Nerds of a Feather

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

In pigeon-fancier circles, racing homers are classified in two categories--young birds (under one year) and old birds (everything else). The calendar year is a balance of breeding and racing. Young birds race in the fall; old birds in the spring. In the off-seasons, they have a lot of sex.

Racing starts on a small, local level, with clubs competing against each other. The Dallas area, for example, is divided up into several clubs by geography--northeast, northwest, and south. The next step in competition is the Dallas combine, where the local clubs join together to race against other neighboring combines. Finally, there is the North Texas Concourse--a grouping of clubs in 10 counties. The NTC owns a huge trailer built to hold 4,000 pigeons. On race days, competitors load their birds onto the trailer (a racer will often register some two dozen pigeons at a time). The trailer carries the birds to the race site--often as far away as 600 miles--where they will be released at a set time for the trip home.

Meanwhile, the birds' owners gather at their respective racing clubs, where each receives a tamper-proof clock synchronized with a master timer. When the pigeons are released, each owner starts his clock, and begins timing how long it will take for his pigeons to fly from the race site back to its home loft.

The owners return home and wait for the birds to arrive. When each pigeon hits the landing board, it is herded into a "landing trap," which keeps the bird confined while its owner removes a rubber band called a countermark from its leg. The countermark is dropped into a capsule on the clock, and a crank is turned to record the exact finish time.

Usually that same day, the racers reassemble at their clubs, the times are recorded, and trophies or prizes are awarded.

The mystery of all this is how exactly the pigeons find their way home. There is no dearth of research on that subject. Throughout the '60s and '70s, researchers at Cornell University tried to figure it out. The explanation they came up with? It's a combination of things.

Charles Walcott, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, says the birds use a variety of visual clues and nature's version of a compass--the sun--to find their way back to their lofts over hundreds of miles. In poor weather or at night, the pigeons seem to rely on the earth's magnetic field to navigate.

"The sun and the magnetic field are the belt and suspenders of the bird's navigation ability," Walcott says from his office in Ithaca, New York. "When the sun is available, they use it. When it isn't, they compensate for its movement through the sky by using the earth's magnetic field."

When it comes right down to it, Walcott says, the birds--and many animals, for that matter--use many of the same navigational tools humans use: sense of smell, familiar landmarks, even a kind of hunch about knowing where we are.

"In some ways, it's quite simple," he says. "If you were brought up in New York City, you probably look to the streets and skyscrapers to orient yourself. If you come from Ithaca, you depend on certain lakes, hills, and trees. In the west, the mountains may be your reference point. Pigeons seem to familiarize themselves with the same kind of neighborhood landmarks."

Walcott and his colleagues know this because they have followed birds in planes and helicopters. They have blindfolded them. They have noted their disorientation when they fly over some magnetic anomaly--like a field of iron ore. And what it all comes down to is more questions.

"We have worried for decades about these birds," Walcott says. "We still do not completely understand them. Nor are we ever likely to."

The racing of Racing Homers helps to relieve the tension of modern life and to break up the boredom caused by our new-found leisure time. The Racing Homer proves a stabilizer for the fancier as it keeps the even tenor of its way, always happy, always devoted, always indifferent to the problems of its human friend. The Racing Homer fancier unwittingly absorbs this calm "philosophy," and when fortune frowns and when the cares of a harsh or disordered world seem almost too heavy to bear, the Racing Homer fancier finds in his birds a comfort and consolation impossible to adequately describe.

--From The Sport and Hobby of Racing Homers.

Here in Rick Smith's back-yard pigeon loft a few miles north of Denton, a muscular, one-year-old red-check cock (that's a pale red-brown color) is cooing and strutting among a dozen or so other birds. He's quite handsome, but he hardly stands out against the other equally healthy stock. His name is Quick Draw, and watching the bird you have to wonder: Does he know he is the fastest racing pigeon in the world?

"No," says Smith with a grin. "He isn't that smart." But Quick Draw is fast, and Smith insists this is the world's fastest pigeon. Although there is no official record-keeping service among pigeon fanciers, the Internet has been alive with chat about Quick Draw since the bird finished a 420-race out of New Mexico on April 4 at a stunning 94 miles per hour. Rick Phalan, of the American Racing Pigeon Union, says the association hopes to have a central performance database up and running within a year or two, "where, for the first time in this country, we can keep track of the premier racers and their times."

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