GUM BRANCH, Ga. - Richard and Charlotte Webb were surprised to find a pigeon in their pear tree. Especially after closer inspection revealed it was a pigeon wearing an ID band around its foot.
Their astonishment only increased when the Webbs learned their guest was likely owned by a Mr. Copping of Norwich, Norfolk, Great Britain.
"That's when we decided to name him Little Tony Blair," said Mrs. Webb, as she eyed her little visitor in a cage that was donated by friends.
Three weeks ago, Mrs. Webb said the bird appeared under a pear tree in their back yard.
"He was just walking around, looking for food," she said.
The Webbs went inside and grabbed some bread crumbs in an attempt to feed the little traveller. But Mrs. Webb said the bird wouldn't take a peck at the offering. So the couple tried Cheerios.
To their surprise, the little aviator dined - but only after stretching its wings around the back yard.
"As it got dark, he perched himself on our window and slept there," Mrs. Webb said.
Gradually, the Webbs coaxed the bird into a borrowed cage with more food. That's when they found the ID band bearing a letter and number combination.
The Webbs took to the Internet with the number, thinking the homing pigeon belonged to a local bird-racing club. But when they plugged the number into a Web site operated by Cornell University in New York, the return e-mail left the couple flabbergasted.
Little Tony belongs to a man in Great Britain, who was a member of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.
How Little Tony made it to the United States and Gum Branch, where racing pigeons are a rare sight, remains a mystery.
"The two possibilities are he may have flown from land mass to land mass in the North Atlantic," said Mr. Webb, who is a retired Army veterinarian. "Or he may have hopped onto a cargo ship."
The latter is more likely, said Bert Oostlander, the owner of Global Pigeon Supplies in Savannah.
"Pigeons can fly across the country," said Mr. Oostlander, who has been involved in pigeon racing for 53 years. "But don't ask how long it takes. Some birds take longer than others."
Typically, homing pigeons will race 100 to 600 miles. Beyond that, Mr. Oostlander said, the birds need several days and plenty of resting spots.
As a result, Mr. Oostlander thinks the Webbs' visitor could have journeyed to the United States in several different ways.
"It could have been imported ... or was sold here and escaped," Mr. Oostlander said. "Another possibility is it could have been a lost racing pigeon. It could have flown over the ocean and due to weather or winds, discovered a ship and happened to land on a ship making its way to the United States."