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Last Updated: 08/07/2013 4:30 pm

It is late morning on Saturday, April 30, the first race of Old Bird pigeon racing season, a 150-mile short course that starts in Watkins Glen and heads east back to the Hudson Valley. Somewhere, hundreds of pigeons are on the wing: white, gray, striped, checkered, silver, red, chocolate brown, and slate. They weigh from 10 to 14 ounces apiece and can fly average speeds, depending on the wind, of over 50 miles an hour. They have eyesight so sharp, they can spot a specific treetop from pin high in the sky, and an athletic ability to precisely maneuver with the shift of a feather. They trace back to distinguished European families with names like Mueleman and Janssen, though they have existed, and have been genetically bred to fly faster and farther since ancient Egypt. Each wears an ID band on its leg with initials and a unique number, like AU2009NCC323, which stands for the American Racing Pigeon Union, born 2009, Northern Catskills Club (NCC), number 323. That happens to be the band of the pigeon that will win this race.

These are homing pigeons—homers, as the featherheads say, the racehorses of the sky. They share a bred-in-the-feather hunger for flying (even when they don’t have to, they’ll fly, eating up the sky and swooping around for the heck of it) and the unshakeable instinct to fly home. Occasionally, feathered champions with rare blood and big wins fetch up to $100,000 at auction. And the progeny of top families are known by their ancestor’s names or band numbers—a Black Widow son, a 2379 daughter. “This here is a 2379 bird,” says Peter Miller, a flyer based outside Woodstock, holding up a sleek gray and black-striped bird (a color known as bluebar). 2379 was Miller’s foundation hen, a bluebar out of a finely bred hen he imported from England. First, 2379 won two races in the same season. Then she helped create a dynasty of winners for breeders around the country, not to mention Miller and his grandson, Kyle Warren, owner of great-grandson 323, today’s winner.

In Europe, pigeon racing is a family pastime. The sport is so popular in Belgium and Holland that hundreds of clubs packed with members send birds across the sky. Not here. Three local clubs share the cost of trailering their birds each racing season: Mid-Valley Racing Club, Dutchess County Racing Pigeon Club, and the one I’ve been getting to know, Northern Catskills Club. NCC’s youngest members are 13 and 30; the rest are in their 50s to 70s, and there are about 15 members. Some also fly fancy, one-loft races like the Indiana Futurity or the Sun City (South Africa) Million: big-money races, where, for an entrance fee, you send your young birds to live and train in the same loft with all their young bird colleagues. When it’s time, they’ll all race back to that loft against one another. But club races are local pigeon racing’s bread and butter. The pigeons all leave from the same place but fly back home to their own lofts, the variations in distance factored in to tally the winner. When two birds make it home to their respective lofts at the same time, the bird whose loft is farther from the starting point wins it. A bird can win by a second after crossing hundreds of miles across the sky.

The night before the Watkins Glen race, Miller took me up to the NCC clubhouse in Cairo for shipping night, when the birds are brought up to the club and loaded onto the special trailer. A former apple-picker’s dorm, the clubhouse is a humble white clapboard shack with a giant, faded pigeon painted over the door. Inside it smells of dust and time, the walls adorned with charts and maps from the precomputer days. There are plain tables and chairs scattered around. A stack of green-painted shipping crates, six feet long and two feet wide, line the back walls. A few flyers are there, waiting to get started. “We bought this place in the 1970s for $500,” explained Miller, who added that the funds came from auctioning off a founding member’s birds after he died. Talk turned to the old guys: Pop Neskie, enabler of the clubhouse, Rudy Zidz, a phenomenal flyer who, before he died, distributed his birds and coops in advance to keep his legacy in the sky. Past and present are bound together in this sport, same as the men and the birds.

At six the clubhouse started to fill up. Members filed in with their pigeon crates, set them down, took a breath. It’s a laborious process, entering the birds. Each has its leg band scanned into a racing computer made in Belgium and is then passed into the shipping crates, males and females separate. A gentle assembly line of men and birds formed, the birds docile and wide-eyed with their chests against the men’s chests, the men talking softly to the birds: “Oh, you hush”; and to one another: “Nice handling bird”—a compliment to a flyer with fit birds. You can’t shortcut in this game, and you can’t cheat an entry or a result, since upon its return, the bird’s band will be scanned by the antenna that’s placed at the threshold to the loft, and everything, from the bird’s call number to the second it passes the antenna—when it clocks—is recorded. But you can win or lose by a foot; by seconds. Pigeon speed is measured in yards per minute. And just because a bird comes home doesn’t mean it’s finished the race. “You can have a great race right until your pigeon won’t go into the coop and beep that computer,” explained Joe Costa, a retired union painter whose Ranch Loft is based in Red Hook. “You lose in the yard.”

The birds loaded and settling into the shipping crates, we sat around, waiting for the trailer to show up, sipping cream soda from the clubhouse fridge. I asked how birds know where they’re going.

“You mean navigate?” asked Costa.

Turns out, pigeon navigation is still a mystery, but there are two main theories: 1) Pigeons have large deposits of iron in their brains that react to the Earth’s magnetic fields. 2) They just happen to be acutely aware of the changing position of the sun in relation to their home.

“But there’s more to it, you know, the psychological, emotional,” said Jimmy Gaffney, a big-voiced Irishman from East Harlem known for his outlandish outfits: chunky gold jewelry, tweed cap, fancy leather jacket, sweatpants held up with suspenders. His loft has 400 birds and he fusses over them all.

“Here we go,” said Costa.

The flyers took turns expounding, agreeing, refuting. All agreed a long-bodied, long-feathered pigeon is a better distance racer, and that certain flight feathers on a pigeon’s wing are so critical that if a pigeon is molting them, leave him home. Some believe you can tell a good pigeon by staring at its eye through a jeweler’s loupe, and there are pigeon flyers that’ve been doing this religiously all their lives.

“They live or die by the eye sign,” said Gaffney. “Oh sure. Fuggetaboutit. Me, I watch the state of mind. Are they sharp? Ready to go like a boxer, hopping around?”

“Go ahead and watch them hop,”  Walter Sidga, an eye-sign proponent, said.

It costs thousands a year to maintain a pigeon loft. Many local flyers do it on pensions or modest retirements from working a trade or owning a small business. Miller (who likes his beer and named his loft Millertime) worked for the Ulster County Highway Department. Ed Donne (Crabapple Loft, Shady) is a retired US Navy Seabee; Phil Massaro (Iron Mountain Loft, Germantown) is a surveyor. Retired or not, they spend hours a day tending the birds: cleaning the coops, feeding special (always secret) recipes of feed and supplements (probiotics, tinctures, essences, powders, vitamins), raising babies, vaccinating for an increasing spectrum of diseases that can fell a race team. They’ll take young birds on early morning training tosses, driving 50 miles to give the youngsters wing time. They sit in their coops with the birds, planning out their next breeding season, the next racing season: “old birds” season is 10 races from April to June that range from 150 to 500 miles (raced from Wallbridge, Ohio); young birds (birds under the age of one) race shorter distances in the fall. They’ll breed through the winter for a new crop of babies, which start as fragile, pearl-white eggs and hatch in 18 days into fuzz-covered yellow blurs with enormous, clueless eyes and absurdly long, dinosaur-looking beaks. I got to hold one, its heart drumming into my palm. In four months it will be flying 100 miles.

The males are cocks, or cockbirds. When a flyer is deciding which cock and hen to breed together, it’s called mating them up. A hen about to lay is coming down on eggs. The night a hen is about to lay, a flyer is alert as a midwife, and may run an elaborate bait and switch involving wooden eggs to save the real ones from freezing if it’s a cold night. Foster parents, used to spare older parents the energy drain of feeding both babies (pigeons lay two in a clutch), are called pumpers. “You put babies under pumpers if you want another set from your golden pair,” Warren added, meaning if you want your best pair to be able to rest up and breed again.

“There are so many tricks you could spend a lifetime learning them and still not think you know anything,” said Costa.

“Cause you don’t,” joked Sigda.

Everyone has their golden pair, who pass on their intelligence, strength, endurance, grit, heart; who mark their descendants with a particular stamp. Everyone has their favorites. Mickey Gramoski had a silver cockbird who won a 500 mile race at around eight years old. Well kept, a bird can live up to 20 years, but to race at eight is remarkable. “That was 484,” Gramowski said, “and now I’ve got champions from his grandchildren.”  Tom Sit, whose loft is in Kingston near his restaurant, Eng’s, has a line of pigeons tracing back to 1983, when he started racing here. Sitting in a booth at the restaurant, surrounded by 200 gleaming pigeon trophies, he showed me his first record book. Sit thumbed through the soft pages. “Ah,” he said, pointing to a row of numbers. “755 and 754. They were Jansenns. Incredible birds. I’m still wining races with that blood.” He showed me the big trophies in the display case in Eng’s front hall, a whole dynasty of Janssen blood, proudly commemorated behind glass. “My wife tells me, ‘You’re crazy!’ She gets so jealous. ‘Pigeons are your first love!’ she says. But she’s right.”

By the time the pigeon trailer pulled up to the clubhouse, driven by a strapping young man with red eyes and a massive black Ford pickup, it was 10 pm. There were just a few flyers left, those with enough energy and strength to load the big crates. They made sure the driver had water for the birds, checked that the louver doors were locked safely in place, and sent him out into the night. When he got to the designated race station, a set of GPS coordinates that placed him in the parking lot of the Watkins Glen racetrack, he slept ‘til dawn, when his cell phone rang. “How is it out there?” the race secretary asked him.

“Pretty clear,” he said. “Not too much cover, clouds breaking up nice.”

If a sky is socked in with fog, you have to wait until it clears, since pigeons have to see to fly. If there’s a thunderstorm on the radar, you have to gamble on sending the birds through it or waiting it out—a severe storm can force birds to detour or even go to ground. You want a smooth liberation, as the release of the birds is called. Not too much headwind. Maybe a tailwind. No rain. A chance to stretch out and enjoy the flight. This morning was like that. Near perfect.

“Make it 7:30 then,” the race secretary said.

At 7:31, the driver put down his breakfast sandwich, walked back to the trailer and flipped the lever. The louvered doors flipped open. In a whoosh of feathers and rocketing bodies, 500 birds flapped out of their crates and took over the sky. They circled, orienting themselves, drawing together, then headed east. Back at the lofts, cell phones buzzed with news that the birds were up. The collective blood pressure of this group of men rose up together, ready to meet the birds.

9:15 am. Scattered from Carmel to Durham, Red Hook to Roxbury, some 35 men are sitting in their lawn chairs in their yards. They have their faces trained on the big blue sky, looking westward, their hands on their cell phones. They have a drink with them: coffee, soda, beer. They have little wooden crates at their feet, in which sit white birds with sweet black eyes—birds that, released out of the crate at just the right time, will catch the eye of the homers as they come in and lead them right to the coop. The men have worn composition notebooks that they keep checking, a calculator they tap on. A few, if they trained their birds to the can, as it’s called, have coffee cans filled with Spanish peanuts: When a bird trained to the can hears that shake, it hustles into the coop for that peanut reward.

The men scan the trees for how the leaves are blowing, scan the clouds for prevailing winds. Maybe someone’s wife is sitting with him, maybe not: She’s in the house, shaking her head at her husband for this crazy obsession like she has every springtime Saturday for about 40 years, watching him watch the sky.

One man calls the other: “Got any?”

“Not yet,” the other says.

“What time you reckon?”

“Maybe 10, maybe after.”

10:15 am. I’m sitting out in the yard with Kyle Warren, who has his eyes trained on the sky, waiting for those birds. If you wonder where this relentless occupation began, you might look at their childhoods. At eight, Gaffney stole pigeons off the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and raised them on his fire escape; at five, Miller, in Bay Ridge, was surrounded by neighbors and family raising birds on the roof. At nine, in China, Sit told his uncle he liked pigeons and received two as a gift. Donne inherited not only his uncle’s love of the birds but also his house and loft. At four, Warren would let his grandfather’s prize racing birds out of the coop to watch them fly. Scrappy, mischievous kids, fixated with creatures that can escape into the sky. Miller had a simpler answer. “Pigeons get in your blood,” he said.

If Warren stares hard enough, maybe he can pull the birds right out of the clouds. Factoring the morning’s healthy west wind, he taps on the calculator, excited. “They could fly 55 miles an hour, more,” he says. He starts at the sight of what look like pigeons overhead, but they’re mourning doves. “You get jumpy,” he says, and shrugs. Someone calls: No one has birds, but if they come home in the next 10 minutes, they will be going nearly 60 miles an hour, a fast, fun race, and that would be a great way to start this season.

10:23. A pair of pigeons, definitely pigeons, appear from the west, flying side by side in rhythmic symmetry, wing to wing. As soon as we can tell they’re bluebars, Warren knows who they are: 323 and 177, brothers born a year apart out of his golden pair. We watch them pull their wings into perfect, muscular Ws, coming down in a classic daredevil dive. There are birds that dive so steeply you can hear the air howl through their feathers, and at the last minute they pull up like a Top Gun pilot and shoot across the landing board. But these birds are having too good a time. As they near the coop, they spread their wings and land softly on the roof. I think of what Costa said about losing a race in the yard. But Warren is unphased.

He picks up the coffee can of peanuts and shakes it, crooning. “Hey there, hey buddies, come on now,” like he has since the birds were babies. The morning is silent except for the sound of the can, his words. The brothers cock their heads, listening. Then they hop down onto the landing board and head inside. We hear one beep, then two: They’ve both clocked.

Warren takes his first full breath of the morning. “See that? I bet they flew together the whole way, egging each other on. That’s why they came so fast.” He shakes his head. “I love my birds,” he says. And he sits back down to watch the sky, and welcome the rest of his pigeons back home.
click to enlarge Liberation, Watkins Glen Race, April 30. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Liberation, Watkins Glen Race, April 30.
click to enlarge A racing pigeon in a traveling case. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • A racing pigeon in a traveling case.
click to enlarge Millertime Loft cockbirds before being shipped to the Watkins Glen race. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Millertime Loft cockbirds before being shipped to the Watkins Glen race.
click to enlarge NCC Racing Pigeon Club, Cairo. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • NCC Racing Pigeon Club, Cairo.
click to enlarge The eye of racing Hen 2010 NCC 106 of Levi Loft. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • The eye of racing Hen 2010 NCC 106 of Levi Loft.
click to enlarge Homing pigeon at 15 days old. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Homing pigeon at 15 days old.
click to enlarge Flyer Peter Miller holds the egg of one of his breeding pairs. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Flyer Peter Miller holds the egg of one of his breeding pairs.
click to enlarge Walter Sidga gets his race birds ready for the Watkins Glen Race. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Walter Sidga gets his race birds ready for the Watkins Glen Race.
click to enlarge Young bird Aviary at Millertime Loft. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Young bird Aviary at Millertime Loft.
click to enlarge Kyle Warren with his birds in Levi Loft. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Kyle Warren with his birds in Levi Loft.
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