Pigeons have made a home for themselves in our larger cities, a familiar sight as they strut about scrounging crumbs and food scraps. Their soft cooing sound is lovely to hear in the early morning and in the evenings as they gather together to roost.
Somewhere in the valley below me lives someone who has a flock of very different pigeons. These are a special variety: homing pigeons. A close community, they live in a safe and comfortable loft where their owners look after them well.
Around 9 o’clock on mornings when the air is still and the sun has been up for a couple of hours, I often sit with a cuppa and look towards the mountain. Against the blue-green of the heavily wooded slopes I can see a moving shape, like a veil, passing quickly back and forth across the valley. It is a flock of homing pigeons out on their morning flight.
The 30 or 40 birds in the group seem as one, as they turn and wheel across the valley. Left. Right. Up. Down. Again and again. They catch the morning sun and shine as silver, then turn and seem like a shadow. They remain close together, swift, tight-spaced, as if they are one wing. Each bird’s wings can beat about 10 times per second, which makes them nimble and able to change direction fast.
It seems that there is a kind of democratic leadership with these birds. Sometimes one takes the lead, sometimes another, but they are all closely tuned to each other and react almost instantly to the changes in direction and each one’s position in the group. Their tight-knit formation is a good defence against predators such as that solitary hunter, the grey goshawk. The goshawk strikes swiftly at its prey with huge talons that can seize another bird in mid-flight. I once saw a goshawk tracking pigeons but without success, mainly because there are rarely stragglers from a flight of homing pigeons. They stay together.
Another bird that might try to join in is the white cockatoo. These noisy, pushy birds live in a raucous gang on a giant eucalypt on the other side of the valley and every now and then one of them will ‘have a go’ at joining in the pigeons’ flight. As if they are thinking: ‘This looks fun!’ They just look clumsy and have no hope of keeping up the pace or the turns. They soon give up. Seagulls too, try to join in and tag along behind, but their untidy wing flapping is no match for the streamlined pigeons.
The pigeons don’t have a guard who peels off to chase away an interloper. Their defence is their unity and speed, and their ability to change direction, as one: fast. Outsiders are probably welcome to try to join, but they have to keep up. They need to share the unity of purpose, not act alone; follow the rules and hold the formation as it swoops and glides across the sky.
After half an hour or so the pigeons return to their loft. They know their home and their keeper, where they are fed and cared for.
We could learn something from homing pigeons.
In this time of pandemic some of us are learning about new ways of community, both in our churches and in our wider world. It is heartening to hear stories of people, young as well as old, who are looking out for each other and finding new ways to ‘be community’.
We need to continue to nurture that common purpose and our common welfare beyond this crisis. We need to be nimble and swift to change to new ways of doing things. It makes God’s world better for all of us.
Sheelagh Wegman is a freelance writer and editor. She is in the community of St David’s Cathedral in Hobart and lives in the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington.
Sheelagh Wegman’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/sheelagh-wegman.html