Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Pinoy, the Pigeon and the Mountain

We were at the top of the mountain, the peak, where granite boulders the size of a block of flats squatted amongst alpine gardens and stunted forests of marris. On top of the boulders lay bathtub gnamma holes. I knelt beside one of the holes and peered into its depths. Tadpoles and strange beetles I'd never seen before swam around. I put my hand into the water, to scoop some into my mouth and saw the fine bones of a rotting bird's wing, changed my mind. Then I saw the glinting of a yellow glass bead.

What the hell? The peak is so isolated and difficult to get to that the only signs of humanity are ancient ones. And here is a glass bead. In a pond. Tiny iridescent feathers floated on the water's skin. I picked up the bead.

The bird's wing, the feathers and the bead. "It's a carrier pigeon's leg ring!"
"Oh wow. I wonder ..."
I had visions of this doomed pigeon crashing into the mountain in an exhausted daze, or maybe it was killed by a raptor and taken to the peak to be eaten?

That night in the cave, we lit a fire and cooked up some kangaroo, garlic and mushrooms. We sat down in the dirt and inspected the leg ring by torchlight. Then we got out our phones and started googling. Now you may think that googling a pigeon fancier from a cave on the top of a mountain is strange but you should try the mother lode of pigeon racing p*rn we encountered that night. A YouTube clip, posted by the owner of our unfortunate pigeon, depicted his avian heroes posing coyly amongst red sparkling graphics to the strains of that ultimate stalker song Every Breath You Take by the Police. I recognised the iridescent feathers cloaking the birds' throats. Seeing those feathers set to the music completely did my head in. Days later, I'm still finding that clip unsettling but I keep returning to it like a dysfunctional lover.

So, the day before yesterday, I rang the phone number on the leg ring.
"Hello, I'm Sarah. You probably don't know me. Um, I think I may have found one of your pigeons. Do you live in Albany? Do you have pigeons?"
"Ah, yes, yes. You find my pigeon? Where you find my pigeon?"
"At the top of the mountain."
"The mountain? At the top?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. I found bits of a bird and the leg ring in a pond."
"Ahh, the peregrines ... What number was it?"
"Number? I don't know. Loft 5?"
"No, no. The blue ring."
"I only found a yellow ring, with your phone number on it."
"Oh, ok."
"You might know me. I used to sell fish at the markets." I knew he was Filipino and the local community were great customers at our stall. They like whole, fresh fish (and anyone who has to fillet for hours on a Saturday will appreciate those who like whole fish).
"Fish? Not pigeon? You want to sell fish?"
"No! I want to give you the ring. I'll drop it off tomorrow if you like. Where do you live?"

We organised to meet at his house so I could give him back the leg ring. As I parked on the verge, he came home with his wife and children. He was a short, sturdy man with bushy brows that made him look stern. In the video he was wearing a short straw hat, Chilean style, but this day he was hatless and his hair was speckled with white. A jack russell rabbitted around our feet. He showed me into the back yard, to the pigeon loft.

"Three weeks ago, the club took 300 birds to ahh Leonora. 100 birds came home."
"You lost 200 birds?"
"Yes, yes. The peregrines. They eat them. They eat only brains," he picked at his head with his fingers. "Only brains."
200 pigeon brains.
"How far is that? How long?"
"They fly 865 kilometres. We set them at 8 in the morning and the first three come home at 6 o'clock."
Shit. That's fast. You couldn't drive from Leonora to Albany in that time, not as the pigeon flies.

"We have big races in Adelaide. This bird, this is a famous bird," he pointed one out to me. The pigeon eyed me. What can I say? A fine looking bird, sleek and muscular, its beautiful throat reminding me of the gnamma hole, again.
"All over Australia, people come to race birds in Adelaide. We send them when they are babies. November 30th. Then July we race them from Marla or Coober Pedy, 1000 kilometres to Adelaide. That bird is a famous bird. He came -" he holds up two fingers.
"Yes. Three thousand dollars prize."

I have to say that at this point I was dangerously close to becoming a pigeon fancier. I'd entered the murky world of a sub culture previously beyond my ken. I was totally understanding the sentiment in the theme song to his You Tube clip. Stalker song? I think not!  
Why can't you see? You belong to me, is really about the relationship between a man and his homing pigeon.
"I will tell the club about you," he said. "Who climb the mountain and find my bird. Is a magnificent story."


  1. Yes, he was right - a magnificent story.

  2. Ain't it so? There is more ... sacrificial tumblers and birds who return to the wrong roost, their owners demanding that they be killed rather than breed. As I wrote, a culture beyond my ken.

  3. I have been working on high buildings more than once, and a homer has landed on me - once on my feet as I was lying down on the job. Having settled, the little bastards are very difficult to shoo away, and most of them are worth thousands.

  4. Great and bizarre story - as only you can tell them Sarah Toa. You sure have in interesting life.

  5. Ah, bloody classic...impossible to script this stuff - brilliant :)

  6. I know a pigeon person, you have nailed it, and yes the deeper recesses are intriguing. They hate falcons, and my friend as a sideline, bred fish.

  7. I just had a phone call from the pres of the local club, v. interesting ...
    "While you were in the cave googling, you could have been tagging birds and sending them off with messages. That's why they are so amazing. We lost a lot of birds and that is heartbreaking for us but we have to push on. You never know what will happen in the future, if technology breaks down, pigeons may be all we have to communicate."

  8. Simple jaw dropping awe at the honesty in that, dystopian as it may be ;-)

  9. His take on it (I think) is that it is an old art that must be continued.
    And on thinking about that ... it was only 70 or so years ago that pigeons were used, during WW2. Maybe it is a dystopian vision but well within the memory of the living.

  10. Oh I totally agree, and this form of communication is hard, like pigeon messages...and I was thinking about lost technology (hate that term), like bows and arrows for some. All too much for a tiny soundbite. Awesome thoughts provoked by your post, thank you.

  11. Brilliantly recounted Sarah. I love the idea that there's a homing pigeon subculture, what a fascinating diversion! Loving your work, keep it up.

  12. Hi Laen. It is a funny, strange and entirely logical diversion! And I'm loving your story too ... as it unfolds.