The Brain-Wiping Science of Pigeon Training
When TC Ptomey acquires a group of pigeons, he almost always keeps them in the basement in the pitch black for several weeks before bringing them up to the roof.
All photos by the author
The man stands in front of a makeshift wood and wire cage structure, surrounded by pigeons. The birds circle and duck and dive around him, and occasionally they eat out of his hand. He whistles, and they come to him.
TC Ptomey started keeping pigeons when he was just a kid, but spent the last few decades without them because he had nowhere to keep them. Two years ago, he finally found a landlord willing to let him put a pigeon loft on his roof—a roof connected to my roof, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Now, if I walk up two flights of stairs, climb a ladder, slide over a wooden cover and pull my body up through a square hole, I emerge onto a roof that's home to nearly a hundred pigeons.
On some days, the birds fly together, swarming in the air above the loft. On others, they climb so high they look like the tops of pins in the sky. Sometimes, they rest on or inside the loft, feathers down, so quietly that you wouldn't even know they were there.
Ptomey keeps at least four different breeds of pigeon at any one time: "flying flights," which fly in a pattern; "tipplers," which have been bred to fly long distances; "tumblers," which do back flips in the air; and "homers," which are perhaps the most famous breed, for being able to fly far and find their way home.
When Ptomey, who is 52, was growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, pigeon keepers, or "fanciers," were a common sight in the borough. Coops sat atop many roofs, and the (mostly) men who kept them would spend hours breeding, feeding, raising, and flying their birds. Some would even train them to race. A common pastime for kids in the neighborhood was to try to catch and steal other people's birds for sport.
"We used to catch 10 birds a day and sell them to the pet store," said Ptomey. "That's how many people had birds."
Today, far fewer New Yorkers keep pigeons, due in part to increased zoning laws but mostly to an aging population of pigeon keepers with few in the younger generation interested in carrying on the hobby. But the pigeon fanciers who remain are a special set. Over the centuries that humans have kept pigeons, these fanciers have developed increasingly advanced and sometimes bizarre techniques to train their birds.
Some of the techniques are learned, while others have been figured out by individual trial and error. Some are common sense, while many other techniques seem to defy logic. Few fanciers have actually read the research on pigeon behavior and intelligence, but instead have intuitively discovered training methods that seemingly line up with the science.
Take Ptomey, who doesn't even race his pigeons—he just raises them. He lives by a set of rules with his birds, some of which he learned growing up, but others which he added just by spending time with them.
One: Let them out of the coop everyday when they're hungry, so that they'll come back for food.
Two: Let them out in the dark, so they're less likely to fly away.
Three: Let them out in a group, and raise them in a group, too.
When Ptomey first acquires a group of pigeons, often from a pet store, he almost always keeps them in the basement in the pitch black for several weeks before bringing them up to the loft. "It's to brainwash them," he said, "and to erase their memory" of their original home.
Verner Bingman, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who has studied pigeon behavior, said the technique sounds bizarre but just might work.
"The problem that he's trying to solve is that when a pigeon is older it's very hard to resettle them on a new loft," Bingman said. Putting them in the pitch black, Ptomey explains, helps the birds forget their old home and accept his loft as their new one.
It's to brainwash them, and to erase their memory
If a stray pigeon happens to fly past his loft, Ptomey often tries to use his birds to catch it, and he has a strategy for this, too. He whistles to his flock, who gathers and then flies up and around the bird, bringing it into the fold. He says he has captured a number of his neighbor's stray birds this way.
Charles Walcott, a neurobiologist at Cornell University who has studied homing pigeons since the 1960s, said the strategy makes perfect sense. "Pigeons are very social animals, and they love to fly in flocks," he said. "If you are a slightly misplaced pigeon going somewhere, then seeing a flock is an attractive thing."
Pigeons have a remarkable range of sensory and cognitive abilities, which may account for the diverse training techniques of fanciers. Research has shown pigeons can see ultraviolet light, hear very low frequencies, sense very small changes in barometric pressure, use touch screens, categorize objects, do higher math, and even recognize human expressions.
And so pigeon keepers have been trying to get the best out of their birds for centuries. As part of his research before publishing On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin became obsessed with pigeon fanciers, because they so clearly showed him the possibilities of selection.
Pigeons, Darwin saw, had incredible differences among them, from the size of their bodies to the shape of their tail to their coos and flight patterns. And yet they all came from one species, the rock pigeon, or Columba livia, which was hardly special.
Ed Wasserman, a comparative psychologist at the University of Iowa who studies pigeon intelligence, says Darwin was fascinated by the degree to which pigeon fanciers "were able to change the behavior and anatomy of the birds through selective breeding."
The fanciers were also able to change their birds' behavior through specialized training techniques, such as Ptomey's basement brainwashing or calculated release times. "They employ a variety of techniques, sometimes weird, sometimes unconventional, to see to what extent they can improve the speed and ability of the pigeons to return to the loft," said Wasserman.
This is on display perhaps nowhere better than at homing pigeon racing clubs, whose members participate in regular competitions to see whose birds can fly home from long distances the fastest. At many of these clubs, including the Viola Homing Pigeon Club in Coney Island, selecting for certain behaviors is even more important because there's money on the table.
On an overcast day in early October, the club held its second annual Viola Club Bond Race, which started in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. It's a major race that awards $10,000 to the winning pigeon and trainer. Some 50 men participated this year, paying $500 to ship their birds by truck from Perth Amboy to Cadiz, Ohio, where the birds would then fly 350 miles back home.
Richard Zdan, a retired policeman with yellow gray hair and a "No Fear" T-shirt, entered a dozen birds in the race. There are photos of Zdan's winning pigeons all over the club walls, and he says his training techniques are to thank.
Zdan says that, over the years, he's learned that the color of the bird means nothing, but the shape of its throat can mean everything. He breeds within families, which he says produces a higher number of good fliers and bad fliers, but less mediocre ones. He's also learned to favor "pluggers" over "sprinters."
"You don't necessarily want the fastest pigeon but you want the one that will keep on plugging," he says. "You know, like the Turtle and the Hare."
As the men prepare to ship off their birds, they talk about technique. Rich D'Antonio, who isn't racing today but who once had a winning bird that set a record speed of 81 miles per hour, says that there "are 100 roads to Rome and everybody's different."
"You have faith in throats?" Zdan asks him.
"Nah," says D'Antonio.
Bingman at Bowling Green calls the pigeon "the working man's race horse." While it isn't cheap to raise and race pigeons, it's far cheaper than racing horses. "And they spend hours talking about how their birds perform badly or well," says Bingman.
The men also spend time discussing how their pigeons actually find their way home. Homing pigeons are remarkable in that they have not only an internal compass but also an internal map—meaning that when they are plopped down somewhere new, even hundreds of miles away, they not only know which way is north and south, but also where they are and how to get back to where they came from.
Despite decades of research, scientists have come up with no definitive answer to how pigeons do this. The biologists, psychologists and geophysicists I spoke to all had theories, but admitted that no one knows for sure. Zdan thinks a combination of factors are at play, including the pigeons' ability to sense the Earth's magnetic field, which can tell them where they are relative to the equator. The magnetic-field theory is long-held, and probably the most predominant.
The second most popular theory is that pigeons rely on odors to find their way home. This theory holds that pigeons build a sort of "navigational olfactory map," using the odors associated with different environments to navigate.
A third theory posits that they use navigational cues by sight to find their way, cues like lakes and hills in the countryside, or streets and avenues in a city. Many scientists believe pigeons rely on not one but all three of these systems together.
They're able to look acoustically at the landscape and think, ah, my home is over there
A very new and somewhat controversial hypothesis, proposed by Jonathan Hagstrum at the US Geologic Survey, suggests pigeons use infrasound to navigate.
"A good analogy is what bats are doing with high-frequency sound," said Hagstrum. "Pigeons are taking infrasound, and processing it into an image so that they're able to look acoustically at the landscape and think, ah, my home is over there."
Bingman at Bowling Green calls infrasound a "fringe theory," but Hagstrum insists the previous theories are "just too simplistic." But no matter how homing pigeons navigate, one thing is clear: through selective breeding and training, they have become far superior to the street pigeons humans see everyday. The winning pigeon of the Viola Bond Race flew 350 miles home from Ohio in just six and a half hours, flying 58 miles per hour with the help of a southwest wind.
Ptomey describes the difference between homers and non-homing pigeons as akin to the difference between Apple and PC computers. But Walcott at Cornell notes that there are also physical differences, and that the homing pigeon has become more like the "athlete of the pigeon world."
"It's been bred for generations to find these long distances and find their way home, and it has twice the pectoral muscle of any normal street pigeon," he said. But the average street pigeon can also find his way just fine, he says, though over smaller distances.
Ptomey has tested this. He said that, as a kid, he used to put tipplers in a box and strap the box to his bike, then ride to Prospect Park, set the birds free, and race them back home to Brownsville.
"They'd always win," he said, unless he released them further away. His homing pigeons, on the other hand, could be taken all the way to Long Island, Staten Island, and Queens, and they would always find their way home, and fast.
Ptomey doesn't love street pigeons, but he loves his tipplers and tumblers and homers and flying flights. They feel special, and further evolved, to him. He knows them and he knows how to work with them.
"I like the colors, the way they move, the way they fly. They have a certain thing about them compared to the birds in the street. They got a totally different attitude. They got class," he says, and then disappears down the hole.