There might not seem a whole lot in common between a 66-year-old white guy from Montana and a 9-year-old black child on Tacoma’s Hilltop. But in a new book by filmmaker Jim Jenner, the connection is a creature that connects rich and poor, old and young and all races: the pigeon.
Jenner, renowned internationally for his documentaries on the pigeon racing and keeping worlds, has set his first novel right here in Tacoma, basing it on a childhood of catching street pigeons. And when he gives a book talk at the Tacoma Public Library Jan. 26, he’ll show how this age-old sport can have a huge effect on children’s lives, wherever they are.
“It’s about kids making their own choices,” says Jenner. “The benefits are profound. … Observing nature is phenomenal, and kids need it desperately. But when you’re responsible for a creature its whole life cycle, you learn far more.”
The benefits of keeping pigeons are profound. … Observing nature is phenomenal, and kids need it desperately. But when you’re responsible for a creature its whole life cycle, you learn far more.”
Jim Jenner, pigeon filmmaker and author
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That’s exactly the point Jenner makes in “The Featherhood,” self-published last year.
Nine-year-old Tyrone is finding his way in a world that includes a violent step-father, an angry brother with gang connections, an aunt who wants to keep him safe, and a white friend who’s passionate about catching and raising street pigeons. When Tyrone rescues a lost black racing pigeon – a world champion worth more than $500,000 — from the Tacoma train yards, it leads him both into big trouble and out of it, giving him a new path in life.
The story is based on Jenner’s own Seattle childhood, first wandering in the woods of Mercer Island, then catching wild pigeons in an urban neighborhood. It’s also based on his ongoing work bringing pigeons to young people and seeing the difference the birds make in learning, behavior and sheer enjoyment of life.
“When I volunteered for Rotary and Boys and Girls clubs, I saw the effects of kids falling out of touch with nature,” Jenner says in his 2014 film “Young Wings,” of which he’ll show an excerpt at the library. “So I began to document the positive effects of pigeon keeping.”
Jenner found that at-risk and incarcerated youths who cared for pigeons showed turnarounds in behavior and focus, that pigeons helped kids in all circumstances become calmer and kinder. One teen confesses that it was her pigeons that brought back her will to live when she was considering suicide. On screen, you can see the joy in the children’s faces as they gently hold, stroke and gaze at the birds they’re learning to care for.
Herb Cartmell, a Woodinville pigeon enthusiast who just retired after 10 years of leading 4-H pigeon programs in Snohomish County, completely agrees.
“I’m living proof of this,” he says. “When I was 10, 11, I was getting into trouble, and a friend of my father’s suggested we keep pigeons. There’s a lot of stuff in this book I can relate to. (Looking after animals) teaches kids life skills they don’t forget.”
Asked why pigeons particularly have such a positive effect, Jenner points out the practical aspects: they’re wild yet domesticated, they can live in fairly basic accommodation and don’t eat much, and they’re gentle birds that don’t bite (they’ll peck, but not draw blood).
But read “The Featherhood” and you’ll get a deeper picture of why so many people have loved this sport for centuries.
Jenner alternates Tyrone’s voice with that of the Black Deuce, the champion racer pigeon who escapes his California home in an earthquake and steadfastly deals with predators, weather and near-death while working out how he can return. Jenner gives the character not just likeability but nobility; and the scenes where Tyrone and his older buddy Chris are looking after their pigeons in the backyard of a Hilltop cafe sing with joy in the way the birds respond to humans, care for each other and are even courteous when they fight — a lesson Tyrone takes to heart in a gun- and gang-filled world.
Flying homing pigeons as a sport dates back around 3,000 years. Messenger pigeons were used at the Ancient Greek Olympics and by Genghis Khan. In modern times they were heroes of World War II, began what was to become the Reuters press service in Europe, and were still used for police communication in India until 2002.
Jenner keeps a good tale spinning, drawing on both childhood family visits and current friends to bring his Tacoma setting to life: Stadium High, the tideflats and steep streets, the bird feed store on Tacoma Avenue and even the library make appearances. (Jenner set the novel in Tacoma for the grit value, and it felt closer to his own childhood neighborhood than what Seattle had now become.) His detailed knowledge of pigeons, from street birds to rich racing lofts, creates a fascinating world. And he draws on both his own childhood and that of his best friend David — African American, and his partner in pigeon hunting — to write authentically from a very different racial perspective.
“I’m pleased some of my black friends think I did well channeling a 9-year-old black kid,” says the filmmaker, whose career has spanned CBS reporting and independent filmmaking from Beijing apartments to Queen Elizabeth’s royal pigeon lofts.
“I love the character development, and it’s a wonderful story,” says Tacoma librarian Rhonda Kristoff. “And everyone I mention it to seems to have kept pigeons before.”
While pigeon-keeping and racing isn’t as popular as it once was, when pigeons were World War II heroes and groups like the Puget Sound Pigeon Club had their heyday, the magic still attracts kids.
The world’s most expensive racing pigeon was the Belgian pigeon Bolt, sold in 2013 for $410,000
“I’ve loved ‘Harry Potter’ all my life, where owls carry letters and send messages,” says Evelyn Standaert, an Olympia eighth-grader who’s building a loft and intends to train homing pigeons this winter for a school project. “So I thought of pigeons.”
Standaert has seen a few of Jenner’s films and hopes to meet him at the library event. “I thought it was really cool how kids have learned so much working with pigeons.”
Sean Steen, a Tacoma man who’s kept racing pigeons since 2007, now sees his 11-year-old son Ethan drawn into the sport.
“He helps me out, cleans the loft, comes with me to release them (for races),” says Steen, who says Ethan plans to raise pigeons himself when he’s older. “He’s definitely learning how to take care of things and how life works. … And he loves the birds, holds them and looks at them, watching them fly.”
Jenner hopes to bring a few birds to the library talk, as well as showing the film and talking about his long career as a pigeon keeper, teacher and filmmaker. Rick Arrisola, owner of Tradewinds Birds and Feed Store in Tacoma, will have cages, supplies and other resources for demonstration.
“I’m a lonely little voice — it’s such a small hobby,” says Jenner, pointing out that ever since Woody Allen referred to them as “rats with wings,” pigeons have gotten a bad rap. “But my hope is that families can look at pigeons in a different way — as opportunities. … These kids (in “The Featherhood”) went out on their own to find something. They had to adjust their behavior to work with adults and achieve their goal. That, to me, is probably the most stunning and true thing about this book.”
Jim Jenner, book talk and signing for “The Featherhood”
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 26.
Where: Olympic Room, Main Branch, Tacoma Public Library, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma.
Also: Jenner will speak at the Bremerton and Port Orchard Rotaries on Feb. 1 and 2.
Cost: Free (book $15.95).
Pigeon information: Puget Sound Pigeon Club, pacificnorthwestpigeons.weebly.com.