Off to the races

The ‘goofy’ sport and subculture of pigeon racing

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE Kids from Durham 4-H and their parents listen as Bob O’Brien explains some of the finer points of pigeon care.

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE Kids from Durham 4-H and their parents listen as Bob O’Brien explains some of the finer points of pigeon care.

Photo By Josh Indar

A lot of people hate pigeons. They call them winged rats. They make fun of old guys who feed them in the park and talk about putting Alka-Seltzer in with their bread crumbs just to watch the poor birds hemorrhage and die.

But if those people ever had the chance to see a racing pigeon close up, they’d have to change their tune. A person who claims to hate pigeons has obviously never witnessed the devoted care that the keepers of racing pigeons shower on their beloved and highly prized birds.

At first glance, one or two of the local guys involved in pigeon racing look like they might spend a little too much time in the coop, but aside from being a nice bunch of guys, they all share one thing: a healthy passion for what they all admit is a pretty offbeat pursuit—the sport of pigeon racing.

At the Thermalito home of Debi and Dave Moench, Dave’s pigeons are milling around in their loft, while Dave and his 13-year-old pigeon protégé (and grandson) Chameron try to decide which pigeons to race this week. Dave’s former pet, a stuffed chicken named Freckles, stares down from her basket in a nearby shed as the two trainers pore over a computer printout of past race results.

“How about 1021, Chameron?” Dave asks. “That one come in for you?”

Chameron looks down at the page and comes up with the bird’s showing, airspeed and distance traveled for the last race, while Dave plucks a bird out one of the cages and holds it up for inspection. He flips it upside down and checks the bird’s belly, unfolds a wing and runs his thumb over its plumage, then holds the bird up in order to peer into its eyes.

“I’m trying to see inside him,” he explains. “I know all these birds—I know what they are going to do, when they’re going to come in. These birds, they’re athletes. That’s what they are, so they get the best of everything.”

With that, Dave trots off to get some more peanuts or something (the pigeons are fed copious amounts of raw Spanish peanuts before each race to give them energy for the flight), and Chameron makes his final choices on which birds to enter in this week’s race.

Chameron’s been racing pigeons with his grandpa for something going on five years now. A couple years back, he raised a champion bird, which is the one that averages the fastest speed over a whole season’s worth of racing. Since he’s talking about the bird in past tense, I ask him where it is now.

FOWL PLAY Dave Moench tries to “see inside” one of his pigeons to predict how well it’ll do in an upcoming race. The longest race his pigeons will participate in is 600 miles.

Photo By Josh Indar

“Died,” says Chameron matter-of-factly. “Probably got hit by a power pole or something. They die all the time.”

So much for Chameron’s champion flyer, known unceremoniously as bird no. 1274. For a racing pigeon to be honored with a name, it has to prove itself for a couple of years in a row. Dave’s claim to fame is an 11-year-old bird named Slick 50. Slick might not be the fastest bird nowadays, but in his day he could fly with the best of them. When the career of a champion bird is deemed to be over, he is put out to stud just like a racehorse, with hopes of breeding the next generation of champions.

Even in the United States, where pigeon racing is not exactly a popular pastime, champion birds can fetch thousands of dollars from racers hoping to put another star athlete on their team.

In other parts of the world, pigeon racing is ridiculously popular. In Belgium, where an estimated 60,000 people race pigeons, it’s sort of the unofficial national pastime. Only about 10,000 people are registered with the main American pigeon racing club, but there’s still big money in it, even locally. Dave, for instance, won a $2,000 purse not too long ago. In one famous annual Florida race, the winner takes home $100,000. There’s even a race in Sun City, South Africa, where the top winners split a cool million.

For the local guys, though, it’s all about the love of the sport and the social scene that goes along with it. When Dave and Chameron finish preparing their birds, they hand them off for transport to another racer, Jason Wilson, owner of Freebird Lofts in Thermalito, who is taking the birds to their shipping point in Durham.

“This is the goofiest hobby there is, you’ll see,” says Jason as he loads another cage full of birds into the back of his pickup. At the shipping sight, the birds will be packed into stainless steel crates and loaded onto a special trailer for their journey to the starting line of this week’s race—John Day, Ore., a distance of 350 miles.

Jason, 33, a construction worker, has been racing pigeons for about three years now. Today he is holding back most of his best birds to rest them up for next week’s race. He won a lot of races when he first started, but lately he’s been fretting over his birds, which he says can’t seem to keep enough weight on to sustain them in their long flights. One of his best pigeons took a fourth last week, and it’s eating him up.

“I’ve been in the top 10 every damn week [this season], but the best I’ve done is second. It’s driving me nuts,” he says.

“So why do you do it?” I ask.

“You know, it’s hard to say,” he says, grinning and shaking his head. “This is like the most addictive thing I’ve ever done in my life. It gets in your blood. I’ll have these birds the rest of my life, I know I will.”

WATCH THE BIRDIE Jason Wilson holds up one of his birds for the camera.

Photo By Josh Indar

The rest of the characters who make up Butte County’s Pigeons of Paradise (POP) pigeon racing club are similarly unable to come up with a good reason for spending so much time and money on a sport they variously deride as “wacky,” “crazy” and “weird.” They just know it’s something they enjoy, whether it’s for the camaraderie, the competition or the fleeting potential for bragging rights.

A huge part of the appeal has to come from just being around the birds. Even though they don’t do a whole lot most of the time, they are inexplicably fascinating as they strut around in their cages, puffing and cooing and whatnot. It’s impossible to fathom when they stare at you with their beady orange eyes, but pigeons are actually quite intelligent, especially considering that their brains are the about the size of pinto beans.

Jason even tries to tell me that pigeons are as smart as bottlenose dolphins. It sounds like a stretch to me, but he insists “they did studies.”

“These birds are incredibly smart,” he says. “They don’t know where they’re going when you drop them off. How are they going to make it home in six or seven hours? They’ve got to have something going on in their heads. If you dropped me off somewhere in Oregon where I didn’t know where I was, I’d just be lost.”

Scientists have long wondered how pigeons are able to find their way home from unfamiliar locations hundreds of miles away. Theories of how they navigate abound, ranging from them being able to feel the earth’s rotation to following faint smells of home to simply flying above roadways like many aircraft pilots do. Most scientists think pigeons are somehow able to compare the local position of the sun with its position at home, using it as a waypoint to find their way back.

But what’s really amazing is that these birds apparently have the ability to feel variations in the earth’s magnetic field, just as if they had a compass inside their heads. Scientists have proven this by gluing magnets to homing pigeons’ heads and then setting them loose on foggy days. With their internal compasses screwed up and their visibility impaired, most of the birds failed to come back.

The reason we know so much about pigeons is because, with the possible exception of chickens, they are the most studied birds on the planet. People and pigeons have been cultivating relationships since long before Charles Darwin used pigeons of his own breeding stock to help formulate the theory of natural selection. Since at least the Bronze Age, people have been using pigeons to communicate quickly over long distances. In that respect, pigeons carrying messages strapped to their feet constituted the closest thing to the Internet the ancient world would ever see.

Greeks and Romans used pigeons to relay messages to and from the far corners of their empires. The Chinese used them as the linchpin of their postal system, and in the Middle East pigeons often were the only means of communication between cities besieged by European crusaders. The Parisians popularized the “modern” military usage of homing pigeons during the Prussian siege of 1870, when they figured out how to print long but tiny messages on weatherproof photographic film, which was then tied to a “homer’s” tail feathers and developed and printed by its receiver.

During World War I, the Germans destroyed every pigeon they could find in occupied territory in an attempt to stop the Belgians and French from communicating with the British and Americans. In more than one battle during WWI, allied troops who were surrounded by enemies used pigeons to relay their positions and call for help, a practice that probably saved thousands of American lives.

One pigeon, curiously named The Mocker, was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre for his part in exposing the location of a key German artillery unit, which opened up the way for the American Army to liberate Beaumont. In World War II, a pigeon named G.I. Joe became a household name after flying 20 miles in 20 minutes to relay a message that saved a 1,000-man British regiment from near-certain destruction.

WHY THE CAGED BIRDS COO Some of Dave and Chameron’s birds await processing before a race.

Photo By Josh Indar

Even today, homing pigeons are designated as a critical emergency communications tool, which means they can be immediately drafted into service by the U.S. government in the event of any catastrophic national communications breakdown.

This all may seem pretty quaint in the modern world of cell phones and text pagers, but the technology involved in racing pigeons these days is actually state of the art.

It works like this: Every pigeon is fitted with two bands, one on each foot. The first is like an I.D. bracelet that shows the bird’s number and club affiliation. Every racing bird is registered through the AU, the American Racing Pigeon Union.

On the other foot is a black band containing a tiny microchip that holds all the information associated with each particular bird. The electronic band can be scanned just like a box of cereal at the supermarket, so on shipping day before every race, each bird is scanned in before being mixed with the other birds in their transport cages.

Nobody gets to scan his or her own birds because, as Jason pointed out, racers might be tempted to cheat by scanning and then “pocketing” a bird, which they could then return home at any time. That fact alone should tell you something about how competitive these guys are.

After being scanned in, the pigeons are loaded into special crates and put on a custom-made trailer, which is rigged so that, at the start of the race, every cage opens simultaneously. On a race with a good turnout, there might be a thousand or more birds released all at once. When they return to their home lofts, a scanner records each bird as it enters a one-way door. The exact time of entry is then sent via modem to the race commissioner, who tallies out the winners and certifies the race.

Races are often won or lost by tenths or even hundredths of a second, so the absolute worst thing you can see as a pigeon racer is one of your birds circling lazily above its loft on race day.

Dennis Weinreich, who runs Hawk Bait Lofts out of his home in Chico, has a story about one race of about 500 miles, when he had a bunch of people over to watch his birds come in. There was a headwind, so the birds were flying slowly that day. After a series of false sightings, Dennis’s guests were getting ready to give up on him and his birds when someone noticed a very tired-looking pigeon walking up Dennis’s driveway. Sure enough, it was from his flock, so Dennis ran over and grabbed it, clocked it in and took fourth place.

Dennis has a lot of stories like that, as he’s been active in the sport for almost 40 years. He doesn’t race much anymore, but he still breeds birds for sale and operates a Web site that puts him in contact with pigeon racers from all over the world. He says he gets e-mails from everywhere—Taiwan, the Philippines, Pakistan—from people asking for advice on everything pigeon-related.

There’s a lot to know. More than just figuring out what to feed the birds and how to build lofts, good pigeon coaches will employ various techniques to motivate and train their birds for each race. A certain number of times a week, a trainer’s got to “toss his chickens,” which simply means taking his team for a test flight to keep their homing instincts working and their wings strong. Too many tosses will tire the birds out. Too few will make them lethargic.

SHOW ME YOUR COCK Carlos Sanchez, who has been consistently placing in the top five all season, said he races pigeons “because I like it.”

Photo By Josh Indar

Trainers also use psychology to motivate their birds on the night before a race by either cramming a bunch of eggs underneath the females (to make them think they’ve got to get back to their young) or, for males, putting another male next their breeding partner.

“It’s like if you had to go to work, but before you leave, you see some other guy with your girlfriend,” explains Jason. “You’ve still got to go to work, but the whole time you’re thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to get back home.'”

While Jason and Dennis and the rest of POP are checking their birds in, they tease each other about the quality of their birds, the number of races they’ve won or lost lately, and anything else they can think of. One of the stock jokes in this crowd is some variation on “Hey, hand me your cock” or “Jeez, that’s a pretty small cock you got there.” (Cocks are male birds, while hens are females. Both are raced, but some say cocks are better sprinters and hens are better over a long haul.)

The POP crowd is decidedly a boys’ club, to the point where the racers’ wives and girlfriends often refer to themselves as “pigeon widows.” There have been female members in the past who raced with the guys, but they apparently don’t come around anymore. I asked Jason why, and he said he didn’t know, but he wasn’t shy in expressing that he, for one, was glad to be rid of them.

Another racer, Bob O’Brien, winces when he hears Jason’s comment and offers the opinion that Jason is still bitter because those women tended to win a lot of races. Bob may just be a chivalrous sort, but he is also a little worried that I’m going to write a story saying how pigeon racers are a bunch of dirty old men who like to crack jokes about handling each other’s cocks.

In order to show me the family-friendly side of the sport, Bob invites me out to a meeting of the Durham 4-H club, where he is helping the 4-H kids get their pigeons ready to show at the Silver Dollar Fair. Each of the nine kids—four boys and five girls—entering the fair has a cage full of clean, well-kept birds that they’ve been raising for a couple of months now. Bob shows each kid how to inspect their birds for bugs and other health problems and tells them what the judges will be looking for in a winner.

“This guy’s a flying fool,” he says about one bird, holding it an awkward position with its wing outstretched. The kids laugh.

“If it’s got some marks on the feathers, that’s OK,” Bob assures them. “These are flying birds. They’re not like show dogs.”

The kids seem fascinated by the birds, and Bob tells them how proud he is of their flock. The kids also race, competing with Bob and each other for the coveted prize of a T-shirt reading, “I beat the coach.” One of the girls in 4-H won it a few weeks ago, beating Bob by 31/1000th of a yard per second.

On race day, the trainers get all nervous and keyed up. They check their lofts to make sure the “trap” doors work and their scanners and gizmos are connected right. Some trainers will take a lawn chair out near their loft and just stare at the sky for hours, hoping that the few seconds they might save by whistling and yelling for their birds to enter the loft might put a lock on that elusive first-place finish.

HOT CHICK Jason displays a pigeon chick that he hopes will someday win some races for him.

Photo By Josh Indar

All that waiting makes the trainers bored, tense and excited at the same time. As the clock ticks by, they start to wonder if any of the other teams have made it home yet. For this week’s 350-miler, there is a gusty wind blowing from the south, so the trainers figure their birds won’t do much better than 40 miles per hour. They’re released in Oregon at 6 a.m., so at about 1:30 p.m., the trainers start calling each other to find out “who’s got birds.”

That’s when the lying starts. Any racer you call on a race day will tell you his birds got in a half-hour ago no matter what the actual truth is. As I wait at the Moenches’ for Dave’s birds, Jason calls up and Debi answers the phone.

“We’ve got six birds in,” she tells him, giving me a wink. “No I’m not. Why would I lie? I don’t care about them feathered rats.”

She hands me the phone, and Jason pumps me for the real story, which I cave in and give him. None of Dave’s or Chameron’s birds have made it back. Since Jason’s just around the corner, I tell him I want to drive over to check out his loft.

When I get there, he’s waving frantically from his driveway.

“You just missed them. Two of them just came in,” he says, then seeing another pigeon, runs back to his loft in the back yard.

Sure enough, standing on the ledge of Jason’s flying loft is a panting pigeon, looking skinny and sort of worn out but none the worse for wear. Jason makes a couple of calls and learns that Dave’s birds came in just as I was leaving. His next call is even worse news. Bob O’Brien’s birds found their home in Durham about a half-hour ago. Since the race is decided not by geography but by time, you would expect Bob’s birds to come in at Durham before Jason’s made Thermalito, but half an hour is an insurmountable lead. Bob’s pigeons have won again.

Jason is a little bummed out but not quite crushed. In his breeding loft, he shows me the future of Freebird Lofts, gingerly holding out for inspection a tiny pigeon chick that he hopes will be his secret weapon in next season’s race. It’s been bred from one of his past champions and even as an untrained chick is worth about $500.

“This one ought to be a pretty fast bird,” he says. “Ugly, ain’t it?”

The chick is fuzzy-yellow and sort of deformed looking, with a giant set of black eyes showing beneath its translucent pink skin. I have to agree it’s ugly, but I don’t push the point, seeing as this chick carries so many of Jason’s hopes for victory.

As I’m leaving, Jason suggests I call my article “The goofy sport of pigeon racing,” and I tell him I’ll consider it.

Most people would probably agree that pigeons are pretty goofy creatures, and some would even say the same about the guys who race them. But maybe that’s the point. In an age where community is hard to find, the guys who get together every Thursday or Friday to ship pigeons and swap stories have carved out a fun, simple and wholly unique social scene for themselves. What’s more, they’re using that scene to connect both with their own childhoods and with the kids they hope will someday be the pigeon racers of the future.

What’s so goofy about that?

For more information on local pigeon racing, call POP President Denzel Conley at (530) 589-0324