The following is a speech
that Jim Jenner, the director of all the racing pigeon
films over the last several years, gave before the House
of Commons in London recently. It is definately worth
Comments by Film Director
Jim Jenner at the House of Commons Dinner, November 12,
Lord Banks, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, it
is a great honor to be here tonight to speak to you
about a subject dear to my heart.
I believe I was invited tonight to bring a little
outside perspective to your wonderful efforts here. My
film-making has indeed taken me all over the world and I
stand before you as someone who may be able to shed a
little light on the issues of the pigeon sport globally
and where it fits in to modern society.
First of all it is important to note that the tremendous
effort made here, by my English racing colleagues, ably
assisted by Lord Banks, to elevate the legacy of homing
pigeons as a vital part of our wartime history, is
unprecedented. Thanks to you, there is now a
beautiful, and permanent, monument to these brave birds
here in London. And the fact we are gathered here
tonight, at the very epicenter of English society, to
talk about Columba Livia is the most positive step that
Iím aware of, world wide, to bring back some respect for
a species that I like to think of as the Underdog of the
I use the term ďUnderdogĒ to refer to pigeons because it
is the saddest irony of my lifetime to see such a
phenomenal creature, our oldest domestic bird, our
oldest feathered friend, become so misunderstood and
vilified in the last half century.
But why should we care about how pigeons are perceived
by the public today? Well, first of all, letís remember
what has changed and how these birds once enjoyed a much
more vaunted position in society.
As Jean Hansell has so beautifully documented in her
books, it is the Rock Dove, Columba Livia, that
symbolizes the holy spirit in all the worldís major
religions. This speciesí gentleness and loyalty, and
their success as caring parents, made them an icon of
Venus, goddess of love. The bird is also the
international symbol of peace, and it is almost certain
that the bird that brought the olive branch to Noah was
a rock dove, because this is the family that has been a
companion to man since ancient humans lived with these
birds in the rocky caves around the Mediterranean. So,
for centuries, domestic pigeons were revered. They were
a big part of everyday life. Pigeon keeping was a huge
pastime in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Today
there are over 1,000 varieties of domestic pigeons that
descend from the Rock Dove.
Pigeon racing, in one form or another, is easily as old
as horse racing, the sport of Kings. I guess it is more
accurate to call our hobby the sport of Queens, because
her majesty Queen Elizabeth is a pigeon racer. Actually
she is a third generation racer because it was her
grandfather King George who first established a racing
loft at Sandringham a century ago.
When the Olympic Games open in London in 2012, tradition
calls for the release of homing pigeons to mark the
official start of the games. This again is symbolic of
an ancient friendship. During the original games in
Greece it was common for an athlete to carry pigeons
from his village to the Olympics. If he won a race, he
would tie a strand of the finish line to the bird and
release it to fly home and let his fellow villagers know
of his victory.
And speaking of Olympic athletes, I have to share some
comments I recently got about pigeons as part of the
latest film we are releasing next week. In the United
States Professor Ken Dial is one of the worldís foremost
experts on how birds fly. For over 20 years this
Harvard trained scientist has conducted experiments on
bird locomotion. He has been recognized universally for
many breakthrough findings, particularly on how
dinosaurs likely learned to fly. Professor Dial has
studied the greatest fliers in the avian kingdom and he
calls our pigeons the ultimate Olympic athlete.
According to Professor Dial no bird, in fact no
creature on earth, can match the speed and endurance of
modern racing pigeons.
But given all this rich history, from the Royal family
to respect from eminent scientists, how is it that we
are fighting so hard to earn recognition for the racing
birds we care for? How did Columba Livia become an
ďunderdogĒ if you will.
We are victims of several factors, a perfect storm of
negative components that have made for reduced status
for our birds. First, during the 1960ís and 1970ís
there was a concerted effort by the pest control
industry to convince public officials that pigeons
carried dozens of diseases, including tuberculosis.
This false campaign was intended to elevate the pigeon
as a public health threat that could then be
exterminated, for a profit mind you, by the industry.
And, even though the pigeon sport eventually got them
to cease and desist with their medical falsehoods, the
stigma has remained.
Secondly the American comedian, Woody Allen, coined a
phrase in one of his movies for the feral pigeons in New
York City. He called them feathered rats. Sadly, this
too, took root in the minds of the public, or worse, in
the minds of everyone in the media who ever thought to
do a story on pigeons.
For us this stigma is very serious, because no matter
how different our pedigreed and pampered race birds are,
to a city council they are just pigeons and they now
regulate us as if our birds were a health threat and a
nuisance. Now we have the joys of bird flu to deal with
So, in our lifetime, one of the worldís most revered
creatures, and one of natureís most phenomenal athletes,
has been reduced to the status of vermin in the minds of
the media and much of the general public.
Why is this important? Why should we care about this
if we can still quietly practice our hobby? And what
has this got to do with what may be next for the effort
that was born here in the Churchill Dining Room several
years ago? Well it has a great impact on how our sport
can survive, much less grow.
Why we should care about people being able to enjoy
pigeon racing can be illustrated in my sharing my own
personal journey to this room. And I donít mean the
7,000 miles to fly here from the Rocky Mountains of
Montana. I mean the emotional and intellectual journey
that I have experienced because of my fascination with
homing pigeons. Iím going to mention it because I know
I am not unique, I know my comments here will bring many
nods of agreement from the pigeon fanciers here tonight.
I was ten years old when my family moved from the
country to the city. At school one day a boy brought a
couple of street pigeons, in a bird cage, for show and
tell. Iíd never seen these big birds up close. And I
had never had the experience of looking into a birdís
eye and having it, basically look back, with an obvious
intelligence that was taking my measure. Science now
tells us that the bird was indeed thinking, pigeons have
been found to be able to remember hundreds of faces, and
are equal to higher order animals, such as dolphins and
porpoises, in their cognitive abilities.
Anyway, I followed my new friend home and became part of
a pack of black and white boys who roamed the city
catching and keeping street pigeons. I then visited
the library and, for the first time in my life I had a
topic that I wanted to know about. I discovered the
incredible story of homing pigeons in war and the fact
that pedigreed racing pigeons, in countries like England
and Belgium, were raced by the thousands in competitions
of 100 to 600 miles.
Like many little boys of my generation I became a pigeon
keeper. I had to learn how to design a pigeon loft. I
had to learn how to build it. I had to learn how to
find racing pigeons to buy and the very basics of having
a feathered family in my back garden that I was
responsible for. At ten years old I ruled my own little
world. Twice a day it was up to me to feed and care
for my birds. I made mistakes, such as trying to help a
hatching baby bird out of its shell, a hard lesson when
you realize that mother nature often doesnít want
assistance, and the death of the living thing I was
trying to help broke my heart.
I learned how to convert dollars to pounds so I could
send away for precious English books that annually
carried the stories of the Kingdomís greatest pigeon
men. I learned these champions could be commoner or
King and that a great pigeon could win a race flying to
a loft near a countryside manor house or to the kitchen
window of a Welsh coal miner. I learned about the
birds and the bees, well the birds anyway, without
having to have a sit down with my father!
I learned how the life cycle of all
living creatures is tied to the seasons, to the changes
in the length of the day. I learned to observe and
understand the weather. I learned about nutrition and
the components of grain, such as fiber, fat and protein,
in what I fed my birds. I learned about genetics and
how the findings of Mendel became evident in the feather
colors of the babies of birds I mated together. Let me
repeat, I was ten years old, and I was learning in the
best way a child can, by hands-on experience, self-study
and observation. Far different that having my face
glued to a video game.
Outside my little back garden pigeon world, I had to
respect and deal with my elders, because in my city
there were Champion pigeon men I wanted to know. Many
of these expert trainers were professional people, but
others were salt of the earth, working men, and I had to
learn how to speak to them, and win them over, before I
stood a chance to talk them out of precious eggs or
babies to raise.
I learned about management and planning and hygiene.
And every day I alone was responsible for delivering
clean feed and clean water to my birds and always
scrapping away their droppings.
And for all this hard work, and all this study, I was
rewarded. Because each day I could visit my birds,
birds I had raised, and I could let them outside into
the sky. And from where I stood, earthbound, I could
watch them fly. I would watch them disappear, often for
an hour and then, magically, come back, come back to
me. At the age of ten I saw a creature give up its
freedom, to return to my care, because of the bond I had
built between us.
Itís easy to be poetic about this part of my life
because the emotions are so deep within me. But the
magic I am describing was not unique to little Jim
Jenner in the Northwest corner of America. These
emotions, the life lessons, are in the heart of every
pigeon person in this room. They are, in large part,
what made us what we are today. And I can tell you that
all of we pigeons boys turned out OK, while many boys
didnít do so well and fell into drugs and crime.
Now, like most pigeon men, there was a period when
teenage hormones became stronger than the pull of the
birds, well a pull to a different kind of bird you could
say, the unfeathered variety. But the emotional
satisfaction of those early years was always in my heart
and when I finally settled down I took up the hobby
But what I am trying to describe here, by sharing what
is by no means a unique experience, is a simple
illustration of how profound an impact homing pigeons
can have on a young person. Since then I have seen, in
virtually every country I have visited, that my own
story has been repeated several million times. Thatís
how many people keep pigeons world-wide, and the
emotions Iíve described are the same for the boys of
Belfast or Beijing, Cardiff or Calcutta.
Why is this important? Well I read with interest Lord
Carterís report on sport in the U.K. It is obviously
very much on the radar screen of government today to
encourage sport and active recreation for young people
that gets them away from television and violent video
games, and into drug free activities that engage their
minds. For many experts sport is the answer.
Can we call pigeon racing a sport? Well a dictionary
definition of sport is a game or organized activity. It
may or may not involve hard physical play. Worldwide,
pigeon racing is far greater in terms of participation
and prize money than dog racing for example. Much like
horse racing it involves highly bred contestants,
although no horse race on earth matches the twenty to
two hundred thousand birds that can take part in a
pigeon race on a summer Saturday. In terms of size the
Royal Pigeon Racing Assoc, the RPRA, with over thirty
employees, is much larger than the vast majority of
sport bodies in the U.K. When you read Lord Carterís
report you realize that as many people race pigeons in
the U.K. today as play volleyball, or hockey or sail or
learn gymnastics. And while building and managing a team
of racing pigeons may not be as physically demanding as
running down a football pitch, letís look at the some
other benefits. First of all we canít make light of the
physical demands and responsibilities of, twice a day,
every day, hauling food and water back and forth to
your loft. And cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. But
it is the mental and emotional component that I think I
can best address. A lot of Lord Carterís report
discusses the benefits of sport that go beyond mere
exercise. It is the aspects of getting away from the TV,
interfacing with others and getting your mental gears
turning that are listed as key goals of the hundreds of
millions of pounds investment in youth that the study
contemplates. Thatís where the huge impact on my own
life becomes noteworthy because it is not unique.
Pigeons can literally change children for the better.
Hereís what I mean by that.
Iím sorry that House of Commons decorum doesnít permit
the showing of films. Because, letís face it, a
filmmakerís work speaks louder than his words. If I
could, I would have shown you one of the stories that
was in my last film, ďShare The Blue SkyĒ.
It was called ďPigeons Go To SchoolĒ and it told about a
program for at risk teenagers at a secondary school in
the United States. Iím going to provide copies to Lord
Banks and others so you have a chance to see this saga.
At this school the science teacher is a pigeon fancier,
as is his father. Together they created a small pigeon
loft behind the classroom and the students were in
charge of raising and training a flock of racing birds.
These teenagers, mostly from poor Hispanic families in
a small farming community, represent much of what modern
society is burdened with. Most are from single parent
families, most ended up at this last chance, alternative
school because of serious attendance or behavior
problems. They were no strangers to teen pregnancy,
drugs, crime or abusive home lives. What you see in
this film is the simple connection that pigeons can
bring between human beings and the natural world. And I
need to point out to our honored guests something they
may not know. As a childís pet, domestic racing pigeons
are hardy, they live happily in small spaces, they are
easily tamed and most of all, they fly. Since time
began these big birds have imparted something special to
the soul of a child who cares for them.
My favorite images are of a huge boy, a legend as a
vicious fighter before he was tossed out of the
mainstream school, cupping a tiny baby pigeon in his big
hands. My favorite comments are his words about how
gentle pigeon parents are with their young and how calm
he feels when he watches the birds fly. The most
profound comments come from the school principal who
relates that the problems of the class have changed.
Before the pigeon program, he says, the problem was
they didnít come to school. Now, he says with a smile,
the problem is they donít want to go home. A follow-up
study, commissioned by the state education department,
found that the students in the pigeon project improved
by over a full grade point in their academic
performance. Their attendance rose dramatically. Most
significant the incidents of aggressive behavior all but
went away. Phenomenal results for any sport
program to be sure. In my story one girl spoke of how
it made her feel to be asked to care for an abandoned
baby pigeon. In her own words she said she went from
contemplating suicide to deciding to continue with
school, find a job and build a life for herself. Iím
not making this up. Itís all there.
So here we are, in the House of Commons, talking about
pigeons. And youíve succeeded brilliantly in honoring
the homing pigeons contribution to saving lives in war.
But what is next? Where does pigeon racing fit in
the future of society? Why should we fight to be
recognized as a viable and important part of youth
Speaking of competitive sport I think of my friend Gerry
Francis here. Itís true to say heís one in a million
in more ways than one. Statistically there can only be
so many champions of his caliber, only so many heroes of
Team England. No matter how many hundred million pounds
are invested in expanding sport in the U.K., mother
nature is going to produce very few athletes of Gerryís
caliber. That leaves several millions other kids on the
sidelines. And, for many, simple exercise is only small
part of what is missing in their lives.
Thatís where we come in. I think this is the next
step. A critical component of the entire sports effort
is active recreation that gets children out of a
sedentary lifestyle and mentally engaged in something
other than TV or a computer screen. It is up to us to
produce the tools that can help to do this by working to
help more young people become interested in racing
Now some will tell you this is impossible. Many within
our sport will say we are the last generation, that kids
today just canít be engaged in our hobby. I beg to
differ. In fact I venture that any pigeon person who
has visited a school to talk about pigeons in the last
few years, would also beg to differ. Say what you will
about the spoiled and disinterested youth of today, I
have witnessed the same magic in their eyes that I had
when I saw my first pigeons. The flame can still be
lit, and it is our job to light it.
Ohhh, that will never work, others will say, schools or
youth centers would never let pigeons be around. Well,
Iím reminded of a film I worked on twenty years ago for
a group that advocated introducing animals, particularly
cats and dogs, into the then antiseptic environments of
convalescent centers and homes for the elderly. Have
you been to any of these places lately? They have dogs,
and cats, and birds all over. And do you know why the
administrators changed their minds? Because you can
show, scientifically, that contact with other living
creatures makes humans calmer and happier and we live
Why should we care about this? Well the more young
people interested in our hobby today means the more
people likely to take up the hobby later in life. And
all of the wonderful things that pigeon keeping brought
into my life, and yours, are still there to change the
lives of a new generation. And they need it more than
Again, let me share what Iíve learned around the globe.
Attracting youth is a big problem for the pigeon sport
everywhere. And I believe one of the problems is that
most efforts try to bring young people directly into
existing racing clubs. In most cases this is a mistake.
First, letís remember that pigeon racing is the
toughest competition out of the box of any sport in the
world. Unlike golf where you have a handicap, or tennis
where they have seedings, or football where the teams
are scaled based on their overall performance, from day
one in pigeon racing you are competing with the top
trainers on an equal footing. You are often up against
hundreds of other fanciers with years more experience.
Your birds are competing against thousands of other
pigeons each weekend, in races where a few seconds means
the difference between first and fiftieth place. Unless
you are a genius, early success is hard to achieve.
Whatís more the average pigeon club is typically full
of older folks who look forward to their weekends with
their mates, it is often not a place a young person is
comfortable, at least until they learn the ropes.
That said there are ample opportunities to put pigeons
in front of young people through their science
education. Todayís teachers are desperate for new and
engaging curriculums that break the chain of young
peopleís slavish devotion to their cell phones and video
games. Whether itís a small loft at a school, or a
youth center or even at a local zoo or a nature center.
We have to think about putting live, flying homing
pigeons in front of young people and be ready to help
encourage those that become fascinated by our birds. It
can be done. It must be done. Imagine for example if
there was a replica of an historic military loft, with
live birds inside and display boards and a movie screen
around it that described military birds and modern
pigeon racing. Now imagine that this entire unit is at
the London Zoo. How many people a day would get a
positive impression of our hobby?
Probably the single most significant change in the sport
is the advent of electronic clocking. Although it has
not been adopted officially in the U.K. it is still a
fantastic resource to create programs that engage young
people. By that I mean it is possible for a small loft
of birds to be clocked over a series of races, either
one bird sprints, or as a group, download the data and
come up with an overall winning bird. Itís the kind of
competitive information that can keep kids engaged in
how their individual birds are doing, and the races can
be as simple as ten or twenty mile events. And it also
means that a single pigeon loft can serve as a focal
point for many children even if they couldnít have their
own birds at home. And letís also remember how little
physical space all this takes compared to a sports
pitch. A demonstration pigeon loft can be the size of a
single parking stall.
What I really want to emphasis is that there is no
significant youth oriented program that is being used by
the hobby world-wide, and I believe this is the perfect
forum for this type of effort to be launched. And I
donít bring it up as a challenge that I make and walk
away from, but as something I would love to be involved
with at any level.
I believe that this is the forum for several reasons.
First the bulk of the national pigeon organizations,
world wide, are almost totally devoted to the complex
business running races and issuing bands. And,
occasionally, dealing with controversies like doping. I
must digress for a moment to point out to our many
dignitaries here tonight that when I was here a year ago
the big news was the RPRAís drug testing of British race
birds. Sadly, there has been virtually no follow-up
report that this effort, which made the Wall Street
Journal, American television, etc. and made us look like
we had a shady sport going on, has turned up no, zero, I
repeat no instances, of drug use among the winning
trainers who were suspect.
And this lack of positive public affairs is part of what
I see as a problem with the organizations themselves
trying to reach out to youth. Most of them are run by
older pigeon men, who are often not the best or most
sophisticated marketers in the world. I believe an
outside, ad hoc group, like your amalgamation which has
been so successful at attracting celebrity support and
positive media attention, would be far more effective at
bridging the many different arenas of the sport and be
able to work at the highest levels of government and
education to tell our dramatic story.
As a side light there are considerable cultural
advantages to this as well. The highest number of at
risk youth are those with the least access to nature.
They are often poor, disadvantaged and living in single
family, urban environments. Many of them, Muslims youth
for example, also have a cultural legacy of pigeon
keeping that goes back hundreds of generations. I
canít tell you how often I get letters in fractured
English from pigeon fanciers in Egypt, Iran, Pakistan
and other Muslim countries who are reaching out to learn
more about pigeons worldwide. And letís remember that
while the hobby is dwindling in many parts of the West,
it is exploding in countries such as China, Poland and
Portugal, countries where a growing middle class is
taking up pigeon racing.
If we started today to create a U.K. and global effort
to promote the pigeon sport, to make it part of science
curriculums and youth activities, how on earth would you
fund such an effort? Well, let me leave you with this
thought. The pigeon racers in this room know our hobby
is a sport in every sense of the word. It is mentally
challenging, it is highly competitive, it is extremely
emotionally satisfying, and not just in your youth. We
care about our hobbyís survival. We honor what it has
done for us in our lives. Hereís what I mean.
Let me go back to Gerry Francis for a minute because he
has a new job you may not know about. Gerry said he
didnít want to coach but he is coaching. Not on
the field. Heís in his back garden breeding, training
and conditioning athletes that can go fifty miles an
hour, flat out, all day long. Heís the coach of what is
arguably the formula one flying machine of the avian
kingdom. And, even though he may not be running up and
down a football pitch, Gerry is mentally and emotionally
tied to his team. And if one of his players wins, if one
of his birds is best, there wonít be cheering fans or
headlines in the newspaper. But there will be a little
smile on Gerryís face when he sees the other fanciers in
his club, and the emotional satisfaction he gleans from
that victory will go deep in his heart. Best of all,
it is a sport he can play, a team he can coach, until
the day he can no longer walk to the loft. Our sport
is magical because the older you get the better you get
at it! And a successful and dedicated fancier like
Gerry is willing to commit his time and money to helping
the hobby he enjoys so much.
I donít make light of the importance of physically
active sports. Iíve quarterbacked my school team. Iíve
reminisced with my buddies about our victories on the
field. You have too probably. But I venture no
victory in athletics is as clear in your mind as the
first pigeon race you won, or the band number of the
marvelous creature that won it for you.
That is what we are talking about helping bring to other
people in the world. And based on my world travels I
can tell you that many other intelligent pigeon leaders,
world-wide would be proud to be invited to Englandís
House of Commons to work on improving our hobby, to have
it recognized as a sport, to try to develop a global
program to encourage youth involvement in this hobby.
But what about the money?
Well think about this. Is pigeon racing in your will?
For all the thousands of hours of satisfaction this
hobby has brought to you, is there anywhere you could
send your money that would further the sport, that would
help it live on for future generations? No there is not.
And as we witness the passing of an entire generation
of pigeon fanciers, I maintain that the right program,
achieving the type of success you have achieved with the
war memorial, could easily become a place that a fancier
would bequeath a few hundred or a few thousand pounds.
Our hobby is a wonderful, competitive sport that is
beneficial to the emotional well-being of the people who
practice it, young or old. It is indeed a sport
worth fighting for. I hope some of these comments
and radical ideas may be a catalyst for where we go from
Again, to Lord Banks, thank you so much for hosting this
event. Honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you
for inviting us.