There are still mysteries in the world. Reid Gunderson has witnessed one time and time again. It happens whether he releases his racing pigeons 20 miles away, 100 miles away or even 500 miles away from their coop.
They always find their way back home. And the truth is, no one knows for sure how they are able to do it.
“There have been scientists all over the planet that have tried to figure it out,” Gunderson said. “This bird, you bring it somewhere it has never been and release it and it knows how to come back to wherever it grew up.”
Researchers have looked into whether the pigeon uses the position of the sun, smells in the air, sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field or the rotation of the earth.
“They’ve said it is probably a combination of a lot of those, but they can’t really pinpoint it,” Gunderson said. “They have tried to fool the birds. The birds still come back.
“To me ... it’s a spiritual thing. People say, ‘How do they know how to come back?’ And this is my only explanation – that’s how they’re made.”
‘How do they know?’
Gunderson balances his spirituality with a deep interest in science and education. He is spending this summer battling gypsy moths with Minnesota’s invasive species unit, setting up pheromone-baited sticky traps in area trees.
“It feels nice being a part of something a little bit bigger,” he said. “And being outdoors ... that’s what I love.”
When fall begins, Gunderson will return to his job as a schoolteacher. This past year Gunderson taught fourth grade in Pine City, and he’ll switch to a kindergarten classroom in Mora when the new school year begins.
He wasn’t too much older than his students when he first saw a local sportsman do a pigeon release, and he immediately became curious about the birds and their mysterious homing instinct.
“I was so interested,” Gunderson said. “How do they know how to come back, you know?”
It wasn’t long after that – when he was just 14 – that he bought his first six birds and built a little coop for them. He enjoyed taking his birds out and releasing them, knowing they’d soon be back home. When he found out about the sport of pigeon racing a whole new world opened up.
An ancient connection
Pigeons are said to be the oldest domesticated bird, and homing pigeons have carried messages between faraway places for centuries. Pigeon owners would praise the speed and intelligence of their own birds as compared to others. But there was always the question: whose were faster? In those times, it was a question nearly impossible to answer.
Now they can.
Gunderson explained how in a modern pigeon race the owners will put electronic timing bands around one leg of a pigeon, bring their pigeons to a starting point where they meet up with other racers, and then release the birds together. Whether the distance is dozens of miles or hundreds of miles away, the birds all fly back to their different home coops.
“And so, once your bird crosses through the timer in your loft – it’s like a one-way door, so they can come in but they can’t get back out – then you have your time,” Gunderson said. That time is divided by the distance between the coop and the starting point, and this determines the winners.
Coming back home
Though pigeon racing has fans around the globe, Gunderson would like to encourage more participation right at home in East Central Minnesota.
“There’s not many young people involved in it,” he said. “For younger kids, it’s when they get their hands on a bird, let it go and then watch it come back – until you experience that, you can’t really find interest in it.
“The benefit of getting into it is, you end up learning more about yourself than the bird,” he said. “It teaches responsibility. For a young person, it gives them a break from all the distractions – the computer and the TV and all that ... to just stare in the sky for a while and watch the birds circle around. It’s kind of refreshing.”
Gunderson said he would be happy to share more information with any individuals, families or groups that might like to learn more about pigeons and pigeon racing and see a demonstration. Those interested can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until then, Gunderson will be out enjoying his birds, watching them fly. He said that raising pigeons has taught him something about trust.
“They could fly away and never come back,” he said. “But they don’t. You see them fly around and then they come back to you, to the coop.”