher Ami, one of 600 birds used in France by the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I, kept a battalion from being pounded into oblivion by its own artillery in 1918. "Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us," read his message. "For heaven's sake, stop it."

The message was hanging from the tendons of a wounded leg. Cher Ami had an eye missing and a quarter-sized bullet hole in his breastbone.

These birds are that tough.

Glass has seen a bird survive a crash into a fence wire, its chest peeled back to where Glass could see its heart beating. He sewed up the wound, and water ran out through the stitches when the bird drank, but weeks later it was flying again.

When a bird is too weak to fly, it will walk.

About five years ago, a woman called to report she had been out horseback riding, saw one of Glass' birds walking along and followed it for half a mile.

"This bird was heading towards my house," Glass said.

It would not offend Glass to report that his facts are sometimes secondary to his stories.

He was born in Everett, Wash., his dad a telephone-wire chief and union rep, his mother a beautician and welder at the Everett Shipyard, "and a good-looking redhead at that." The family den was her beauty shop.

At the age of 8, maybe 10, Glass would climb beneath bridges and drawspans late at night, snatch baby pigeons and hand-feed them. Elwin F. Anderson, now 83 and still racing, helped him with a few birds and introduced him to the Everett Racing Pigeon Club.

It seemed like every kid had a loft. Glass would take a friend's bird to a movie, write a message on some onionskin, put it in an Army message holder and send his friend the note, airmail.

Glass left his Everett, Wash., high school his junior year to join the Army Air Force and later got his GED, but marriage, kids and work got in the way of college.

He worked nine years at Everett Pulp and Paper and 19 years for Zellerbach Paper, rising to night lead foreman. He took over Bill's Tavern in Puyallup from his father, opening the bar at 8 a.m., leaving around 11 or noon for Zellerbach, then returning to close the bar at 11 p.m.

Glass tore out the rotator cuffs in both shoulders at Zellerbach while pulling boxes of paper that fell and trapped a co-worker. He was out of work 18 months, getting money from the state, so he bought the Barn Door, a tavern on Route 99 in SeaTac.

His two daughters by then were gone from the house. He was drinking too much, arguing with his wife, and it ticked her off.

He checked into a treatment program, where his main impetus to quit drinking was a counselor who told him to sell his tavern, divorce his wife and get rid of all alcohol in his home. He wanted to keep his business and he saw no point purging the house if he was just going to be tempted by alcohol somewhere else. He stayed married. Most of his friends disappeared, but so did his drinking.

In 1990, dry for nearly 10 years and now operating the Carriage Square Tavern in Kent, Glass hired a cocktail waitress named Doreen Medeiros. She was 24, a single mother living in a low-income-housing project in Renton, Wash..

Glass started training her as a bartender and put her and her 4-year-old son up in the downstairs of his house. Glass had birds again; the boy liked the babies best.

Three weeks later, after midnight, Arline smelled smoke and woke Glass up. He went downstairs on his hands and knees but a ball of fire drove him back up stairs, pulling the air from his stomach. He charged at what he thought was a bay window and ended up going through a door.

He and Arline don't talk about the fire. Until I looked up a story about it, he couldn't remember Medeiros' name. But he couldn't forget that after the fire, there was an outline on the wall of her body with her boy huddled in her arms.

"I figure I was within a foot of her, maybe two," Glass said.

It's 10:30 on Saturday morning and Glass, sitting in the kitchen of the house he rebuilt after the fire, is restless. Birds have been in the air for 3-½ hours and should be coming in any minute.

"Pigeons are therapy. Gardening is a therapy," he says. "And when you quit drinking, you need that. It wasn't my wife, although she was instrumental and very helpful, and my family, not only making you feel proud that you're doing something. And I didn't realize how much you touch people. But you've got to have something."

Then, like that prescient "M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H" character, he has a Radar O'Reilly moment. "I think they're coming," he says. "Here comes the first bird in. The first bird. There it is."

A pigeon circles his yard of roses and coops and lands on the roof. For its arrival time to be official, it has to walk into its coop past a sensor that will read a small tag on its leg and note its time in a computer.

The bird sits on the roof, by a fake owl put there to throw off the falcons and hawks that can treat the yard like a hotel buffet.

"It seems like an eternity," Glass whispers. "Come on. Get off that roof. This can sell me down the line."

He bangs on the gutter with a garden stake, and the bird goes in the coop. A timer wired to the computer beeps in the kitchen.

Now another bird comes and another and yet another. Finally, after nine or so birds, Glass spots bird 1702 as it circles and lands. He walks down to the coop, rummages around amid the sounds of cooing birds and flapping wings, and produces a mostly white bird with a familiar-looking rubber band on its leg.

Glass has me feel its breast. It's bony, the muscle run down from the flight. In another week, after a diet of grain and peas and maybe some diluted lemon-lime Gatorade, it will be back up to about 16 ounces, racing weight.

Glass motions to the rubber band. "Go ahead and pull it off," he says, "so you can't say I'm cheating."

And there they are, fresh in from Salem, Ore., and carried by millions of years of instinct, by a bird's drive and a man's obsession, by the ancient desire for home, words that have flown with the wings of a dove.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services