Nerds of a Feather

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

Wilbur was acquired along with his sister, Charlotte, and the pair were named for the famous pig and doomed spider in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. There was Emily and Charlotte II, named for the Bronte sisters. And Portia, for the heroine of The Merchant of Venice. The couple's first mating pair were named Fred and Annette--for Fred Meyer and Annette Strauss--candidates for Dallas mayor at the time. A few years into their hobby, a friend gave Sue a pair of Satinettes--silky white pigeons known more for their beauty than for their intelligence or racing ability. "They were a lot like some people," says Sue. "Pampered, spoiled, and not good for much more than window dressing."

But she did love them. She named the birds Ollie and Fawn--for Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, who at the time were grabbing page-one headlines for their involvement in the Iran-Contra arms trading scandal.

As for all the critics and naysayers of Wilbur, Jim is glad he never culled that big, voracious bird from his stock. On the advice of a respected British flier, who said some birds need at least two years to prove their prowess, Jim continued to train Wilbur and treat him well. And indeed, in the 1990 race season, Wilbur brought the Colliers a passel of plaques (now hanging in their dining room) and recognition. That year, the bird covered more than 1,000 miles in a series of races. And Wilbur's first yearling son--sired with Zelda and named Charley--grew into an impressive racer himself.

As for Charlotte, who came to the Colliers with Wilbur, she died a little over a year ago, eaten by a raccoon who found its way into the loft. Jim deduced her cause of death the morning he found all that was left of Charlotte in the yard--a wing. And even that was nearly stripped clean.

"She was one of the few birds that was truly people-friendly," Jim says, noting that pigeons will seldom completely trust their owners, despite years of care and feeding.

Charlotte is not forgotten. Among Jim's pigeon paraphernalia is a constant reminder of the gentle little hen that ate right out of his hand: "A wing bone," he says, and his voice is almost reverent.

A healthy homing pigeon will often live for 20 years. In that lifespan, six to seven years will be spent racing. A virile stud can make himself useful for, say, another five years after that. But it all begins with an egg, of course (or does it? Which comes first, the pigeon or the egg?), which a hen lays 10 days after mating. She lays a second egg two days later. The hen will not sit on the first egg until she lays the second. Then, in egalitarian fashion worthy of human envy, the cock and the hen take turns keeping the eggs warm. The cock sits on the eggs by day; the hen by night. Penned together in their breeding cages, the cock and hen are never far from each other.

Pigeons mate for life, unless a breeder chooses to change their mates. In fact, the power of sex is the best way to "relocate" a bird from another loft. When Jim and Sue Collier adopted Portia and several other birds from a man in East Dallas, it wasn't long before she skipped out and returned to her home loft. It happened several times, with Jim schlepping back to the East Dallas loft, where he would be greeted by a stately Portia perched on the landing board. Finally, the Colliers decided they had one recourse.

"We found her a stud muffin," Sue says.
All it takes to put a pair of homing pigeons in the mood is placing a "nesting bowl"--a dinner-plate-sized plastic saucer--in the pen. The pair will immediately break into a mating dance, with the cock strutting and flapping his wings. "If everything's normal, that's all it takes," Jim says. "A few days later, you have eggs."

Hatchlings--or "squeakers" in pigeon-fancier jargon--grow at a phenomenal rate. At birth they have no feathers, and feed on a cheesy substance known as pigeon "milk" provided by both parents for 10 days. After that, the parents begin feeding their squeakers grain.

All racing birds get banded five to seven days after birth. They grow so fast that beyond that window, their legs become too large to accommodate the permanent aluminum band. The band includes an inscription with the letters AU (for the American Racing Pigeon Union), the two-digit number of the bird's birth (such as '97), the initials of the local club to which the owner belongs, and a unique number given only to that bird.

In general, young pigeons begin training for racing at about six weeks. Their first trip out of the loft, at least for their owners, is a nerve-wracking experience. "You just have no idea where they'll go, or if they'll come back," says Jim Collier, sounding like a parent sending his kid off to college for the first time. "That first day out, they might be gone the whole day."

In their first few flights, the birds go everywhere--to poles, trees, roofs, and fences. Eventually, they begin to flock, and will take off and return to the loft together. Their reward on return is a bowl of grain.

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