PIERRE | Jeff Monroe says he's always being a "bird man."
"When I go pheasant hunting I would rather go chase them down than shoot them down," said the Pierre chiropractor and state senator about his interest in fowl.
And 46 years ago, while in the sixth grade, Monroe's inclination toward avian kind led him to join the large pigeon racing club in his native Omaha, Neb.
He quickly acquired a few birds and started a lifelong hobby of raising homing pigeons.
The club raced pigeons from various cities, and over the years Monroe had birds fly back from places such as Denver, Colo., Laramie, Wyo., and Dallas, Texas, in competitions with between 500 to 3,000 pigeons.
Today his coop is relatively small, only 20 pigeons, but that's partly because of predation by owls and hawks. In addition his practice, the South Dakota Legislature and family responsibilities have kept him from growing it for the moment, he said.
Still, when he can, he'll drive out of town and let his birds find their way back to him.
Training homing pigeons is a matter of taking them farther and farther afield from home and releasing them, he said. Many trainers start by going a few blocks, then a few miles, then 10, 50, 100 and 200 miles.
Monroe, however, said he prefers a more direct route.
"What I do, it just sorts them out a lot faster. I just take them to Sioux Falls and let them go. I don't do the incremental stuff," he said.
The reason, he said, is that, even at 100 miles away, if the pigeon is high enough it can still see home. Also, with any distance under 250 miles most birds will make it home.
Monroe said the homing instinct was bred into the species over the past 6,000 to 7,000 years. In fact, pigeons are thought to be one of the first domesticated birds, he said.
"If you don't find people generally you won't find pigeons," he said.
Monroe said pigeons also have a long history of military use. In fact, for many years the birds were standard gear for British military paratroopers.
"When they bailed out of the airplane they had a little barrel on the front of their chest; they all had a pigeon with them," he said.
Monroe said there are myriad stories about homing pigeons saving people, including the Lost Battalion of World War I. The story goes that the 77th Division was stuck behind enemy lines and, because of miscommunication, was suffering from friendly fire. The Germans shot down several pigeons with messages before the battalion's last pigeon made it through to command, despite being shot in the breast and losing an eye and a leg.
The successful pigeon, Cher Ami, was later stuffed and is still on display in the Smithsonian.
Today homing pigeons are mainly used for racing. In the U.S. there are large clubs in states such as New Jersey, California and Florida, but that is nothing compared with foreign races, Monroe said.
In countries such as Belgium and South Africa, there are races with upwards of 150,000 birds flying more than 2,000 miles, and winners take home millions of dollars. The upper floor of houses will be turned into pigeon lofts and racing will bring in part of a family's income, he said.
"In Belgium the kids race pigeons like they play baseball in the United States," Monroe said.
Unfortunately, pigeon raisers are not well represented in the immediate area. There are five or six people around Pierre with birds, but that's not enough to form a club, he said.
Still, it's a good activity for kids, Monroe said, recalling how when he was younger, he spent all his time with his birds instead of causing trouble.
"The guy I got pigeons from said pigeons were the best things to keep kids off the streets - and they did," he said.