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Why Did The Pigeon Cross The River? Rafting Company Keeps Tradition Afloat

On a beautiful clear morning along the Cache la Poudre River, Rocky Mountain Adventures' David Terry wrapped up the rafting safety talk by introducing the group to some unusual guests.

"Anybody ever heard about the birds with Rocky Mountain Adventures?" Terry asked. "No? You're probably wondering why I got a cage of pigeons up here wearing these funny backpacks, right?"

Sitting at Terry's feet was a cage with three pigeons wearing teeny, tiny backpacks. The birds have been an integral part of the company's rafting business since the early 1990s.

Back then, they still relied on film cameras to take photos of clients along the river. But there was a problem. They didn't have a way to get the film back to their north Fort Collins headquarters before the customers finished their trip.

That's where the pigeons come in.

After learning more about homing pigeons from a local professional pigeon racer, the company's then-owner decided to use birds to get the film back in town faster. Pigeons can make the trip in about half the time a car can. The photographers would strap custom-made backpacks onto the birds, pop a roll of film into the sleeve and send them back to headquarters. This way the film would be developed and printed in time.

Before he joined several years ago, Terry said he thought the tale of the film-delivering birds — dubbed Pigeon Express — was just a rumor.

"I thought it was just kind of a running joke," he said. "So it took me by surprise when I came in and realized, 'Oh wow, this is a working part of the company.'"

Since taking over as a co-owner of the business this spring, Terry said he's formed a bond with the birds. He handles their training and oversees their care.

"It's always a little nerve-wracking," he said. "You know, I'm a father myself and so I've got that paternal instinct so every time I fly them I'm like, 'All right, come home. Make it home safe.'"

David Terry
Credit Jackie Hai / KUNC
David Terry stands outside the pigeon coop at Rocky Mountain Adventures headquarters.

They don't always make it back. Predators like hawks and falcons are often around, and while pigeons can typically outfly them, if a bird is tired or if there are a lot of them in the area, "things can happen out there for sure," Terry said.

To make things safer, RMA matches the color of the backpacks to the bird, so it doesn't look injured and like easy prey. Terry is also careful about when he flies them.

"There are certain times of the day that hawk presence is a little bit higher," he said. "Real early mornings are a little bit better for them. Kind of mid-morning is when hawks are out feeding."

Before he released the three pigeons at Picnic Rock Natural Area, Terry scanned the sky to make sure no predators were circling. As he opened the cage, he and the rafters wished the birds safe travels.

Rafter Alan Huffman, of Nashville, Tennessee, said he had no idea pigeons would be part of the trip.

"I thought it was pretty cool, sort of a throwback to the past, when you had actual chemical film and you had to move it from one place to another as opposed to bits and bytes with digital film," Huffman said.

His daughter, Sidney, 11, thought the birds were cute but was still confused as to why they were there.

"I have no idea, actually," she said when asked what she thought of the pigeons being part of the rafting experience.

"Film was before her time," Alan Huffman interjected before explaining to her, "So they used to have a little canister of film because you couldn't immediately see what you had taken a picture of. So you had to send it somewhere and they had to develop it and then you could see it, so that's why they would fly it down there."

"Ohhh, that makes sense," Sidney said.

Less than 15 minutes after being released, the pigeons returned to their coop, where caretaker Lainey Phillips was waiting.

RMA has seven birds in its flock currently, including a baby born just a few weeks ago. Right now, only three of the birds have names — Puff Daddy, Betty White and David Jr. (which the guides named after the owner). They're still working on names for the rest, Phillips said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
RMA staff name the birds, including Puff Daddy (left) and David Jr.

One of Phillips' jobs is helping get the pigeons into their backpacks. When asked how you get a backpack onto a bird, she said as long as you're confident, it's actually pretty easy.

"You just confidently grab the pigeon and keep the wings tucked so they don't keep flapping around their wings," she said, explaining the velcro system of straps that go over the bird's head and around its back and belly. "I think the hardest part is honestly just getting the bird."

What goes in those backpacks may be changing though, now that technology has made it so easy to download and share images. Rather than film or digital memory cards, the birds might carry notes from the rafters, Terry said.

"We have considered using different types of technology, like a drone, out on the river, but I think (the pigeons are) a nod to where we came from," he said. "This will always be a part of our company moving forward so we definitely won't be replacing the pigeons with a drone anytime soon. We love having them and it's something unique that regardless of the technology that's developed, you can't replace."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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