Take a ride around London in one of those famous double-decker red tour buses and, passing Parliament Square, you may hear a story, possibly apocryphal, that before he died in 1965, Winston Churchill said he never wanted a statue of himself erected in London. This, the story goes, was because of Churchill’s intense loathing for pigeons. And so, you’ll hear, when the statue went up, it was hooked to an electric current that courses through its iron frame, forever keeping the “flying rats,” as the prime minister dubbed them, from perching atop his head.
For anyone who has, say, ever lost a favorite sweater to a passing pigeon, or had to rush inside for a midday shower after receiving a gift from on high, it may be easy to sympathize with Churchill’s hatred of the bird.
Drive through Oklahoma City’s Adventure District, however, and you’ll find out that pigeons have stories to tell. Not only are some of them crazy fast, but many have been honored as war heroes by the United States military.
Wait, what? That’s right.
“People don’t always understand that these birds are incredibly smart,” said Randy Goodpasture, general manager of the American Homing Pigeon Institute and World of Wings Pigeon Center in Oklahoma City.
The World of Wings Pigeon Center, 2300 N.E. 63rd, is also home to the AHPI. The site offers not only a research library of more than 5,000 volumes containing what may be every last piece of information about pigeons ever assembled, but also serves as home to a wealth of stories and photos of pigeons’ service on the front lines of history as part of the U.S. Army Pigeon Service.
“The most famous pigeon in the service was named G.I. Joe,” said Goodpasture. “He was given a medal of service after World War II.”
The story ” which apparently was never repeated to the good Sir Winston ” goes that G.I. Joe saved an Italian village and the British troops who were stationed there by delivering a message to Allied forces before they had a chance to start a scheduled bombardment that would likely have killed more than 1,000 people.
These are the stories awaiting visitors to World of Wings, told through a collection of photographs, transport carriers and message holders from the Pigeon Service, which in World War II alone employed more than 3,000 soldiers and more than 54,000 homing war pigeons for communications and reconnaissance.
The AHPI purchased the property in 1993 as a home for its operations, and opened a library and museum on the site. The center also operates as a research facility and breeding center for racing pigeons. World of Wings hosts a yearly “Truck Race” in which trainers send in birds to race for prizes of up to $25,000.
Goodpasture and others spend a great deal of time breeding and training pigeons to race. Some of these are sold to local pigeon racing clubs to raise funds for the AHPI. Goodpasture has more than 35 years’ experience breeding pigeons. He said the birds have become more than 30 percent faster just since WWII through breeding alone.
As part of its commitment to the sport of pigeon racing, he said, World of Wings hosts an annual Fourth of July event featuring several pigeon races, open to the public. Races are run throughout the year, with pigeons flying hundreds of miles after having been trained for years to find their way back to World of Wings.
Visitors are welcome at any time, however, and plans are underway to break ground on a new museum and visitors’ center on the site. The new center, Goodpasture said, will allow World of Wings to fully expand and display its library as well as its collection of historical memorabilia. It also has a mobile museum that visits schools, churches and local pigeon racing clubs around the state.
The World of Wings Pigeon Center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, visit http://www.pigeoncenter.org or call 478-5155. “Nathan Gunter
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of the series “The Great Oklahoma Road Trip,” a look at the lesser-known ” but worth a trip ” spots across the state. Check back at the start of next month for the next installment.