Nobody knows what brings pigeons home. Charles Darwin believed that the birds navigated by sight and memory, calculating the return leg by keeping track of the outward journey. In the Fifties, the biologist Gustav Kramer suggested that pigeons, like all migratory birds, used the sun as a waymark. In the Seventies, a cruel-sounding experiment conducted by Italian scientists discovered that severing the olfactory nerve – which conveys sensory information relating to smell – prevented pigeons from navigating back to their loft.
However they do it, these boomerang birds can cross continents to reach home. One of the longest homing flights ever recorded was made by a pigeon owned by the Duke of Wellington. Liberated from Ichaboe Island, off the coast of Namibia, on June 1 1845, it took 55 days to fly the 5,400 miles back to Nine Elms in London, where it was found dead in a gutter a mile from its home.
Jon Day’s previous book, Cyclogeography, charted his time as a bicycle courier navigating the streets of London. Now, he has turned his attention to another often overlooked fixture of urban life: pigeons and the men – for he admits it is practically always men – who fly them.
Pigeon fancying is an ancient craft, with surprisingly modern applications. The birds (homers are one of 300 species of columbidae) were first domesticated by the Sumerians, and were used to carry messages in ancient Egypt and throughout the Roman Empire. When the Reuters news agency was founded in 1851, Day tells us, a flock of 45 homing pigeons was relied upon to plug a gap in the telegraph network; most newspapers retained a pigeon loft well into the 20th century. The bird also served a vital communications role during the First and Second World Wars.
A colombophile since youth, when he used to rescue injured pigeons on the streets, Day has long been fascinated by the beauty of birds oft-maligned as mere “flying rats”. For the author, by contrast, they are “composed of an oceanic palette: deep blues and greens flecked with white, like the crest of a wave”. But it wasn’t until he moved to east London that Day began to contemplate the idea of pigeon racing.
Leyton, where he now lives, is only a few miles from where he grew up, but the move into suburban domesticity elicited curious feelings of homesickness. As a distraction, Day decided to establish a pigeon loft in his back garden, travelling to the Royal Pigeon Racing Association Show of the Year in Blackpool and picking up a couple of birds, named Eggy and Orange by his daughter. Day’s ultimate target is the 2018 Thurso Classic, “one of the longest and most prestigious pigeon races in the club calendar”. Six of his birds will be released at the far north of Scotland, 504 miles from their loft, and left to wing their way home.
Day beautifully interweaves the twin threads of his life through these years, as he settles down with his partner and starts a family, while at the same time training his birds to fly ever further away. The book is awash with historical and literary detail, and moving moments: when pushing his daughter on the swings at the park and battling fatherly anguish at the speed she is growing up, she tells him: “I want to go as high as the pigeons.”
Once the preserve of the aristocracy, during the 19th and 20th centuries pigeon fancying became a staunchly working-class tradition. It is still big business abroad: readers may recall the recent story of Armando, the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons, bought for £1 million in an online auction by an unnamed Chinese buyer.
But in Britain, the counterculture is undergoing something of an existential crisis, with old-timers dying out, neighbours objecting to the smell of lofts and fewer people having the time to properly care for the birds. The members of Day’s local club are part of a dwindling bunch who have flown birds all their lives, but now find themselves increasingly incongruous in a rapidly gentrifying corner of London.
Day is told by one East End fancier that in London it is now Polish and Moroccan migrants keeping the pursuit alive. “I think it reminds them of home,” he says.
When his children grow older, Day reflects, they will no doubt be “deeply embarrassed” by their father’s hobby. But for now, the author, his birds and brood reside happily alongside one another in the intangible bliss he calls home. This wonderful book captures so much of what that word means.
Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return is published by John Murray at £16. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph bookshop