NEW GLOUCESTER — Standing on the lawn of All Saints Chapel at the Poland Spring Resort on Friday, Mark Duhamel opened a small door in an airy wooden crate and stepped back. One, two, and three at a time, snow-white pigeons burst from the opening, spreading their wings feverishly to lift into the open air. When all the birds were out, they grouped together, turned one wide circle overhead, and took off for home.
“These birds have the instinct to come home,” Duhamel said. He doesn’t consider himself a “pigeon person,” the kind that can pick up a bird and give you the intimate details its life after a moment’s inspection.
“I can feed them, clean them, and fly them,” he said, having learned the basics from his father, once an avid pigeon racer. A lack of clinical expertise hasn’t stopped Duhamel and his partner, Jennifer Jannarone, from amassing a flock of nearly 100 of the homing pigeons.
Several times a week, the pair load the crate into the back seat of their car and drive to release points around the region, training the birds to navigate home from any direction. Currently, the birds, which they house in a coop on Jannarone’s property next to Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, will return home from as far as 30 miles away. Often, the birds get there before they do. With additional training, the flock will be able to find its way back from 100 miles away or more, Duhamel said.
“These birds love to fly,” he said, sounding like the trainer of an enthusiastic thoroughbred. “And they’ll fly for a long time.”
Duhamel and Jannarone have released their flock at a wedding and several burials for friends and family members. While they offered their services for free at those events and didn’t even open the crate themselves— they consider themselves very “private” people, and prefer to stay out of the spotlight — the couple is considering turning their flock into a business. They’d like the pigeons to at least pay for themselves, they say, noting that bird feed and gas for driving to release points adds up.
When the pair pulled back into their driveway, the birds were wheeling over Sabbathday Lake, enjoying the clear sky on a spring afternoon. As the pigeons tightened their circle and started to descend toward the coop, a hawk streaked towards them through the pine trees. The pigeons scattered, climbing back into the sky where they had a better chance of outrunning the hawk, which Duhamel thought was a Cooper’s hawk, a species that typically preys on other birds.
Jannarone ran to shake a can of dried corn, a call that the pigeons recognize as the dinner bell and signal to get back in their coop. Most of the birds that hadn’t flown in the training run converged from perches around the yard, and Jennifer, worried, searched the sky for a particular favorite.
The excitement of the predator’s visit didn’t appeal to Jannarone, who had never kept pigeons before she and Duhamel started their flock three and a half years ago. She hadn’t been aware of their mesmerizing powers, but the flock has become a source of quiet entertainment to her.
“It’s like watching a fire,” she said. “We can literally sit outside and watch the birds for hours.”