Fifth grader Kane, with Jenner, is among the Philipsburg, Montana, students taking part in Young Wings. Photo by John Nilles
“I’ve heard every joke,” says Jim Jenner. Those laughs come at the expense of Columba livia, or the rock dove – also known as the humble pigeon. Jenner bristles at the bird’s bad PR, particularly Woody Allen’s famous characterization of pigeons as “rats with wings.”
Thomas, who is featured in Jenner's documentary, is part of a pigeon program in Belgium. Photo by Jim Jenner
With their uncanny ability to find their way home from hundreds of miles away, pigeons deserve a little respect, says Jenner, an award-winning filmmaker whose 1990 documentary, Marathon in the Sky: The Story of Pigeon Racing, remains an inspiration for hobbyists. Actor and director Michael Landon narrated the film in exchange for Jenner’s footage of birds in flight, which Landon later used in his TV movie Where Pigeons Go to Die.
Doves, which mate for life, are often a symbol of peace, but as Jenner noted during a speech to England’s House of Commons in 2005, they’ve also played a vital role during wartime, braving flak to carry code across battlefronts. One of the earliest domesticated creatures, pigeons boast a diverse group of famous fanciers, including Charles Darwin, Pablo Picasso (Paloma, his daughter’s name, is Spanish for dove), and Queen Elizabeth II. A program on the Animal Planet network, Taking on Tyson, follows former prizefighter Mike Tyson as he races his pigeons against birds owned by trash-talking wiseguys.
Jenner, a member of the Rotary Club of Philipsburg, Mont., USA, “is a pretty dynamic figure in our world,” says John Heppner, president of the National Pigeon Association.
Young Wings, a program Jenner started in 2009, brings children in Philipsburg, a 19th-century mining town, closer to the natural world. Through the program, children raise pigeons in a horse-trailer-turned-pigeon-loft. “This domestic creature, this wonderful, hardy, easy-to-care-for, inexpensive, and profoundly intelligent pet, can fit in with helping kids,” Jenner says.
He is completing a documentary about the program and similar projects, including one for former gang members in South Central Los Angeles and another for juvenile offenders in England.
Pigeons can help “young people become better people,” says Jenner. “I decided to make a film where I would tell a little of my own story and look for evidence that these birds can have a profound effect on children.”
Mike Cutler, superintendent of Philipsburg School District No. 1, says he’s seen how Young Wings has turned things around for some youngsters. “We’re a small community, but we have children from broken families. When those children find a love for pigeons, it kind of replaces things they may not be getting elsewhere. And it has taught the kids about the birds and the bees. It’s been a great science lesson.”
Jenner’s connection with pigeons began at age 10, when a classmate brought a cage with two street pigeons to their school in Seattle. “It was the first time a bird looked back at me,” he recalls. After talking his parents into letting him keep some birds of his own, “I had this responsibility, rain or shine, in all seasons, to take care of them. That teaches a child so much. Here I was, witnessing these very gentle, loving creatures. Their conduct with each other is a beautiful thing.”
Besides, “it’s pretty neat to let something out of its cage and let it fly around the house at 50 miles per hour.”