The Pigeon Express

by | Feb 9, 2019 | Community

Whitewater rafting is for the birds.

Pigeon Express™ is our photography program that uses homing pigeons to help capture your river adventure in photography.

Using specially designed Lycra backpacks, the birds fly film of your rafting trip on the Cache la Poudre River back to our Fort Collins outpost, typically traveling distances between 20 and 40 miles. When we release the pigeons in the Poudre Canyon, they “home” in on their loft and fly back to the outpost in about 20 minutes, which is faster than we could drive out of the canyon. After the pigeons arrive back home, we develop the film so that you can see your photos when you get back from the river.

Our pigeons are reliable, hard working and fun. Because they have been hand-raised by our staff at Rocky Mountain Adventures headquarters, they are friendly birds that like to stick close to home. When you’re at our Fort Collins Store, visit the loft and meet our feathered friends.

The Pigeon Express™ makes Poudre Canyon float trips even more memorable.

Digital cameras have made capturing and sharing photos of outdoor adventures easy.

But it’s still just plain hard to take a good picture while you’re rafting down the whitewater of the Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins.

So when you book your trip through Rocky Mountain Adventures, they do the picture-taking for you. On-site photographers position themselves at good vantage points during your river run and capture the action. When you return to RMA headquarters, your glossy photos are displayed brightly on the wall, ready for purchase.

We do live in the age of advanced technology, but, seriously – how do photo files come 30 miles from the backcountry, where there is no cell phone service and no Internet, and end up printed and looking pretty long before their rafting subjects arrive?

The answer is pigeons.

Rocky Mountain Adventures’ Pigeon Express™ delivery system uses homing pigeons wearing tiny backpacks to transport 35 mm film or digital memory sticks from the river back to the RMA headquarters.

The secret is in the pigeons’ innate ability to find their home, a comfy pigeon loft in the back yard of the RMA headquarters resembling a narrow version of a country garden shed, from miles away.

Rocky Mountain Adventures owner and head pigeon keeper David Costlow came up with the idea to use pigeons nearly 15 years ago while trying to solve his photo-developing dilemma. He had a great photographer but they were unable to get the photos developed by the time the rafters were finished. They brainstormed ideas, and when the photographer said, “We need something that can fly like an eagle,” Costlow instantly thought “bird.” That quickly evolved into “pigeon.”

Through research, Costlow found a professional pigeon racer in Greeley, who introduced him to a breeder in Fort Collins. Between the two, he got pigeon chicks and plenty of advice on feeding, training, and general pigeon care.

Now the Rocky Mountain Adventures Pigeon Express flock numbers 23, most of which were born in the RMA loft. They look similar to park-dwelling pigeons that can drive urbanites crazy, but up-close they appear well taken care of, with smooth feathers and bright eyes.

While the birds home instinctively, these instincts need to be honed through training. Costlow starts by taking a trainee pigeon out into the RMA parking lot and letting it go. When it eventually flies back into the loft, it gets a food reward. After a week or so of that repeated exercise, he takes the pigeon a little farther away and lets it fly back home. The process continues moving progressively farther from the loft until the birds are efficient flying home from the photo shoot locations.

Then the trainees practice wearing a backpack, Costlow’s invention of a lightweight harness made of Lycra® and Velcro®. It’s so small it doesn’t impede the birds as they fly but it’s durable enough to securely hold a digital camera memory stick or a roll of 35 mm film.

Once the birds are ready to work, the photographer takes as many as he or she will need to deliver undeveloped rafting photos back to headquarters. The pigeon caretaker puts on the backpack of each flyer for that day back at the loft and packs the birds in a comfortable basket.

When the photographer is ready for a run, he or she will take a bird from the basket, slip the full memory stick into the small pocket on the backpack, and set the bird free. The pigeon arrives back at headquarters about half an hour later. A signal given by an electric eye in the loft announces the bird’s arrival through the one-way pigeon gate and the caretaker goes out to remove the backpack and process the photos. The pigeon spends the rest of the day with its mate and other members of the flock and rafters are greeted by photos of their adventure posted on the wall.

Rocky Mountain Adventures is open year-round at the corner of U.S. Highway 287 and Shields St. in northwest Fort Collins and runs raft trips from May through September. The pigeons are always ready to meet visitors and invite you to stop by.

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