By Emma Horn
Alfred may look like an ordinary pigeon.
But he’s really a specially trained search and rescue detective.
Three-and-a-half years ago, when Alfred was just a chick, he was taken to a vet in Sydney and caught the eye of Jennifer and Ryan Tate.
Ms Tate says she warmed to the sound of his cooing, which reminded her of a duck’s quack.
“I don’t know if it’s because he was surrounded by dogs and that’s what a pigeon sounds like when it’s trying to bark, but he sounded like a duck quacking,” she says.
Eyes in the sky
Having had experience training search and rescue dogs, the Tates wanted to see if they could train Alfred to do the same thing.
As dogs search on land picking up the scent of a missing person, Alfred flies above searching for movement.
He can now spot if someone is standing up or lying down. When he sees someone lying down, he stays with them until he’s certain they’re OK.
“We had the idea of sending in a pigeon because they have exceptional eyesight, much better than us,” Ms Tate says.
“They’re great flyers too. They can fly for hours if necessary so they make a really great option for a ‘dog of the sky’,” she says.
Ms Tate says a pigeon’s ability to blend in makes it the best bird for the job.
“Feral pigeons are all over the world, they’re generally pretty hardy animals and they’re pretty intelligent,” Ms Tate says.
“There’s a reason they’re in every major city in the world, and it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re super intelligent. They’ve managed to survive and adapt everywhere.”
Part of the family
Since Alfred joined their family, the Tates have cared for many animals. Alfred has taken a particular liking to Ari, a five-year- old Australian shepherd.
“We’ve seen him and Ari in the backyard cuddling up together and he’s just cooing away,” Ms Tate says.
And Ari, Alfred and the Tates’ two-year-old son, Lennox, are inseparable. Lennox is so attached to Alfred that at times he’s run after a pigeon in the street, thinking it was his beloved pet.
When Ari and Alfred spend their afternoons together in their local park, people sometimes give them strange looks.
“Everybody just thinks that [pigeons] are these feral animals and as soon as he flies around people’s usual reaction is to duck out of the way, sort of disgusted,” she says.
“When you get to know them and form a relationship with them, they’re really smart.
“Alf is very much our pet [but] it’d be great if he inspired the military to acquire pigeons for search and rescue.
“But we would keep Alfred and we’d get some other pigeons to train up for that job.”