Pigeons Fly the Coop

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The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver is handing out homing pigeons. The idea is to take the bird home with you, and then release it to fly back to the museum. You’ve got to live within 30 miles of the museum. Ryan Warner speaks with the artist Jon Rubin about the exhibition, which is called "Thinking About Flying." But first, CPR's Andrea Dukakis picked up a homing pigeon with her family. Here's a transcript of her report:

Reporter Andrea Dukakis: First, I have to admit I have somewhat of a bias when it comes to pigeons. Twenty years ago, I lived in a first-floor apartment in New York City. And one of my windows faced an alley -- full of pigeon feathers and droppings. So, I’ve never really wanted to get up close and personal with them. But when I heard you could pick up a homing pigeon, I went for the kids’ sake. We drove to the museum in downtown Denver, went to the rooftop, and wandered over to the pigeon coop in the corner.

John Hereford: OK, so we’re here for pigeons...

Reporter: That’s my husband John. Then we stepped inside the coop. It was actually pretty clean. Carrie Smith was there to answer questions . She’s a pigeoneer...

John Hereford: So these are a totally different species?

Carrie Smith: From the ones on the street? They have been bred and fed better so they’re higher end. This is Dodo.

Reporter: And Dodo’s the pigeon my 11-year-old daughter Jobie picked.

Jobie Hereford: Hi, Dodo!

Reporter: Our friend Will, who’s also 11, picked Thunderhead. I wanted nothing to do with holding them, but I encouraged the kids to hold theirs.

Will Caulkins: I held Dodo. You try it.

Jobie Hereford: No thanks.

Caulkins: Try it, come on.

Jobie Hereford: No, I don’t want to. What if it...? I’m scared!

Reporter: These pigeons have been homed at the museum since they were babies. They have a kind of internal compass that relies on the sun, and perhaps on the earth’s magnetic field. Carrie Smith says once a pigeon is homed, they know how to get back.

Smith: They always come back to the place they’ve been homed, so if you want to rehome a pigeon, you would have to keep it prisoner for a year until it starts breeding and then they may come back for their eggs or for their mate. And they can know multiple homes, but they always go back to the first one that they learned.

Reporter: Before we left, we got a little history. Smith told us they’ve been used for thousands of years. During Alexander the Great’s time, the pigeons would carry messages to let people know the results of sporting events. And they were used during wartime.

Smith: And then the soldier would release the pigeon with the message and it would come home to the empire.

Reporter: It was time to leave the museum with our pigeon boxes and get in the car to head home.

Jobie Hereford: I wonder what’s going to happen when we start moving.

Reporter: Alright guys tell me how your pigeons are doing. Why don’t you each describe them?

Caulkins: My pigeon just pooped on my hand and it’s sticking its head out the top.

Jobie Hereford: My pigeon is getting tense right now. It’s actually scaring me. He went doo-doo a couple of times. Oh. Doo-doo Dodo.

Reporter: We drop off our friend Will at his house and then head home to release Dodo before dark.

John Hereford: Jobie, you gotta take him out so he doesn’t hit the roof.

Jobie Hereford: Alright guys. Ready, Luce.

Reporter: Some of our neighbors join us to watch.

Jobie Hereford: All right guys. Ahh.

John Hereford: Hi pigeon. Oh look, he’s going in the exact direction of the MCA.

Reporter: A few weeks later, as I was putting this story together, it occurred to me that we never checked with the museum to see if Dodo and Thuderhead actually made it back. We’d just assumed they did. So, I decided to check in.

William Sawyer: MCA Denver. This is William.

Reporter: Hi, William this is Andrea Dukakis calling. I picked up two pigeons a few weeks ago and I just wanted to make sure they made it back.

Sawyer: Oh,great. Wonderful. Which ones were they?

Reporter: Their names were Dodo and Thunderhead.

Sawyer: Yes, Dodo and Thunderhead have both made it back.

Reporter: Thanks so much for your help.

(Originally aired Nov. 23, 2012)

Click the interview button to hear Ryan Warner's interview with Jon Rubin.

[Photo: CPR/Andrea Dukakis]