DANVILLE - When Carl Powell talks about rollers, high fliers and racers, he's not discussing gambling casino regulars.
Powell is describing performing pigeons and the public can see what he's talking about in action at the Pigeon Show from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Bunker Hill Historic Area of Kennekuk County Park, off Henning Road.
"After dogs and cats, pigeons are the third-most popular pet," said Powell, who owns a variety of birds, including Egyptian geese, chickens, guineas and ducks in addition to several varieties of pigeons.
Powell is a member of the Illiana Pigeon Club, which is sponsoring the event.
John Hoskins, also a member, coordinated with the Vermilion County Conservation District to bring the show to Kennekuk.
"We have one somewhere every year," Hoskins said. "I've done woodcarving at the district and we just got to talking and here we are."
On Veterans Day each year, Hoskins releases 11 white homing pigeons at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to honor those who gave their lives during wartime. "It just seems like the thing to do," Hoskins explained.
"Most people think of pigeons as those ugly things that sit on the courthouse," Powell said. "Pigeons can be trained and have served some very useful purposes over the years."
Powell started his collection at the age of 8 when his uncle gave him a pair of fantail pigeons.
"I've had pigeons ever since," he said.
Performing birds include high fliers that can stay up six to eight hours a day, rollers that somersault backward in flight, usually pulling out before hitting the ground (but not always), and racers or homing pigeons that are taken out, released and win races based on the amount of time it takes for them to return home.
Powell now raises fantail pigeons and high fliers and owns between 50 and 60 birds.
"The fantails don't fly real well, so they don't stray and they're interesting to watch," he said.
Powell and other pigeon fanciers go to performing shows as well as swap meets where they can share their love of the birds.
The Sunday show is intended to educate people about the breeds of pigeons, their ability to perform and their uses throughout history.
Racing or homing pigeons, sometimes called carrier pigeons, have been used to convey all manner of messages, especially in military situations.
Powell said the Illiana Pigeon Club is the last club in the area that caters to owners of a variety of breeds instead of specializing on one breed or type of performer.
A tent will be set up across from the new gazebo in the historic area for club members to display their birds.
For anyone interested in the hobby of raising pigeons, the club meets at 6:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at the Potomac American Legion. For more information, contact Hoskins at 776-2767.
Feathered friends have been heroes
Military carrier pigeons have been credited with carrying information that saved hundreds of lives during times of war. Here are two such heroes:
- "Cher Ami," a World War I carrier pigeon, that was flown by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France. The bird carried 12 important messages within the American sector at Verdun. On his last mission, he was shot through the breast by enemy fire, but managed to return to his loft. A message capsule, dangling from the ligaments of his leg, also shattered by enemy fire, was from the "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Infantry Division that had been isolated from other American forces. A few hours later, 194 survivors of the battalion were found. The bird was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" for heroic service. (Information from the Armed Forces History Collections of the Smithsonian Institution.)
- During World War II the British 56th Brigade entered the city of Colvi Vecchia, Italy, ahead of schedule due to the retreat of the Germans. All attempts to reach the U.S. Air Support Command by radio to stop a scheduled bombing of the city were without success. The pigeon "G.I. Joe" was released to carry word to the command base 20 miles from the city. The bird arrived in 20 minutes just as American planes were warming up to take off.
The bird is credited with saving the lives of at least 1,000 British troops. The bird was awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry by the Lord Mayor of London and is the only bird or animal in the United States to receive this high award. (As described by Otto Meyer, U.S. Army (retired), former commander of the U.S. Army Pigeon Service.)
Cheri Ami died in 1919 as a result of his battle wounds. G.I. Joe lived to the ripe old age of 18. Both animals were mounted after their death.
Cher Ami is displayed in the National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Armed Forces History Hall of the Smithsonian. G.I. Joe is displayed in the Historical Center, Meyer Hall, at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
You can reach Pat Phillips at (217) 443-8941 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.