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.

"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.

"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.

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.

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."

Phalan says he is aware of Smith's wonderbird. Besides Quick Draw's lightning-speed performance, two other records were broken in the same race, he says. The birds enjoyed strong tail winds out of the west--15 to 30 miles per hour, to be exact. The race was bound to be a record breaker.

Which isn't to detract from Smith's bird's performance. "It doesn't matter what kind of record you're talking about," Smith says. "Human runners, Indy 500 drivers, anyone who breaks a speed record always has the wind on their side or some other advantage."

It's more than a little ironic in Smith's eyes that his bird broke the pigeon speed record on the same day that the much-ballyhooed Texas Motor Speedway, only a few miles to the south, opened to its beer-guzzling fans. "Shoot, people were going on and on about that track, and here I was with the fastest pigeon. And he did it on his own wing power."

The pigeon was so fast, in fact, that Smith was puttering around the house when it landed and isn't exactly certain when the bird came in. "I found him on the landing board at 11:28 a.m., and that was by accident, really. I wasn't expecting him till closer to noon."

So what are you saying, Rick? That the bird actually flew faster than 94 mph?

"Well, maybe," says Smith, a tall, sandy-redhead in Wrangler jeans and ostrich-skin cowboy boots. "There's no way of knowing how long he sat out there waiting for me."

The 42-year-old Smith, who owns a Denton floor-covering store with his father and sister, has bred and raced pigeons for as long as he can remember. "My dad remembers climbing up to the roof of the old Denton County Courthouse and catching wild pigeons, then bringing them back home and taming them," Smith says. All through high school and college, Smith fussed over his birds. His wife Becky, who was 17 when they married, remembers an essay she wrote for an English class while attending the University of North Texas. She called it My Life as a Pigeon Racer's Widow. "I got an A," Becky says.

Hard to believe that after all these accomplishments, Smith intends to hang up this hobby next year, and take an extended vacation with his wife. Their youngest daughter just graduated from high school. "I really have done this long enough," Smith says. "I need a break. And Becky, well, she really needs a break."

But his time spent on racing will never be regretted. Smith's breeding and homing lofts stand straight and tall on a grassy two acres, and Smith always found his pigeons a welcome sight after a long day at work. There were times when watching a bird fly in was the nearest thing he knew of heaven.

"I think the prettiest sight I ever saw was late one afternoon, getting close to sunset. It was a cloudless sky. I was standing out here next to the loft, and I saw this tiny speck in the sky out of the southwest. It got closer and closer, one of my birds, the only thing you could see in the sky.

"He approached, he folded his wings up like they do just before they dive for a landing. He had to have been going 75 miles an hour. He came like a bullet and made a perfect landing right on the roof of the loft. That bird was home.

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