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ARCHIVED  June 1, 1997

Pigeons prove answer for whitewater dilemma

FORT COLLINS – What’s the fun of risking life and limb, or at least a good soak in glacier-fed river water, if you don’t have the photos to prove it?

That’s the question that Dave Costlow, co-owner of Fort Collins-based Rocky Mountain Adventures, kept asking his customers. Although Costlow’s stable of photographers waited along the banks of the Cache La Poudre River to catch whitewater rafters in mid-scream, by the time they were safely back on shore, few were willing to buy pictures sight-unseen.

Then a brainstorming session resulted in an innovative idea.

“We were thinking ‘if we could just have something like an eagle to fly the film back to town,'” Costlow recalled. “Then we hit on the idea of homing pigeons.”

Pigeon Express was born. Costlow read up on carrier-pigeon lore, discovering that the ancient Greeks and Romans used them, and that espionage flourished on all sides during both World Wars due to the speed and tenacity of the birds.

It took almost a year to find a mentor, Jack South, a Fort Collins pigeon aficionado who raises and trains the birds to race. Costlow bought 15 chicks from South and with his help gradually learned the art and science of training carrier pigeons.

Although no one is exactly sure what makes homing pigeons “home,” the theory is that they somehow use the magnetic fields of the earth. And they are fast and seemingly tireless – they fly a mile a minute and can cover up to 500 miles in one day. Using psychologist B.F. Skinner’s method of successive approximation, Costlow trains his pigeons to fly along the Poudre River route, which is safer and easier to monitor than “as the crow flies.”

“We did it in incremental steps,” Costlow explained. “They don’t go to the next step until they are successful.”

The eight-week training period begins when the birds are about 10 weeks old, and it’s a process through which Costlow has learned valuable lessons.

For instance, he quickly learned never to fly a mated pair at the same time.

“Pigeons mate for life and are very protective of each other,” he said. “When you fly them together they tend to dilly-dally in the canyon. If they are three hours late, they might as well be three days late. But when you fly them separately, they are anxious to see their mate so they tend to hurry back faster.”

He also discovered, happily, that casualties are rare. He’s only lost six in three years, some to hawks, and a couple that got lost “in early stages before they were homed,” Costlow said.

Costlow’s biggest challenge was designing the film-delivery system. Unlike the traditional paper, bamboo, or microfilm messages placed in a band on the pigeon’s leg, a bulky film canister had to somehow fit on the pigeon’s body without interfering with the aerodynamics of flight.

Big, outdoorsy Costlow invested in some Lycra and Velcro and set out to sew tiny backpacks. After 16 or so versions, and some pretty annoyed pigeons, he hit on a design that places the film high on the bird’s back between the wings, maintaining its center of gravity and avoiding tendonitis.

The trademarked and copyrighted backpacks are now made by professional seamstresses.

The Pigeon Express maiden flight took place Sept. 1, 1995. Success was immediate and enduring. Photographers take pre-backpacked pigeons in carrying baskets to designated spots along the banks of the Poudre River.

As they fill up rolls of film with action shots of open-mouthed rafters, they place the canisters on the birds’ backs and set them free.

Within 40 minutes, the birds are back at their Rocky Mountain Adventures roost 30 miles away at the base of the Poudre Canyon at the corner of U.S. 287 and Shields Street, where self-titled “Pigeon Princess” Rose Wallick removes the backpacks. The film is then shuttled to nearby photofinisher Jax for processing.

By the time the adventurers return, the photos are back, arrayed along the front counter of the store.

Now those photos sell themselves, Costlow said. He estimates that Pigeon Express saves him about $1,400 a year in mailing costs, which he used to have to pay when customers rejected the pictures.

“Sales have probably doubled,” Costlow said.

Costlow expects to do better during the 1997 season. With 15 birds (constantly nesting hens assure that lost birds are quickly replaced by new chicks) and two full-time and one part-time photographers, Pigeon Express is branching out and shooting for another Fort Collins rafting company.

He also hopes to install a photo lab in the basement of the 6,000-square-foot building for even faster turnaround on photofinishing.

FORT COLLINS – What’s the fun of risking life and limb, or at least a good soak in glacier-fed river water, if you don’t have the photos to prove it?

That’s the question that Dave Costlow, co-owner of Fort Collins-based Rocky Mountain Adventures, kept asking his customers. Although Costlow’s stable of photographers waited along the banks of the Cache La Poudre River to catch whitewater rafters in mid-scream, by the time they were safely back on shore, few were willing to buy pictures sight-unseen.

Then a brainstorming session resulted in an innovative idea.

“We were thinking ‘if we could just have something like…

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