Nerds of a Feather

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

"Although there is no one profile, I'd say most of our members were exposed to the birds as kids," Phalan says. "Usually a neighbor, a relative, or mentor of some kind will get them started. In my own case, a seventh-grade teacher got me involved."

Most fanciers, after going hard at the hobby during their youth, step away from it--sometimes for several years--while pursuing other interests of adulthood. "You're busy working on other things--love, work, money, family--and this is a time-consuming hobby. But it's such an attractive sport, people just gravitate back," Phalan says.

"You can move to your own desired level of involvement. You can be as good or professional as you want to be."

Campbell Strange chose the professional route, and is now one of the world's premier pigeon breeders. Born in Ireland 58 years ago, Strange came to the United States at the age of 18. He settled in California and opened a carpet business, eventually managing 150 employees. In 1983, Strange retired, and with his sizable earnings bought 110 acres in Springtown.

"I had a lot of time on my hands and didn't have too much to do," Strange says.

Like the average pigeon fancier described by Phalan, Strange had raised a few birds as a child. He got his first pigeon at age eight, and began dabbling in the hobby in 1963. Retirement afforded Strange more time to devote to his passion. He began his own bird business, traveling to six continents to link up with the world's best breeders. Depending on the season, Strange now raises at least 450 pigeons at any time. Many of their bloodlines can be traced to the finest Belgian stock of more than 100 years ago.

If there were a Monopoly game for pigeon breeders, Strange's Oak Haven Farms would be the Boardwalk. The "stud building" alone houses 16 pens where some of the strongest breeding cocks in the world eat the best feed and enjoy climate-controlled surroundings. In return for their keep, these champions (many of them purchased by Strange for at least $20,000 each) mate with equally regal hens, fertilizing the eggs that have hatched a fine second livelihood for Strange.

His mail-order customers come from everywhere, but his biggest market is in Asia--particularly Taiwan. "The Chinese are known as compulsive gamblers, and their pigeons make them a lot of money," Strange says. The winning bird in one popular annual Taiwanese race fetches a $23 million prize (in U.S. dollars) for its owner. Another race, in South Africa, awards the winner $1 million.

In Texas, racing clubs often sponsor "auto futurities," with a new car going to the winner. A few years ago, when Strange was still involved in racing his birds, he won a new Pontiac Grand Am one weekend, and a Chevy S-10 pickup the next.

Four years ago, Strange gave up racing to focus all his efforts on his breeding operation. "In order to be real competitive, you have to be here every day," he says. Three full-time employees, including Strange's daughter, help run the operation.

As well known as he is in pigeon racing circles, Strange is not without his detractors. "A feather merchant," sniffs one local racer, who says he understands Strange's passion for breeding, but not his machine-like operation and his incredible prices.

"They say there's something to all this fancy breeding," the racer says. "But it doesn't make for a very personal relationship with your birds."

There are those, of course, who criticize racers who get too close to their pigeons. "It really isn't advocated to get close to your birds," says Jim Collier. "Or to have a small loft like mine." Serious pigeon people, in fact, urge the "culling" of birds that show little interest in racing. Back when the Colliers were raising their beloved Wilbur, for instance, some of Jim's friends in the North Texas Concourse (a grouping of several racing clubs in Dallas, Tarrant, and eight neighboring counties) noticed the ample bird seemed more interested in eating than in flying.

"They told me I should cull Wilbur post-haste before he ate me out of house and home," says Jim, rubbing his silver goatee and grinning at the memory. But from the moment he and Sue brought their first pigeon home, Jim had promised his wife he would never kill a bird except to relieve it from misery. And over the ensuing years, there were many cases of misery--gaping wounds from collisions with telephone wires, gashes from hawks and other predators. They nursed each bird back to health. The Colliers even once fostered a pigeon found in a sludge pit at DFW Airport, covered with jet fuel and burned so deep that his dead skin peeled off in their hands.

"You'd try to stand the poor thing up, and he would fall right over," Sue says. They kept him in an isolation cage inside the house for several days. With proper care and feeding, the little cock eventually began to feather out again--nothing short of a "miraculous recovery," Sue says. When he had regained his strength, the Colliers released him. They assume he returned to his home loft.

The Colliers take enormous pleasure in naming their birds after literary figures and heroes of pop culture--another taboo in the serious breeding business, where pigeons are assigned a band number during their first week of life and rarely earn anything approaching a sentimental moniker.

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