The lighthearted documentary series profiling remarkable animals focuses on Spitfire, a pigeon who uses his homing skills to help an outdoorsadventure company in the Rocky Mountains.

Wearing a special backpack, Spitfire carries photo memory cards down from the mountain and back to the shop. When climbers complete their descent, they can then pick up their own pictures – fully developed. Scientists now try to understand Spitfire’s amazing navigational abilities by equipping him with a GPS system.

The commonplace grey pigeon has a poor reputation. Many people complain that they are dirty, diseased pests who foul the urban environment with their swarms and droppings. Yet a sizeable number of pigeon fanciers and fanatics claim that the much-maligned pigeon is in fact a most remarkable bird. With proper training, racing pigeons can find their way home from a distance of hundreds of miles. They can fly at 60mph and travel distances of up to 600 miles a day. “Pigeons are not flying rats,” declares one enthusiast. “They are athletes of the sky.”

In the idyllic valleys of Colorado, one adventuresports company is putting a squadron of humble pigeons to use. Rocky Mountain Adventures employs 16 carrier pigeons to fetch and carry photo memory cards between remote river canyons and the company headquarters. Their star pigeon is a four-year-old named Spitfire, who seems to know the terrain inside out. The firm’s unusual workforce only came about because they needed to solve a tricky problem.

Their customers, including white-water rafters, liked to buy photos of their day trip before they went home. But the photos had to be sold sightunseen because there was not enough time to develop them. How could the company get the film from the mountains to the shop in time to print them? The high canyon walls and winding roads ruled out broadband signals and transport, so company boss Dave hit upon the notion of using carrier pigeons. “People thought that was a birdbrained idea,” he admits.

After months of training, the pigeons were able to navigate their way home through the valleys. They carry their load in specially designed backpacks. Dave’s brilliant idea now gives his customers what they want and produces a nice little income for the company – but the staff admit they have no idea how it works. “It’s kind of a mystery to everyone how they home,” says company photographer Simon. “I have no idea, to tell you the honest truth.”

Of course, pigeons serving as messengers is nothing new. The use of carrier pigeons dates back to ancient times, and in the 20th century they found gainful employment delivering football results and passing on vital information in wartime. But just how do they do it?

To answer this question, Spitfire is fitted with a GPS tracking device to record his route, which is then studied by bird expert Professor Tim Guildford. The results show that Spitfire in fact circles for some time to get his bearings, before flying home along roads and rivers. Contrary to what might be expected, pigeons do not seem to take the quickest route from A to B – they use landmarks to find their way. “It’s not as efficient as it could be,” the professor admits. As for how they find their way home from long distances, scientists believe they use internal compasses based on the sun or the Earth’s magnetic fields.

To put pigeon abilities to the ultimate test, one of their number is pitted against a man in a plane in a timed race. Homing pigeon ‘Fatty’ goes up against a pilot named Mike in a light aircraft. The pair must fly from the same field to an airbase 30 miles away. To make things more even, the instruments in Mike’s plane are taped over, so that both man and bird must rely on their instincts. Who will triumph?

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