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Fort Collins, Colorado

Pigeon Express

Birds with backpacks expedite film development for a rafting company on a remote Colorado river. 

Homing pigeons have been around for 3,000 years. They were used as early as 1150 in Baghdad, and later by Genghis Khan. The Roman military used pigeons to exchange messages and the Greeks used them to send the names of victors at the Olympic Games to their various cities. Now, they’re used by an outdoor recreation company.

Rocky Mountain Adventures offers rafting trips to the Cache la Poudre River. It’s the only designated National Wild and Scenic River in the state, so bringing a camera is essential. But waiting on film to develop is a pain, and those shooting digital often never get their pictures off the computer.

But the company has devised a rather strange, thoroughly analogue way to speed up the process. Homing pigeons using specially designed Lycra backpacks fly the film (or SD cards) to its Fort Collins outpost—a distance of 20 to 40 miles away. The pigeons are released in the Poudre Canyon, where they then “home” in on their loft and fly back to the outpost within 20 minutes, which is faster than driving out of the canyon. The film is developed by the time rafters get back from the river.

Rocky Mountain Adventures says their birds are, “reliable, hard working and fun.” They’re hand-raised by the staff, and visitors are welcome to meet the feathered employees when they visit the Fort Collins store.

Rock pigeons were selectively bred for their ability to find their way home over long distances. The wild rock pigeon has an innate homing ability, and probably uses magnetoreception (the detection of a magnetic field which allows them to perceive direction, altitude, or location) to get back home.