by Whit Gibbons

January 10, 2010

Typically, when someone calls to say they have found a bird with a band on its leg, I give them the phone number of the Patuxent Wildlife Center's Bird Banding Lab in Maryland-800-327-BAND (2263). The lab is the clearinghouse for most leg band numbers of waterfowl and other wild birds in the United States. And as I found out this week, by calling them at a time of the morning when only owls should be awake, they are open 24 hours a day.

Numbered leg bands are placed on birds for ecological studies, and through the Patuxent program, more than a million birds have been banded in the U.S. and Canada. When a leg-banded bird is caught or killed, the identification number can provide information on how long the bird has lived, how far it has traveled, and sometimes how it died. Finding a banded bird can provide a glimpse into the life secrets of an individual bird. About 10% of the lab's banded birds have been recovered.

One day a woman called to tell me she had a pigeon in her yard and that it was wearing a numbered leg band. The pigeon was not dead. It had strolled into her yard and was friendlier toward people than a wild bird is supposed to be. That meant she needed a different phone number to identify the bird, that of the American Racing Pigeon Union (AU).

Racing pigeons are really just homing pigeons that want to get back home in a hurry. Presumably wayward homing pigeons are typically males because they will not ask for directions. These domesticated descendants of rock doves, a species found wild in Africa and Asia, are the same species as those we see in parks and around city buildings. Their ancestors were brought to America from Europe by settlers who thought having pigeons was fun.

And fun, indeed, racing pigeons must be, because the AU has about 10,000 members (people, not pigeons) who have collectively registered more than 1 million pigeons. Based on conversations with AU members, I have concluded that racing pigeon fever is an as-yet-unnamed affliction that can last a lifetime. These people really like pigeons. I was inspired by their fervor.

The AU provides guidelines for how to care for a lost pigeon if you find one and how to read a band number for identification. A registered band number begins with AU followed by two numbers that indicate the year the bird was banded. The next letters indicate which local club the member belongs to. The final set of numbers is the bird's personal ID.

If a racing pigeon should happen to stop over at your house while making a long trip, the recommendations for making it comfortable during its visit are straightforward enough. Offer it water in a bowl. Pigeons, by the way, suck water up through their beaks like a straw, which makes more sense than that head tilting other birds do when drinking. Next give the bird some uncooked grain such as Granola or cornmeal. Do not insult a racing pigeon by offering it bread, peanuts, or popcorn, as it will think you have confused it with a lowly park pigeon. Then keep it in a dry box or other container while you start trying to locate the owner by calling the AU at 800-755-2778. They will be very helpful.

Meanwhile, check out the AU website ( You can find out such things as the name of the chairman of the pigeon drug-testing program (pigeon racing is, after all, a sport), read the 54 pages of official race rules, or review the position statement of the Association of Pigeon Veterinarians. These people are really serious about protecting and caring for their animals. More of our native wildlife species could use that kind of support.

Oh, yes, what about the visiting pigeon the woman called me about? Thanks to the tracking of the bird band number by the American Racing Pigeon Union, after a short stay with its new friends, the bird was picked up by its owner who lived 60 miles away.

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