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Employess at Pigeon Express

Look out FedEx and UPS because the Pigeon Express is giving new meaning to the phrase airmail

Look out FedEx and UPS because the Pigeon Express is giving new meaning to the phrase airmail.

There are few things more satisfying than sporting a souvenir trophy shot after rafting the white waters of the Cache la Poudre river in Colorado. But taking the photo from a remote spot as tourists hurtle down the river, and processing the film before the rafters set foot back on land is a feat that requires precision timing. The solution is the Pigeon Express, says Dave Costlow, of Rocky Mountain Adventures, which runs rafting excursions down the river and uses pigeons to shuttle film from the photographer to the store where the pictures are developed. Action snapshots are a popular item with tourists and have a high profit margin, but only if the adventurers get to view their photos before they leave for home. "[Before the Pigeon Express] we had to tell people: Hey we took great photos of you. Sorry we can't show them to you. Go ahead and if you want to purchase them we'll mail them to you. If you don't like them, send them back and we'll refund your money," says Costlow. It just didn't work. The customers were hesitant to pay for pictures that they couldn't see, and sales were low. Now each morning the photographer Tim Murphy leaves for his riverside location armed with a camera and a cage of up to ten homing pigeons. As soon as Murphy sees the rafters paddling down the river he furiously begins to shoot and then loads the completed roll of film into a pigeon's tiny custom-tailored lycra backpack and launches the bird into air. The bird flies back to Costlow's store where the film is developed and the photos displayed for the rafters' return. The hardest part of the whole venture was actually getting the pigeons, says Costlow. "I discovered that there were huge pigeon racing societies in both America and Europe where 'pigeon fanciers,' as they are known, race their birds for prize money." In the end, he found a pigeon breeder just a few miles from his home. Initially Costlow bought about 15 five-week-old pigeon chicksthe birds could feed themselves but were barely out of the nest. He began training the chicks for a few hours a day by removing them from the nest and placing them on the other side of the store. When the birds returned they received a reward. "At first the birds dawdled and got a little lost, but eventually they all made it back," says Costlow. Training continued by releasing the pigeons farther and farther from the store. "I just made sure dinner was ready when the birds returned," says Costlow. Eight months later the pigeons were fast and accurate and ready to work. These birds are bred for both speed and endurance and are like finely tuned athletes. Though it is only about 20 miles from the photographer to the store, the birds must fly fast enough to outmaneuver the peregrine falcons that roam the skies. "These birds are fast. They fly about one mile per minute and even when I take the birds 60 miles away to Denver and release them, they always beat me home," says Costlow. Some birds, however, are not fast enough. This year Costlow has lost three pigeons to hawks, reducing his flock to 17. Since launching the Pigeon Express photo sales have tripled and Costlow has few complaints. The birds make one flight every three days, are never sick and are always on time. Occasionally a bird might dawdle a little, and maybe every few weeks a roll of film gets lost, but that is about it. "Pigeons mate for life, so we only fly one member of the couple on any trip. That way they hustle back home. Let the couple go together and they dilly dally," says Costlow. "My most reliable flier who has been with us since the beginning is Number 19. When there are only ten minutes to spare and we need to rush the film home, we always use Number 19," says Costlow. Initially, Costlow's friends thought the Pigeon Express a bird-brained idea. Four years later Costlow has the last laugh as he watches profits from photo sales soar sky high.