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Thousands Of Homing Pigeons Go Missing During British Race

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

People who live in cities have come up with some terrible names for pigeons.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIGEONS COOING)

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah - winged rats, sky rodents. Charles Walcott of Cornell wishes we'd give pigeons a little more respect.

CHARLES WALCOTT: You can take one of these pigeons a thousand miles or more in any direction from the home loft, let them go and they fly home.

FADEL: So when thousands of racing pigeons went missing in Cambridgeshire, England, last month, it was an actual mystery. Members of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association told news outlets they've never seen anything like it.

KING: Charles Walcott studies the navigation abilities of pigeons, and he says the birds have an innate sense of direction.

WALCOTT: Homing pigeons have been selected for years for this ability to come home fast.

FADEL: He says the years of training and breeding builds on the bird's evolutionary history.

WALCOTT: Pigeons essentially grew up around the Mediterranean, on cliffs and so on, and they had to go out into the fields to forage and get food. And so then they had to find their way back to the cliffs.

FADEL: Races, like the one in Cambridgeshire, give the birds little numbered bracelets. The pigeons are then released in one location and have to find their way home.

KING: Whichever pigeon wins the race makes its owner a lot of money.

WALCOTT: I suspect we don't want to tell the Internal Revenue Service too much about this.

KING: And so just one of these homing pigeons can cost half a million dollars.

FADEL: Now, while most of the fly-by-night absconders are still missing, some are starting to turn up as far away as Ireland. Race officials think they might have been confused by wind or solar activity. So if you happen upon one in the U.K., tell it to come home. Tell it, no questions asked.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG TYMERS' "STILL FLY (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.