A dozen homing pigeons, released Tuesday morning at the Plymouth County Fairgrounds in Le Mars, were on their way home.
The pigeon release took place at Siouxland Aging Services' 24th annual Sun 'N Fun event, a day for seniors and caregivers to have fun together and learn about health-related issues.
She said people attended from each of the five northwest Iowa counties her agency serves: Plymouth, Cherokee, Ida, Monona and Woodbury.
The theme for the Sun 'N Fun day was "Party 'til the cows come home," but Wendy Beavers from Mercy Home Care decided to mix it up with their family's birds.
Along with the having fun, Wendy and her husband Mike, who raises the birds, said they hoped the pigeon release would emphasize something important.
"The reason we're doing this with these pigeons today is that their driving force is to go home, just as home care seeks to help people stay at home," Mike said to the crowd gathered to watch the release.
Wendy also noted that more people will be looking into choosing home health care due to changes in Medicare.
As part of the pigeon release, Wendy and Sheila Rodgers, an R.N. with Mercy Home Care, invited people to stop by their booth and write little messages for someone they cared about, including that person's phone number.
Wendy and Mike attached a message to each bird's foot before they were released.
When the birds return to the Beavers' home near Kingsley and Lawton, Wendy plans to call the people and deliver the special messages.
Lou Huckle, of Le Mars, wrote a note to a friend who is very ill.
"I told her to take care, and said the pigeon is closer to God when it is flying," Huckle said.
Homing pigeons are bred to be able to find their way home, even at very long distances, Mike explained to a crowd at the Sun 'N Fun event.
He has been involved with raising and racing homing pigeons since he was 15.
"There was an older gentleman in the neighborhood that raced them when I was a kid, and I'd go with him and watch with him when they came back home," Mike said. "Once it gets in your blood, it's hard to get away from."
Today, Mike's own pigeons race distances as long as 700 miles, flying at speeds of 65-70 mph.
To race homing pigeons, bird owners will congregate in one location, and then release the birds.
Each bird returns to its owner's home.
Computer chips embedded in tiny anklets on each pigeon mark the time at which they arrive, then the owners tally the yards per minute each bird flew, Mike said.
The bird with the fastest yards per minute speed wins, he explained.
Once he raced birds from Fort Wurth, Texas.
The birds were released in Texas at 6 a.m. Many were back to their home loft in Iowa by 7 p.m., he said.
Raising homing pigeons to race involves training, like being an athlete would, Mike said.
"I try to get them out two or three times each week and do practice flights," he said.
Pigeons which are 1-6 years old race in the spring, up to 700 miles.
Young birds, anything raised this year, will fly as far as 500 miles, even as early as at three months of age, Mike explained.
At Tuesday's event, he estimated the pigeons would fly from the fairgrounds back to their home loft in rural Kingsley in a little more than 10 minutes.
"They'll beat me home," Mike said with a chuckle.
Around the fairgrounds, seniors and caregivers were participating in other activities that tied into the "Party 'til the cows come home" theme.
Some line danced, others tried the cow pie toss (with plastic cow pies), some took photos with John Wayne the statue, and some stopped to see the goats and miniature horses at the petting zoo.
Organizer Chris Kuchta, of Siouxland Aging Services, said the "Party 'til the cows come home" event is meant to be fun, but there's some seriousness too.
"Our purpose as an agency is to keep people at home as safely and as long as possible," she explained. "If we can connect them with the support agencies out there during this event, it increases their opportunity to stay home."
And that helps save taxpayer dollars, too, Kuchta said.
"It's just as cheap for six people to stay in their homes as it is to have one person in a nursing home," she said.
Le Mars resident MaryAnn Schmidt took a break from line dancing to find some shade on the fairgrounds.
She said she enjoyed watching the pigeons be released to fly toward home.
"I haven't missed one of these events yet," Schmidt said of the Fun 'N Sun day. "I like getting around people and finding out about a lot of good ideas about health."