Marl, West Germany — Herbert Sonnenschein cradles his best carrier pigeon, Jens, in his coal miners' hands and spreads out one of the bird's wings to display its iridescent feathers. The dove pecks at its master's shirt, either out of irritation or affection; it's not clear which.
Jens is the flagship, so to speak, of Mr. Sonnenschein's 52-bird squadron. Jens stands the best chance of winning fame for his master in the 14-member "Desire for Victory" club of Marl city's 46-club contingent among the Ruhr's 40, 000 breeders and racers. It's a tradition that goes back to Sonnenschein's coal miner father and coal miner grandfather and will perhaps go forward with his coal miner son. In the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland, pigeon racing ranks almost on a par with soccer in popularity -- and it has enjoyed this status ever since the Silesian and Polish workers streamed here in Germany's 19 th-century industrialization. The new arrivals got a patch of land behind their company houses, and on this land they raised not only vegetables and an occasional pig, but also homing pigeons. Nowadays the pigs have gone, but the vegetables and pigeons remain.
It's a demanding sport. Mr. and Mrs. Sonnenschein -- the sport is basically a male one but welcomes extensive wifely support -- usually spend their vacation at home taking care of their flock. And they usually spend their Sundays from April through September waiting for the first racer to return so they can drop its leg band into the sealed time clock in the same tenth of a second the bird lands. And every other day of the week they have to make sure the pigeons get fed (an expensive grain diet that costs $35 a month in winter) and exercised (one morning hour and one evening hour of free flight).
Those demanding Sundays are the name of the game, though. The preparation starts on Saturday, when the racing birds are primed by being put with their mates, then quickly separated. "Widowhood," this method is called, and it is largely superseded the alternative incentive to a quick flight home of putting dummy eggs under the pigeon. (Oddly, this seemed to work even with males.)
Then the 2,000 to 3,000 doves that are taking part in the week's race from Pride, Matador, Everybody Here, Wiedersehen, and all the other Marl clubs get a ride in a crammed truck to the northwest, perhaps as far as Denmark. The birds are released at about 6 a.m. Sunday, and the competition is on. The flights can last up to 10 hours -- without food -- and the pigeons come back worn out.
When there is stormy weather, some birds may never make it home. Sonnenschein lost eight pigeons last year, and Marl as a whole lost several thousand. Occasionally the disoriented, exhausted birds turn up in strange dovecotes as far away as Belgium or Holland (or Belgian birds turn up in Marl); then they are either bused back to their original owners or fed and rested until they can make the flight themselves.
How much is a champion carrier pigeon worth? Money can't buy it, Sonnenschien says. But a bad one isn't even worth putting in a cooking pot! (Does Jens give its master an especially hard peck at this point, or is it just imagination?) Sonnenschein knows of one bird that sold for $17,500, but mostly racers are traded rather than sold, especially from each spring's crop of fledglings. After a trade, a pigeon cannot be raced for four weeks or so; until then it's apt to fly back to the old home rather than the new one. Young birds begin to fly 25 days after they hatch; by six months they are already strong enough to fly 230 miles in races and sure enough in their instincts to make it home.
How, nobody seems to know. They need daylight. They need good weather, and don't even do practice flying in snow or heavy rain. Beyond that, it's not clear whether the navigation is magnetic or visual or is done by some other method.
And why the popularity of homing pigeons in the Ruhr? Nobody knows that, either. Maybe it's the freedom of flight in the heavens that is especially dear to miners who work eight hours a day in the bowels of the earth. Or maybe the attraction is the idea of home. Jens can symbolize a lot of things