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GOSHEN -- Turns out, you can go home again. Dan Smith's birds will show you the way.
Whether it's his flock of 30 white homing pigeons, or his many other ones arrayed in blues, browns and reds, they always find their way back to C.R. 26.
"I love that you can get them to come back, that they like your place well enough that that they want to come back and visit again," he said Friday.
The white flock is circling over his head as he says this. "They're out just having fun," he said, and will return to their nests before long.
But at other times, some of his birds have gone away for hours. Sometimes, they've been taken miles away and found their way back. Once, a bird Smith trained for racing made the 400-plus-mile trip from Oklahoma.
"I wish the birds could talk. I've had birds that have been gone for a year come back and I would love to know where they went," he said.
When he knows a bird is coming back from a racing trip -- someone else released the pigeon miles away so Smith could time the return -- he'll sometimes watch for it.
"You can see them on the horizon, a tiny black speck coming in ... a bird pulling for everything it's worth, flying home," he said.
Homing pigeons are a species of dove that have been bred for centuries to return to their nests as quickly as possible. They were once used for commerce, bringing news of changing commodity prices before word had spread.
But Smith breeds them for personal satisfaction. Occasionally, he'll hire the white ones out to be released at weddings and funerals, but that's just to pay for their care.
He's also raced a few with a South-Bend-based group. Reaching speeds of 55 miles an hour, Smith has seen his birds keep pace with him on the U.S. 20 Bypass.
Since he started raising them in 1999 in Breezy Acres Lofts -- a barn behind his house -- he's been a mother hen of sorts. He feeds them and makes sure they're healthy. When it's time for "training," he opens the gate.
"Training is really giving them the opportunity to fly," he said.
Smith's a chemistry professor at Goshen College, and the science and genetics of the birds fascinate him. He loves the rare-colored ones, and breeds and studies them to figure out how they get that way.
But his fascination with pigeons comes from somewhere far simpler. Raised in a rural part of Pennsylvania, the birds were everywhere and easy to catch.
Now, he doesn't have to catch them.
"They're kind of like rabbits. Once you have a pair or two, you can have plenty more," he said.
After the white flock has returned to roof of the barn, he takes out several of the more colorful ones.
He and his son, Tyler, show off the flight feathers of their favorites. Smith describes the different patterns -- far more vivid and interesting than those of their black-and-gray city cousins.
One bird, they call it "Mosaic," has a bluish tint on one side and a reddish tint on the other. Smith hasn't figured it out yet.
"Dad, if you let that one go, would it fly here?" Tyler asked.
"Yeah, but since I only have one of it in the world, I won't let it go," Smith said.