Robert Krulwich in National Geographic:
At first the whole thing seemed preposterous. No way this could happen. Tom Roden, 66 at the time, was standing at the door of his home near Manchester, England. “I was just setting out on a walk with my dog when I saw him,” he told a reporter. “I recognized him straight away because of his white tail feathers.”
It was a pigeon. His pigeon. It had been missing for five years. Suddenly it was back. Why? And where were the tens of thousands of pigeons that vanished with him?
It had a name: Champion Whitetail. In 1997, Roden had sent Whitetail and a bunch of other racing birds to France, 430 miles south, to compete in the Royal Pigeon Association’s centenary cross-Channel competition, a major long-distance pigeon race with cash prizes that attracted 60,000 bird entries. The contestants, quietly cooing, were brought to a field near Nantes and released at 6:30 in the morning—that was the race’s motto: “At dawn we go.”
At the signal the birds took flight and, following a deep pigeon instinct, dashed at speeds as high as 50 miles an hour straight back toward their roosts, or “lofts,” all across England. This is something pigeons do. It’s called a homing instinct, and even though many of these animals had never been to France before, didn’t recognize the land below them, and had to cross a wide channel of ocean water before finding the house or roof or backyard from which they came, normally most of these racers would have find their way home.
Whitetail was expected to arrive early, because he was a champion. He’d already won 13 races in his lifetime, had flown across the English Channel 15 times, and had finished the Central Southern Classic from Lessay in northern France against a field of 3,026 birds with the winning time. He was a bird to watch.