Nerds of a Feather

In the competitive world of pigeon racers, it takes one fast bird to deliver the coo de grace

For the longest time, Jim Collier held to the thinnest filament of hope. He would hear a rustling sound from the back yard, or see a dark speck on the far-off horizon, and his heart would pound. He'd run to the tidy pigeon loft in his back yard, buoyed by faith that perhaps, at last, Wilbur had come home.

It never happened. Wilbur, a well-fed, pewter-colored racing pigeon, was Collier's favorite bird. He disappeared one day in the spring of 1990 during a 172-mile race. The weather was flawless; calm winds, a high overcast sky. Wilbur had been well trained, and even had a mate to return to, a pretty little hen named Zelda. But neither hearth nor nookie was enough to coax Wilbur back. For some reason that remains a mystery to this day, Wilbur never returned to his home loft.

Collier has bred racing pigeons in his Farmers Branch back yard for 10 years. When he talks about Wilbur, he cannot fathom the notion that the bird may have met his doom seven years ago in the form of a hawk, a telephone wire, or a ravenous raccoon. Until he is proven wrong, Collier will consider Wilbur merely "lost" on the race route, somewhere between Georgetown and Dallas. A veteran homing pigeon like Wilbur--also known as a racing pigeon--will do practically anything to get home. It may take months. It may take years. But Collier has seen more than one painfully tardy bird return to the loft, and he knows better than to ever give up.

"You never say a bird is dead unless you know it to be true," says the 69-year-old Collier, sitting at a sleek teakwood dining-room table with brochures and photos and pigeon paraphernalia spread out before him. "I guess I always have romance. In my mind, Wilbur is simply lost. I always imagine him perched on a roof somewhere, chasing a cute little hen."

For most of his adult life, Collier has worked as an architect. He designed his home--a stuccoed, distinctly modern affair that jumps out from the sensible brick ramblers dominating his neighborhood. He could not have guessed that 11 years ago, a trip to the State Fair of Texas poultry barn would launch him into a hobby that has consumed both him and his wife of 30 years, Sue.

On that hot autumn day at the fair, Collier happened upon a small exhibit of racing pigeons. One particular bird, of a dark gray color known in pigeon circles as a "blue bar," all but cast a spell on him. "By golly, I stopped right in front of that little cage. I told Sue, 'That bird looks just like Tiny,'" Collier says.

"Tiny," it seems, was the name Collier gave to a pigeon he adopted as a boy growing up in Wichita Falls. A friend's dad raised and raced the birds. Collier found them fascinating. When the man gave young Collier one of the birds to raise, Collier was overjoyed. He took the bird home, fed it, nurtured it, named it, trained it.

Soon after, life got in the way. Collier went off to college at the University of Oklahoma. His thoughts turned to architecture, and away from pigeons. Boys, after all, have to grow up.

Or do they?
Sue Collier, a lean blonde who owns a music school and can talk pigeons with the best of them, laughs as she recalls Jim's headfirst tumble back to his youth.

"We're standing there at the pigeon exhibit, and Jim just got this glazed look in his eye. When he invoked the name of Tiny, I knew it was all over. The owner of the bird offered to give him to Jim right there on the spot. We had taken the bus in from Farmers Branch to avoid traffic, and we didn't even have a car to take him home in. I mean, how do you get a pigeon home, anyway? A doggie bag won't take care of it."

Collier remembers standing at the exhibit for at least 15 minutes, his eyes fixed on the bird. He could have bought the little cock right there--its owner was willing to sell him. "I guess logic finally prevailed," Collier says. "I knew we really didn't have a way to get it home. And even if I got it home, I had nowhere to keep it."

But the seeds of obsession were planted. Over the next six months, Collier took to learning all he could about homing pigeons, linked up with some breeders, and built a simple loft.

That is how Jim Collier, with plenty of help from Sue, became one of at least 11,000 serious pigeon racers in this country. Worldwide, their numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. The birds have existed for eons; classified in the avian world as "rock doves," they are believed among fanciers to be descendants of the dove described in the book of Genesis that Noah sent from the ark after the great flood to scout for dry land.

Noble creatures, these birds. And far from the dirty, scavenging ledge-dwellers that populate cities. Any pigeon guy will quickly set you straight on that.

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