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It May Sound Coo-Coo, but a Pennsylvania Foundry Has Taken a Flier and Put Pigeons to Work

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Problem: Donsco Inc., a foundry in Wrightsville, Pa., has its testing laboratory in Mount Joy, Pa. To ensure quality control, metal alloy samples from the foundry must be tested regularly at the lab. But the two facilities are separated by 12 miles of twisting, treacherous roads that become virtually impassable in winter.

Hint: Forget Federal, Emery, Purolator and all the rest of those overnight delivery services. The two-ounce samples, which are shaped like pencils, have to be tested every hour on the hour, and they absolutely, positively have to be there on time or production at the foundry shuts down.

Solution: Pigeon Express.

The scheme is not as bird-brained as it might first appear. “Although there were some people in the company who thought we were crazy,” says Ron Wiertel, Donsco’s VP of operations, “it’s been a great success for us.” Wiertel is entitled to preen—it was he who hatched the plan to use feathered air couriers. “I remembered that in World Wars I and II they used pigeons to carry messages,” he explains.

The birds, 22 Belgian racing pigeons, cost $2 to $5 apiece, and in the 17 months they’ve been flying, they have saved the company an estimated $30,000. Each pigeon consumes four ounces of food a day (a 50-pound bag of pigeon feed costs all of $11). But just because it’s cheap, don’t get the idea the food is doled out indiscriminately. Company policy is to keep the birds a bit peckish. “We keep them hungry but not starved,” says David Splain, who oversees the pigeon project. “That way they come right back to the loft.” Splain, by the way, is also safety director for Donsco; he doesn’t want to get pigeonholed as commander of the company’s air corps.

It takes the birds three to five minutes to get from Wrightsville to Mount Joy, eight miles as the pigeon flies. Each logs one mission per day. “But they could probably make as many as four or five runs, ” says Splain. “That’s no work for them. In a pigeon race they’d be flying 400 to 500 miles.”

One last advantage to Donsco’s avian labor force: no featherbedding.