Pigeon GPS

Over the past several weeks Papa has told me a story about how when he was a young boy he would travel to Joliet to visit his maternal grandparents each summer for an extended period of time.  Grandma Maielli was a small woman and he can still picture her standing in her kitchen slicing vegetables with a big knife.  He always holds up his hands at about 18 inches to exaggerate the size of the blade and explained that she would chop so fast he was always worried that she would cut her fingers.  His Grandma called him Wayney and during his visits she would cook all day and make him whatever he wanted to eat.  These are very early and special memories for Papa, he loved it there.

Papa provided a few tidbits of other reasons why he loved Joliet which I will save these for future posts, the story Papa wanted to tell me this time was about his Uncle Joe.  Uncle Joe was married to Aunt Harriett and they had 2 kids who were several years older than him.  Joe was fun and friendly and he raised birds, both chickens and pigeons. When I asked Papa why he raised pigeons responded because he liked them, such an obvious reason to my simple question.   I have never known anyone to raise pigeons so I started asking questions…  What did they look like?  He had all different kinds and colors, some were white, and some were very colorful.  I liked the colored ones; they were louder than the white ones. He had all sizes from babies to old birds.  How many pigeons did he have?  A fair amount, they were hard to count because they were always moving.  When I pressed him on how many he considered a fair amount he responded more than a couple dozen but less than a hundred.  I laughed and explained that is a big difference and he said it was probably closer to 50 birds.  Were they friendly?  They would fly up to my hands, I was afraid at first, but Uncle Joe knew they were safe.  They never bit or pecked me.  Where did he keep them?  Did he take them out to fly in the open?  He had a big pen that was over the chicken coop, the chickens couldn’t get out but the pigeons could fly out whenever they wanted to.  Did he have a big yard? It wasn’t a farm but it was a good-sized yard, all of my relatives lived within a couple blocks of each other so I was able to walk from my Grandparents house to see all of my Aunts and Uncles.     Did they eat them or use their eggs? No, the pigeons were just a hobby.  Did he race them?  I don’t remember, I forget some things.  I smiled and said that is ok, you remember more than you think you do and proceeded to ask him more questions.  Did anyone else raise them? I never heard of anyone else keeping pigeons; it was not something we did in Waukegan.  I just never knew anyone else who had them for pets.  What about the chickens and the chicken eggs?  Uncle Joe had a fair amount of chickens also; he sold eggs to people and made good money.  Papa does not remember how many chickens he had or what Uncle Joe did for a living, but he remembers standing in the yard watching pigeons fly with his Uncle for several weeks every summer.

One year when Papa was about 10 years old he helped Uncle Joe assemble a make shift cage and gave him two pigeons to take back to Waukegan.  Joe explained that the birds would be able to find their own way home to Joliet.  My Uncle described it all to me, but I still do not understand.  How could that happen?  How do they know where they are going?   I wonder how the birds find their way home?   Papa and I spent time looking on the internet  but I am not sure I can explain, do birds have an internal compass, or do they recognize landmarks or maybe use a little bit of both to navigate back to their roost.

It was about a 70-mile trip and Papa was excited to bring the pigeons back in the car with him. My dad went along with it, but my mom was not happy that we brought a birdcage in her car.   It took about an hour and a half to drive home, Papa was nervous and excited when he arrived home and let the birds out of their cage.  They flew up and took a couple of circles and started flying right away. Papa was able to convince his parents into calling Uncle Joe the next day to make sure the pigeons made it home safely, but he forgot to ask how long it took them to get there.  Papa was already looking forward to his next trip to Joliet but he never got to bring any birds home with him again.

I tried to find the correlation as to why Papa has told me this particular story on more than one occasion, and the only thing I can come up with is that he is thinking about his own internal GPS and finding his way home.  He feels comfortable in his surroundings and is ready to increase his radius and venture out a bit further to get to know the area.  Maybe Papa feels like those pigeons and wants to spread his wings and fly and but wants the security of an internal compass knowing he will always be able to find his way home.    We have frequently discussed the GPS in his car, but it is time for me to ride along and have him test it again just to build his confidence.

Uncle Joe Maielli
Uncle Joe Maielli

While looking up homing pigeons on the iPad, we stopped for a few minutes to look at family photos and we stumbled across this picture of Uncle Joe.  Papa smiled when he saw it Yes, that’s him!  Maybe I am over analyzing my discussion with Papa, but I wish I could thank his Uncle Joe for providing a childhood memory from 1943 that reminds Papa to use his recognition of landmarks and internal GPS and he will always be able to find his way home.   And, just in case, Papa also carries some 2014 technology with him, we are just a phone call away should he ever need help finding his way.

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