Turn me loose from your hands

Let me fly to distant lands

Over green fields, trees and mountains

Flowers and forest fountains

Home along the lanes of the skyway.

— Bernie Taupin and Elton John

While many of us think of the weather as merely a guide for our wardrobes, there are numerous industries, like aviation and energy, that depend on meteorology for their business.

A drought, for instance, will certainly have an impact on hydroelectric facilities in California and on farmers and ranchers.

That could be why many Americans spend so much money on instrumentation to track the weather for their homes and businesses.

Animals seem to have an innate knack to do just that. Enter American racing pigeons.

The birds can live up to 20 years and, like thoroughbred racehorses, are fed the finest grain and treated with tender loving care.

Central Coast resident Mike Brazil, who passed away last year, bred and trained American racing pigeons for more than 50 years.

He would drive more than 450 miles to Northern California to release his flock along with other groups of pigeons.

After traveling northward in a specially designed trailer, the athletic and highly trained birds were raring to get into the air and fly back home.

Upon release, the pigeons go straight up in the sky, like a rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, and circle overhead for a few moments to get their bearings and judge the winds.

“The sky can turn nearly black with so many pigeons in the air at once,” Mike once said.

American racing pigeons rely on the sun, landmarks, Earth’s magnetic field and even smell to navigate their way home.

Most impressively, they use their own instinctive ability to find the location of tail winds in mere seconds, unlike meteorologists with the most sophisticated weather analysis tools who may take hours.

The airspeed of a racing pigeon is roughly 45 mph. With tailwinds, their actual ground speed can reach nearly 100 mph for brief periods.

During the spring and summer, the winds through the Salinas Valley are often out of the northwest at the surface, heading toward the southeast below the temperature inversion layer.

The winds are often strong and persistent, perfect conditions for pigeons.

Eric Wessel has seen his pigeons flying along Highway 101 near the ground, brilliantly avoiding obstacles with a twitch of their tails or a beat of their wings.

If a cold front is coming down the coastline, the winds near the surface are often out of the southeast and blowing toward the northwest, producing strong head winds for the birds, while the winds higher up in the atmosphere can actually be blowing in the opposite direction.

Somehow, the birds know that, and they can be seen as tiny specks streaking across the sky as they take advantage of the tail winds.

Most researchers agree the birds probably have an internal compass to navigate by following the Earth’s magnetic field.

Scientists have discovered clusters of nerve endings wrapped around magnetic iron oxide on each side of the pigeon’s upper beak, which may act as that compass.

Racing pigeons are affected not only by the weather at the surface of the Earth but also by space weather.

On cloudy days, solar storms can disrupt a pigeon’s natural compass, causing it to lose its way.

After about eight to 10 hours of flying southward from Northern California, the birds arrive at their Central Coast homes and are carefully logged in to determine who won the race.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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