Pigeon pride

Area pigeon racers home in on a rewarding sport

HOME AGAIN <br>Mike Brown, a podiatrist who lives in Durham, has been raising and racing pigeons since he was a boy. He’s one of several Butte County residents who race birds competitively. To his left is Carlos Sanchez, who also races.

Mike Brown, a podiatrist who lives in Durham, has been raising and racing pigeons since he was a boy. He’s one of several Butte County residents who race birds competitively. To his left is Carlos Sanchez, who also races.

Photo by Tom Angel

Bird is the word: There are 700 affiliated pigeon racing clubs around the country, according to the American Racing Pigeon Union, Inc. Web site. That makes for approximately 25,000 people in the United States who are pigeon enthusiasts and race them as hobby.

Standing on the doorstep of Dr. Mike Brown’s Durham home, the first thing that catches my eye is the sky full of birds flying around his home in packs like fighter jets. Making a noise kind of like a cat’s purr, they circle the house and the ski lake behind it, flying into trees and into their backyard coop. Some are exercising for upcoming races, while others are young pigeon racers in training,

Across the driveway, in the grass, is a cream, shed-like building made of wood and raised up on stilts. The sliding wooden door opens to a room of cubbyholes, each filled with a male pigeon that’s resting up for a big race that week.

Brown smiles when he slides open the door. With childlike excitement he points out pigeons that have been recent winners and brags like a proud father about their extravagant variety of colors, from pure white to red.

Brown, 54, has been racing pigeons since he was a child and even had a pigeon coop in his back yard while he was attending medical school to become a podiatrist.

“I’ve raced pigeons all my life as a hobby,” said Brown, president of Pigeons of Paradise, the local pigeon racing club. “I enjoy it because it’s something you can do in the back yard and it’s a real family sport.”

When he moved to Durham in the late 1980s from Bakersfield, there were only six members in the local club, but now there are about 20.

“Pigeon racing is on the upswing,” he said. “There are 50 flyers from Marysville to Mount Shasta. Chico is a great area to race because it’s farmland and most people have plenty of room to do it.”

Denzil Conley, another member of POP, is the race secretary and has been racing pigeons for about five years.

Conley got into pigeon racing by accident after a pigeon landed in his neighbors’ backyard. He noticed the bird had a ring on its claw for identification and tried to find out who owned the bird.

After he tracked down someone who was involved in pigeon racing and had the sport explained to him, he was hooked. He named the bird he found “Wrongway,” he said.

“It’s a fun hobby because you can sit in the backyard with a beer and wait for them to come back,” said Conley, who now is a racing pigeon breeder and has a couple of hundred of them. “It the sport of poor kings.”

Pigeons are tough birds, and he enjoys handling and feeding them, said Conley, as he hand-fed a baby pigeon in a box alongside him.

The sport of pigeon racing originated in Europe and was brought to the United States in the early 1900s, Brown said.

Pigeons will always come back to where they were born and have the ability to “home” from hundreds of miles away.

“These pigeons have evolved over 100 years from the downtown pigeons,” Brown said, referring to common pigeons seen roosting in town squares. “They are thoroughbred race horses of the sky.”

The pigeons have developed a keen sense for homing and they use their instincts, the stars and even the magnetic fields in the earth to find their way home, he said.

Brown and Sanchez with a couple of their favorites.

Photo by Tom Angel

The night before a race the pigeons are taken into clubhouse, his barn in the backyard, to be countermarked, said Brown. Then they are loaded into crates and a driver takes them to the releasing point for that race station. To give a male pigeon an incentive to return quickly, many owners use the “widowhood method,” separating the bird from its mate for the week before the race, until just before the pigeon leaves home. “It’s really motivating … if he knows his mama’s going to be there when he gets home.”

The next morning the pigeons are released at a certain time. The first bird home wins.

Some pigeons are better at long-distance racing, while others are flown for their speed, which can range up to 45 miles per hour, Brown said.

When the birds are babies they are permanently banded with a ring for identification. When they grow to the age of 6 months they can start to race. Each pigeon also has a little electronic chip attached to its leg so that when it enters its coop the chip records the exact time of return, he said.

“It’s nice with the new electronic clocks because … you don’t have to wait for the pigeons to come in,” Brown said.

Some very good pigeons will fly a 600-mile race in a day, he said. “We recently had a 500-mile race with a winning pigeon. It was released at 6 a.m. and was home at 8:15 that night.”

There are two racing seasons a year. From September to October, pigeons less than a year old are raced between 100 and 300 miles. Then, in April, birds that are a year or older are raced up to 600 miles.

Pigeon racing is definitely a competitive sport, and people are always up for a little wager, Brown said.

The Chico Club members compete among themselves for club awards, such as pigeon diplomas, but they also compete on national and state levels as members of the American Racing Pigeon Union.

Brown said awards are given for first through 20th place, with 20 points given to the first-place pigeon, down to 1 point for 20th place. “The pigeon with the highest point value at the end of a racing season wins,” he said.

Pigeon racing is also an inexpensive hobby, Brown said. “Pigeons don’t need an exotic setup. People of all walks of life race pigeons.”

All that is really needed to start up pigeon racing is a small loft, some pigeon feed and about 30 pigeons, he said. The electronic clock, which times the pigeons when they return, is probably the most expensive purchase for pigeon racers, Brown said. They usually start at $100 and go up, depending on how fancy they are.

“We are always open to new members and don’t mind helping them get set up,” he said

Some of the club’s newest members are junior flyers like Cameron Hines, 10, who races pigeons with and against his grandfather David Moench.

“I enjoy playing all sports with [Cameron],” said Moench, who had pigeons as pets as a child and has always been interested in the birds. “This is just another thing we can do together. It something we can share.”

Hines received 60 racing pigeons as a gift from his grandfather and has been racing for two years now. He gets to pick the birds that will fly each race, but he avoids picking his favorites because he doesn’t want them to get lost.

“My favorite part is taking them to be let go because it’s fun to hold them,” said Hines, who’s beat his grandpa more times than they remember.

The older pigeon racers—who call themselves “flyers"—get as excited about a return home as the junior flyers.

“This sport keeps you looking up all the time," Conley said. "Most people walk around looking at the ground, but there’s nothing going on down on the ground."