SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Wayward Homing Pigeon Hitchhikes With Fishing Fleet
By Heidi Ekstrand


August 01, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - In some cases the Thomas Wolfe quote is true - "you can't go home again." Especially if you can't FIND your way home again!

A homing pigeon released in the Smithers, B.C. area in late June flew northwest and ended up hitchhiking aboard three commercial fishing boats for a week near Prince of Wales Island in July instead of flying south to its home near Vancouver, B.C.

jpg wayward homing pigeon

The wayward homing pigeon first turned up on Bruce Wallace's boat the Odyssey.
Photo by Heidi Ekstrand©

One of the boats eventually brought the bird to Ketchikan and it was delivered to Sher Schwartz, who has her own loft of homing pigeons. From the leg bands on the bird, Schwartz was able to track down its original owner near Toronto, Ontario, who had sold the bird two years ago to the current owner near Vancouver.

The tale of the "flippy flyer" started early in the week of July 9, when the bird landed on Bruce Wallace's seiner, the "Odyssey," fishing near Kendrick Bay on the southeast end of Prince of Wales Island, and made himself at home in the wheelhouse.

"I've had lots of birds land on the boat, that's not unusual," Wallace said. "But I've never had one walk into the wheelhouse and take over the place!"

The leg bands identified the bird as a "homer," and Wallace and his crew shuffled their way around the wheelhouse, depending on where the bird was perched. The bird flew off after a day or two and Wallace didn't think much more about it until he later heard another fisherman hailing on the VHF radio asking if anyone had lost a pet bird?

That was Jock McIlraith, skipper of the seiner "Mary Louise B," fishing at Scott Point, a few miles north of Kendrick Bay.

jpg Jock McIlraith

Jock McIlraith broadcast a query on the VHF asking if anyone had lost a pet bird.
Photo by Heidi Ekstrand©

The pigeon spent three and a half days on McIlraith's open flying bridge, dining on a rice diet. At one point the bird flew off, then spotted a predatory eagle flying nearby and, like a boomerang, "he came right back to the boat!" McIlraith said with a laugh.

After three days, McIlraith assumed the bird would stick around, but it eventually flew off for good.

"I've never been a birder, but this might do it," he said. "I really got attached to that bird. I was sorry to see him go."

jpg Jim Widmyer

Jim Widmyer ferried the bird to Ketchikan
onboard his boat the Nestor.
Photo by Heidi Ekstrand©

jpg The Nestor

The Nestor tied up to the Trident dock in Ketchikan.
Photo by Heidi Ekstrand©

At the end of the week, on Friday July 13, the bird landed on the "Nestor," a longliner fishing for blackcod in the Caamano Point area, about 35 miles north of Kendrick.

Skipper Jim Widmyer and his son Jesse Widmyer also got attached to the bird during its weekend stay, with the bird tame enough to sit on Jesse's finger. They had tentative plans to keep the bird and take it home with them, but agreed to hand it over to Schwartz's care on Monday July 16 when they delivered their catch in Ketchikan.

Throughout the week, the bird was the topic of conversation among the Kendrick Bay seine fleet, with frequent inquiries of "have you heard anything more about the bird?"

Schwartz took the bird and began her search for the owner, with everyone curious where the wayward pigeon started its travels from.

The letters "CU" on the bird's leg band linked it to the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union, and it was through that group that Schwartz got in touch with the original owner in Ontario, Ozzie Vanhaverbeke. Vanhaverbeke is owner of "Flandria Lofts," widely respected in the pigeon racing world for both racing and breeding accomplishments.

There was brief excitement that maybe the bird had flown all the way from Ontario! But Vanhaverbeke had sold the bird for $100 about two years ago to a man in Winfield, B.C., about 160 miles northeast of Vancouver. Still, Winfield to Ketchikan would have been a fair distance for the bird to have flown!

But when Schwartz reached the new owner, Jerry Groshe, she learned he'd released the bird during a race in late June in Smithers, B.C., about 215 miles east of Prince Rupert, B.C. The bird was supposed to return to Winfield, but apparently decided to go north to Alaska instead.

A ballpark mileage estimate for the flight from Smithers to Kendrick Bay to Caamano Point is 315 miles.

Groshe said it wasn't worth it to pay the shipping costs to return the pigeon to Winfield. Schwartz and Groshe debated the possibility of releasing the bird again from Ketchikan in hopes it would get its bearings straight this time and fly home. But based on his history, they didn't think that was likely to happen. So the bird will stay in Ketchikan with Schwartz, who named the bird "Ozzie," after the original owner.

jpg Schwartz with Ozzie

Sher Schwartz with Ozzie and some of her other birds.
Photo by Bruce Schwartz©

Schwartz has been raising pigeons for about the last four years. She started working with wild pigeons, then purchased eight purebred birds from Pennsylvania. Her loft now includes 16 homing pigeons and 12 Portuguese Tumblers, known for their "tumbling" acrobatics in the air. Schwartz describes them as "thoroughly spoiled" and has trained them to return home from various places around Ketchikan.

She said she'll try to find a mate for Ozzie and make sure he's thoroughly assimilated into her flock before trying to fly him.

So for now, if "home is where the heart is," then Ketchikan will be home for Ozzie - assuming he doesn't head back out to sea.


Heidi Ekstrand lives and works in Ketchikan.©2007

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