The Ichtor project: children and their feathered friends

Suzy Schollier, primary school teacher in the 4th form, tells us about Ichtor, a skills-integrated project at the primary school “De Schatkist” in Ichtegem (Flanders).

1. The Start

For many years I’ve been bringing small pigeons to my school on World Animal Day in October. I showed the pigeons in all classes, both in the kindergarten and in primary school. The pupils were familiar with their own dog, cat, hamster or fish, and with our school animals: guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens. But racing pigeons? That was something else. And year after year, I was touched and moved by seeing so many little hands petting the pigeon wings over and over and by the kids making sounds of excitement. Sometimes the children were really scared of those wriggling ‘animals’, but other children convinced them to pet the little heads, or to gently wriggle their feathers and… to realize that pigeons will not peck. This World Animal Day with pigeons at school is invaluable for the kids.

This is my way of contributing to school activities, just like other colleagues with a talent for music or dance would contribute to artistic school activities. But I had pawned my heart to animals. So there is no denying the fact that I am a pigeon fancier to the backbone. From my childhood onwards, I followed my father around to the lofts, under which chickens used to peck the corn that had fallen through the cracks of the floor. But that is not what I wanted the children of the class to taste. I pursue other goals. Goals that ask determination, commitment and regularity from all parties involved. The main reason why I started with pigeons at that moment? I had an emotionally very difficult class. Two adopted children lost their father, one boy lost his young mother and…one girl was diagnosed with brain-cancer! (She is actually one of the new fanciers!) I wanted a special place where all these kids could have some private moments when necessary! A pigeon-loft! Why not?
Pigeons are living creatures, are not easy to handle, they need a lot of attention, and nothing happens spontaneously or can be taken for granted. So you cannot compare them to a cat that wants to be petted, or a dog that faithfully sits down when he is asked to do so. The somewhat mysterious interaction between master and living creature with an own will, that is what I wanted to bring up in the class group. In my class there is always a lot of chatting and philosophizing going on. The teacher always receives numerous questions, and many of them are about pigeons, apparently because the teacher could tell such beautiful stories about them. And one thing led to another… quietly and unexpected as a breeze of wind that embraces you.

2. The past three years of Ichtor: an unconditional child-pigeon-relationship!

It is still an interesting idea: Keeping pigeons at school, a place with many children. Each class, from the first to the sixth grade, knows the pigeons and knows pigeon teacher Suzy and her Ichtor kids at and around the Ichtor-loft! The location: De Schatkist, Koekelarestraat 14 in Ichtegem. And what about the teacher? She also has pigeons at home and she lives in Torhout. The name ‘Ichtor’ was born and the first loft was built in the school garden, with donations from the many sympathizers from ‘De Riddersclub van België’, an initiative of among other Dirk Schree. The initiative did not initially get the support from the K.B.D.B.! But lack of space made me turn to the K.B.D.B. once again. The promotional year for pigeon racing apparently paid off: this time, loft number two and the accompanying chicken-run was not a problem at all. The ‘winter complex’ of the second loft was a fact, and the complex is still shining in the school garden.

3. Organisation

Keeping pigeons and taking care of them is a serious chore for the real pigeon fancier, let alone for children.
But it seemed to work out for some parents, with trial and error. Some things seem obvious for pigeon fanciers, but can be a real challenge for a novice... For example: Water is water, isn’t it? Why not use rain water? Food is food, isn’t it? Why not place a bucket in the loft? “It should not be a big problem if we forget to feed them once in a while, is it?” Why do we always have to put the nest platters back in the same place in the loft after cleaning up? Why do pigeons need training flights? Why this and why that?! And there really was something with those balls of feather all the time. (A bruised one, one that returned home a day late, a fighter, … and so on.) But the children and some parents can honestly be proud of their ‘caretaking of their darlings’! They did and they are still doing fine!

That is why I have always been in the loft after school in the past two years, to make sure that the numerous interested children, parents and grandparents can cherish their darlings. That is also the reason why I am still motivated to travel these long distances, even in the weekends and during the summer holidays. They can always contact me if a problem should occur; I am always stand-by… Even the neighbours are concerned when they notice something that does not seem “right”, which is really heart-warming!

4. Commitment

This loft is and will be a commitment of mine and my main principle is always: one good turn deserves another. So as long as I stay healthy, the Ichtor project will continue and its pedagogical value will undoubtedly be proven in the future. It is not my purpose to turn the Ichtor children into young pigeon fanciers; my purpose was, is and will be: making the children familiarized with performance pigeons. Letting them feel the love of those animals. Letting them ‘taste’ the mysteriousness of the animal. To make them appreciate the real value of caretaking an animal. To be patient day after day, and to be there for them all the time. To create and maintain a relationship between child and pigeon.

5. Participating in races

We will also continue to participate in the races. Training, basketing, knowing when the pigeons will arrive, and waiting for them… The children (and some parents) are already used to doing this. We have won a few prizes last year, with Tours being our longest distance. I did notice, however, that the children are not really competitive. Winning is nice, but they especially like the fact that the pigeons actually return home. (Sometimes after three long days!)  The only thing they really care about is making sure that their pigeons return to the loft. You can clearly hear them call their pigeons when they arrive! And you can notice the spark in their eyes when their own feathered friend returns home, without any GPS! Deep respect for the racing birds!

6. Demonstrating theory in practice

I am often lost for words. Having been a pigeon fancier myself for years, I have seen and felt things of which I could not believe they were true. My respect for pigeons has been growing ever since; a pigeon is not an ordinary creature if you ask me. Those pigeons give the children heaps of credit over and over. Those balls of feathers accepted things that I did not believe to be possible. I have learned a lot during the last tree Ichtor years! What emotional goose bump moments have I experienced. I noticed the children and the pigeons having fun and enjoyment. And for me, that is what it is all about. Having FUN! Up to now theory was certainly certainly demonstrated in practice, and you cannot take that away from the children.

7. So we keep going!

The fact that the children love the pigeons that much and vice versa motivates me to further support the project and to try to get the necessary success rates, thanks to THE HELP OF MANY FRIENDS! There is no denying: pigeons love children and children love pigeons. Keeping pigeons at school is really something worth trying. Just ask the children and parents of grades four, five and six and the children that have left the school by now!

8. Three new 10-year-old pigeon fanciers!

For the second consecutive year, three separate pigeon fancier families (arisen from the Ichtor project) have been participating in races with their pigeons and they manage wonderfully. So pigeon racing is really alive!
The Young pigeon fanciers get help from their ‘pigeon godfathers’ (a pigeon fancier who teaches them everything about our sport) and they get financial support from the ‘Ichtor fund’.

9. Ichtor Fund

The ‘Ichtor fund’ was created three years ago. A group of motivated fanciers donated a number of pigeons for my project. All these pigeons were sold on the internet. The money was used to finance the project and to support new pigeon fanciers. This means that the school does not have to invest in the project and that the new fanciers can participate in the competitions for free. In addition, new fanciers get free pigeons every year.

10. Finally

We are already in the school year 2011-2012….The project has been going on for four years now!
We have 10 beautiful yearlings and two one-year-old cocks and their corresponding hens on the Ichtor-loft. The 10 widowers will again be participating in races later in April. A new class is already motivated and occupied with the feathered friends. They fully enjoy all aspects of ‘pigeon racing’… There is now a group of committed parents as well. With a bit of good will and a lot of motivation the Ichtor project will go on and it will further allow people to get to know the racing pigeon and all aspects of pigeon racing.

It is remarkable how captivated the kids are by those balls of feathers. You should see their twinkling eyes! So, we keep going! The children love to take care of the pigeons and they feel connected to their feathered friends! They really love the birds and the pigeons love all the attention and the fact that the children take care of them. The ‘ICHTOR’ story continues, that’s for sure! I had a dream and I still have a dream…