By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Not even similar," says pigeon breeder and racer Rick Smith, who cares for 60 or so birds on his two acres in Sanger, just north of Denton. "Take one of these pigeons and put it beside a wild bird, and it's like putting a thoroughbred horse next to a mule. It's just that pronounced."
Or put another way: "These birds are products of careful breeding with a will to race," says Jim Collier. "The birds you see under bridges are nothing more than the products of promiscuous sex!"
The world of pigeon racers is peppered with people just like Collier and Smith--fiercely loyal to their birds and hard competitors in the local and regional clubs that sponsor races in the spring and fall. They breed their stock seriously--proudly tracing bloodlines back to big winners in Belgium, where pigeon racing first took hold and remains a wildly popular national sport. One of the world's biggest breeders, an Irish immigrant named Campbell Strange, raises pigeons in Springtown, Texas, about 30 miles northwest of Fort Worth. His stock have names befitting the Belgian monarchy--"Blaue V.D. Scherpen" and "Ace van Bommel" for instance--and can fetch a price upwards of $2,000 each.
And then there are the back-yard hobbyists, loft keepers like Jim Collier. Mostly men, many of them middle-aged professionals, they love the birds for their simplicity and iron strength. A pigeon released some 600 miles from home, winging its route at average speeds of 45 to 50 miles per hour, then lighting square on its home loft's landing board, is an awesome thing. After all these years, Collier still can't believe it.
"These birds are so intent on their purpose," he says. "They'll fly through any weather--hurricanes, microbursts, you name it." He is standing inside his 10 foot-by-10 foot loft, a row of pigeons beside him pecking out a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm against their metal feed trough as they snack on premium grain.
"I mean, these birds will go through anything, just to get home."
The body of "G.I. Joe," a dark checker and pied white racing cock, is stuffed and mounted in the Historical Center of Meyer Hall at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Although he died at the age of 18 in 1961, while living in retirement at the Detroit Zoo, Joe never died in the annals of racing-pigeon lore. Fact: He is the most highly decorated pigeon in history, and is credited with saving the lives of at least 1,000 British troops during World War II.
In an aged, pocket-sized booklet published by the American Racing Pigeon Union titled The Sport and Hobby of Racing Homers, Otto Meyer, a retired U.S. Army officer and former Commander of the U.S. Army Pigeon Service, describes the valor of G.I. Joe in the way only a career serviceman can:
The British 56th Brigade was scheduled to attack the city of Colvi Vecchia, Italy, at 10 a.m., October 18, 1943. The U.S. Air Support Command was scheduled to bomb the city to soften the entrance for the British Brigade. The Germans retreated, leaving only a small rear guard, and as a result the British troops entered the city with little resistance and occupied it ahead of schedule.
All attempts to cancel the bombings of the city, made by radio and other means of communication, had failed. Little G.I. Joe was released with the important message to cancel the bombing. He flew 20 miles back to the U.S. Air Support Command base in 20 minutes and arrived just as our planes were warming up to take off. If he had arrived a few minutes later it might have been a different story.
For that and several other message-carrying missions, G.I. Joe was shipped in 1946 from Fort Monmouth to London, where he was awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry by the Lord Mayor of London--the only bird or animal in the United States, Commander Meyer informs us, to receive this high award.
It's no wonder, then, that the Pigeon Union's booklet cover reminds us that pigeon racing is a "Fascinating and Educational Hobby and a Necessity in Times of National Defense." And, the '60s-era booklet adds, in its endearing, finger-wagging tone: Respect the Racing Homer, because even in this age of electronic sophistication it may be the one thing that will save your life!
From his office in Oklahoma City, Rick Phalan, executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union, chuckles when some of the little book's more melodramatic passages are pointed out. But in his own way, Phalan is no less serious about the sport. Two years ago, after participating for years in the association as a hobbyist pigeon racer, Phalan applied for the newly created, full-time spot as executive director and got it. He left a well-paying sales career with a livestock feed company in Sioux City, Iowa, for the job, and now works to build membership and promote the joys of raising and racing pigeons.
The union began in 1910 and now counts about 11,000 members nationwide. As for demographics, Phalan says that based on his own "non-empirical observation," most of the group's members "more or less stumbled onto the hobby" and got so engrossed they simply stuck with it.