A hawk swooped through the sky over Garden Valley last week when sisters Lily and Maggie Wheaton released their homing pigeons.
The sisters watched closely as the hawk circled. Hawks are dangerous this time of year because they migrate into the valley and pick off pigeons, said 16-year-old Lily Wheaton, who is four years older than Maggie.
The Wheatons raise homing pigeons and release them for weddings and other special occasions throughout the county, including the Memorial Day ceremony at the Roseburg National Cemetery Annex. They planned to release birds for today’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2468 Veterans Remembrance Wall dedication ceremony in Roseburg, weather permitting.
The birds return to their birthplace and often beat the Wheatons home, Lily Wheaton said.
The sisters’ migration toward pigeons started in 2010 when they were looking for a 4-H project. “We thought that would be a great project for us to do,” Lily Wheaton said.
The sisters bought eight adult birds and two babies from a Roseburg man. They raised the two babies, Petey and Pepper, in their home.
“They kind of grow on you, just like dogs do,” Maggie said.
They soon bought 30 Pletinckx homing pigeons, a white racing pigeon species that resembles a dove but has homing abilities.
To train pigeons, the sisters take birds approximately a mile away from their home to test their ability to return home. The sisters gradually extend the distance in 2-mile intervals.
“They learn very fast,” Lily Wheaton said.
Once trained, the birds are able to find their home within a 50-mile radius when they are released.
“They circle to find their bearings then decide where they’re going,” Lily Wheaton said.
The sisters earn money for the bird releases through the family company, the Umpqua Valley White Dove Release. Lily Wheaton said she likes the breed and enjoys handling them.
“When you release them, it’s a rush of energy,” she said. “Learning more about them is intriguing.”
The sisters also help maintain the family farm that includes horses, pigs, chickens, sheep, rabbits, cats, dogs and two pet rats. They have been active in 4-H since moving to Douglas County in 2006. They raised lambs their first year and have gotten more involved each year.
Heavenly Ranchers 4-H leader Kris van Houten said both girls are quiet but funny and great with their animals.
“They’re always a joy. I don’t need to worry about them. They’ve very reliable,” she said.
She said Lily Wheaton has helped with many 4-H workshops and does animal demonstrations with her sister.
Maggie Wheaton feeds the birds every evening and keeps their water clean to help keep the birds healthy.
“Whenever I feed them at night, they are so fat and chubby. They smile at me,” she said.
The birds digest the food overnight, which makes it less likely there will be unpleasant surprises during a ceremony.
“It encourages them to get home faster too,” mother Jody Wheaton said with a laugh.
Van Houten said the girls clearly enjoy raising their animals.
“They really do love and take care of their animals very well,” she said. “They do everything together. They are quite the pair, quite the team.”
• You can reach reporter Betsy Swanback at 541-957-4208 or firstname.lastname@example.org.