Local Fanciers and Birds Fly High in Chesapeake Country
What makes a good pigeon? Good breeding, good food, good training - and the sure instinct to find its way home from strange, faraway places.
Story & Photos by Christopher Heagy
I've been racing since the 1940s.
My father caught a stray bird at the Benning Power Plant, and we got the bird to stay with me. Some other boys in the neighborhood had birds. About seven boys paid 15 cents a week, and we started a club. For training, we just let the birds out and let them fly around as long as they wanted to.
The club would fly races on weekends. We would take the birds to the Railway Express on First Street in Washington. The train would take the birds to Charlottesville or another stop down the line. The station master would let the birds go the next day.
We didn't have clocks, so the first boy that got a bird would take the bird and run around and check with the other guys. If no one else had a bird, then he was the winner.
Things have changed, but I've been racing birds a long time.
-Pigeon racer George Adriani
George Adriani, above, has been racing pigeons for more than 50 years.
Kenneth Tapscott slides into the truck just after midnight. He turns the ignition and sits in the driveway, letting the engine warm. After a few minutes, he pulls out onto the road to make his way to Amherst, Virginia. Tapscott weaves his way through Washington, across the 14th Street Bridge and into Northern Virginia.
He merges onto Route 29, passing through Culpepper, Charlottesville and a few other one-stoplight towns before reaching Amherst at 6am. It takes Tapscott just over three hours and 45 minutes to drive the 167 miles to Amherst.
"It takes me a little while, but I don't rush," Tapscott says. "I stop a few times, get out, get coffee, take a walk, kick the tires. The drive is nice. No matter where I'm driving, the drive is nice."
Tapscott has been a professional driver for most of his life. A former school bus driver in the District for over 20 years, Tapscott is now somewhat retired but still drives the race day truck for the Hillside Racing Pigeon Club.
"I've been driving the truck four years, and I haven't missed a race yet," Tapscott says.
In Amherst, Tapscott heads to McDonald's to grab more coffee, a bite to eat and to kill a couple of hours before the start of today's race. The race usually starts around 8am, but Tapscott is always early. On hot days, he'll give the birds some water before they take off.
At the release point, in the back corner of a strip-mall parking lot, far away from the grocery store, cleaner and sub shop, Tapscott calls the Hillside Club's liberator. Glen Hestion, the liberator, answers on the first ring.
"So how's the weather?" Hestion asks.
"It's windy, but the sun's out," Tapscott answers.
As long as the skies are clear at both ends, the race is on. The pigeons race if it's clear at the start and clear at home. Any bad weather in between, they'll have to deal with. Hestion okays the start of this race and notes the time.
Tapscott hangs up the phone and heads back to the truck. He unlocks and removes the metal bar that holds the doors on the side of the truck. Positioning himself between two doors that hinge toward him, he pulls them open.
"When I open the doors, most of the birds fly out," Tapscott explains, "but I always have to chase a few birds out of the truck. They're not all good birds, but the men are not all good trainers."
The Hillside Pigeon Racing Club's 150-mile race from Amherst, Virginia, is off. The birds are out of the truck, soaring, racing for home.
90 Years of Experience
There's a warning for a canine that never appears on the gate of the short chain link fence that surrounds the yard. In the back yard are two pigeon lofts. The first, tucked in a far corner, is older. It offers some shelter, but most of the loft is a large open cage. The other loft, a sturdy white building with six-foot ceilings and a storm door entrance on the side, looks like a small version of the house that sits across the yard.
In light jackets on this fall day, Frank Weaver and George Adriani, friends for 50 years, sit in front of the newer loft.
The air has a slight chill, but it's still warm in the early afternoon sun. The houses on Ballard Lane are small, single-family homes. They're homes built in an earlier time, smaller than new ones of today and with a weathered feel. The houses sit on large lots with big front and back yards, with space between houses but less distance between neighbors.
Weaver and Adriani, both retired, are in the fall of their lives. They are enjoying the afternoon before they take their pigeons to the club tonight for tomorrow's race.
"You've got over 90 years of racing experience here," laughs Weaver.
Pigeon racing is unlike other races. All the pigeons start from the transport truck, but the finish line is each pigeon's home loft. Each race has a distance, but not all the pigeon's fly the same distance. The first pigeon to reach its loft isn't necessarily the winner. The fastest flyer, calculated in yards per minute, wins the race.
Each member has a clock synchronized with the club's master clock. The distance from each owner's loft to the start of the race has been surveyed and calculated. Each pigeon wears a registration band on one leg and a rubber band on the other.
The pigeon's rubber band is the 'message' it's carrying. That message goes into the clock, and the clock marks the time the pigeon returns. The pigeon's time of return is used to figure the speed of the bird and crown a race winner.
"A pigeon is no good without that band," explains Adriani. "He can be flying around your yard, but until you get the band in the clock it doesn't matter."
Flying to Win
Pigeon racing is split into two seasons.
The late summer and fall is the season of the young bird. This is the first racing season for these birds born earlier in the year. Young birds haven't raced before and are learning to race and win. These birds race from 100 to 300 miles.
The old birds fly in the spring and early summer. Any bird raced in the previous year is considered an old bird. Old birds go the distance. Their races are longer, reaching 600 miles. A good bird might race for seven years, but the best birds don't make it that long.
"Most birds race five or six years," says Weaver. "Tough races and conditions can take a toll on birds. Birds that win races usually go into the breeding loft at three or four years old. You take your chances every time you send your bird 600 miles away. In a race that long, you can lose good birds."
Weaver and Adriani breed their own racers. The breeding strategy is simple: Breed winners with winners.
"I wait for a bird to win three or four races before I consider him a good bird," Weaver explains. "I mate the winners. People pay big money for winning pigeons and their offspring. A champion bird might go for $10,000, its children for $1,000 each and grandchildren maybe $200 apiece. But you don't have to pay money. Hit the right genes, and you'd be surprised."
For Weaver and Adriani, racing is a competition, but it is also a hobby. In some clubs, the prizes are large and the investment far larger. In Europe, where Pigeon racing is much more popular and lucrative, some fanciers are willing to pay close to $200,000 for a champion bird. The most expensive bird ever, a pigeon named Invincible Spirit, fetched $185,000 in Britain in 1992.
Good birds can be bred, but they must also be trained and fed. Feed is made up of a mixture of Canadian peas, corn, maple peas and other grains separated by different amounts of protein. Most have 12, 14 or 17 percent protein.
"With heavy protein or heavy grain feed, you have to train the pigeon hard," says Weaver. "It's hard to keep the weight down. You want to keep them light for the races."
Pigeons are like athletes: It takes work to succeed. The racers work their birds.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays during racing season, Weaver takes his birds on training runs. "A pigeon is like a fighter," says Weaver. "You have to train him to win. Training gets them in shape for the race and keeps them in shape."
The birds have to learn their way home. Training runs build the birds' stamina and power and burns the route in their memory.
He loads pigeons at the club the night before. In the morning Weaver drives to A.P. Hill or Fredericksburg, 50 to 70 miles away, and releases the pigeons. His pigeons are back home before he is.
"They better beat me home," Weaver says.
Without a strong head or tail wind, a good pigeon will average 45 to 50 miles an hour.
Training and genealogy are important to winning at pigeon racing but experienced racers also have some tricks.
When Weaver sees a bird that is looking to mate, he'll enter that bird in the race and look for him early. Or he'll put a sterile egg in the loft in hopes a bird will nest. When he sees the bird on the egg, he waits 10 or 12 days. A day or two before the race, Weaver will drill a hole in the egg and put a worm in it and tape the egg back together.
"The bird feels that worm moving and he thinks a youngster is kicking, he'll break his neck trying to get home," Weaver explains.
These little tricks give their bird an advantage.
Weaver knows a lot of tricks. He has raced for a long time, but he's slowing down a bit.
"I'm 75," Weaver says. "I won eight out of 10 races one year. I used to come home from work, before I even ate I'd go out and train the birds. I won the All-American award in my division twice. I still like racing, but I don't fool with it like I used to. But I'll fly as long as I live."
The night before a race, the pigeons are boxed up and taken to the racing club, where a race band is clamped to each bird's leg. When the pigeon returns to its loft, the band will be used to determine the bird's flight time.
It's in the heart of Fell's Point. At the intersection of Fleet and Ann streets and in a mixture of the new and the old sits the Exchange Feed store. It's a block away from Broadway Market and the popular bars of downtown Fell's Point. The Baltimore Aquarium and the reborn Inner Harbor are less than two miles away and almost cast a shadow over the store.
Across the street, there is the older El Rancho diner and the newer Ze Mean Bean Cafe bistro and coffee bar. The town houses have an old style. Ann Street is lined with new cars but deserted except for a gray-haired man reading on a stoop.
In front of the Exchange Feed store, an old man with a cane is sitting on the stairs. A 'No Loitering' sign is posted on the door behind him. The man is wearing too many layers for this warm October day. He's taking a minute, resting, catching his breath.
The Exchange Feed is a small store with a high ceiling. The walls are a pale, pale green. Bird cages cover two walls in the store. Many are empty, but 10 pigeons fill a cage with a small $6 tag at the far end of the store.
A counter cuts through the small room, and bags of feed crowd the room. Behind the counter are 10 different types of feed. Vitamins, oils, medicines, baths and containers fill other shelves.
A bulletin board has pictures of local fanciers and a hand-made sign proclaiming, 'Play with the Cat at your own risk.' The cat is one of the natural predators of the pigeon, but still an orange cat stalks the store, claiming its territory.
In the middle of it all sits Joe Jones, the owner of the Exchange Feed Store. The store has been dealing with pigeons since the early 1900s. Jones, from Baltimore, remembers coming to the store as a child. Two years ago, he heard the store was for sale and decided to hop into the pigeon business.
Pigeon racing was once called poor man's horse racing but today with the cost of birds, lofts, feed, vitamins, membership, the sport can get expensive.
"I can't complain. Business is steady," Jones says. "Things have been great. I'm the only store in the area that deals with pigeons. I sell pigeons I breed, or I get them from local breeders. I sell as many pigeons as I have. I've got different types of feed, oils and medicines. Anything for pigeons, I've got or I can get it."
Pigeons have surrounded Jones for a long time.
"I've been raising pigeons all my life," he says.
Jones started with rollers, stunt pigeons and topplers, pigeons that fly high in formations. Other friends and family raced pigeons, and it always excited Jones. About the time he bought the store, he moved to racing pigeons.
He is in the Green Spring Valley Club and races in the United Pigeon Combine. Saturday races have as many as 2,000 birds. A new flyer, Jones thinks he's had a pretty good year, but he admits racing is "a lot more fun when you win.
"Pigeon racing is tough," Jones explains. "The advice I'd give to a new flyer is don't get discouraged. Don't make it too serious. Keep it a sport, Keep it a hobby. Racing can get expensive. You've got a lot of money invested in birds, a loft, feed. But have fun and enjoy the birds."
The birds are out of the truck and reaching for the sky. Wings flutter and flap up and down, up and down, pushing the pigeon toward the horizon. A 150-mile race is a sprint. The 20- to 25-mile an hour northwest wind on this Sunday blows the birds home. The wind evens the field. The best bird might not win today.
Pigeons like to race at 700 to 900 feet. With such a strong wind, they fly lower to the ground, but that brings tree limbs and power lines into play. A pigeon might clip a wing and spin out of control.
Maybe pigeons use the sun to navigate. Maybe they use the earth's magnetic field. Maybe pigeons use sense of smell or a low-frequency sound to find the home loft. Maybe it's a combination of factors. No one really knows how the pigeons find their way home.
Whatever the reason, pigeons have been finding their way home for a long time.
Pigeon were the messengers of the Roman Empire. They relayed messages for British stockbrokers and bankers in the 1700s and 1800s, but as railroads and telegraphs grew, pigeons lost their messenger jobs.
Unemployed pigeons were used for sport. By the late 1800s pigeons were racing in Belgium, Britain and the United States.
The pigeon's journey home is full of obstacles. The biggest threat to the pigeon: a hungry hawk looking for an afternoon snack.
This flight from Amherst, Virgina is just an ordinary journey on a typical Sunday afternoon, but pigeons have raced for home under extraordinary circumstances.
Pigeons were heroes in both world wars. When lines of communication were lost, pigeons kept the Allies in touch. Pilots carried pigeons on bombers and used the birds to relay the location of downed planes.
The most famous pigeon in recent history is G.I. Joe. In October of 1943, British troops attacked German troops at the Italian city Colvi Vecchia. The U.S. Air Support Command would bomb the city to weaken German resistance. Because of a German retreat, the British took the city ahead of schedule. With all other lines of communication down G.I. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes, reaching base as the planes were warming up for the bombing. G.I. Joe's flight saved 1,000 British soldiers.
Today's flight will only take three hours. The pigeons won't stop flapping until they reach the landing board of their home loft. In a way, each trip home is amazing. While simply following their instincts, the birds save lives, relay information, win races and find the way home.
The Hillside Racing Pigeon Club is tucked away right off Addison Road. The club had 14 founding members in 1956. Today, there are 30 members. On big race days, its truck can carry over 400 pigeons.
The clubhouse has one large room, a smaller work area and a tiny kitchen. A wooden bench and three rows of metal folding chairs line one side of the room. The other side has two wooden desks. On one desk is a small black and white television tuned to the opening game of the World Series.
On the stove in a tiny kitchen, frozen hot dogs are boiling in a pot.
Around 7pm on Saturday night, the members of the club wander through the wooden front door. And the talking starts.
"Al, you ready to load your birds?"
"Hold on, wait. Let someone else go. I'm fooling with these hot dogs. I'll be down in a minute."
At one time, the clubhouse was a horse stable. Hay was stored upstairs. The horses lived in the stables below. On a rafter in the garage downstairs is a sign with the name Rusty, maybe the name of a horse that once lived there. Now the members meet upstairs and load the truck in the garage below.
The members start loading the truck at 7:30. Today only 12 members are entering birds in tomorrow's race. The forecast for heavy winds have scared some members off. Each member can enter up to 15 pigeons. Some go for 15; others enter as few as four.
Loading the truck takes over an hour.
Each member has his birds in a transport cage. Each bird has a registration band. Members have already filled out registration sheets with the number and the sex of each bird they are entering in the race.
"Seven-one-four:" The registration number is called.
The pigeon's leg goes in a device that stretches the race rubber band.
"Cock:" The sex of the bird is called out and the pigeon, separated by sex, is put on board.
Frank Weaver writes down the number of the racing band. Two chalk boards are marked to balance the birds between the eight compartments on the truck.
Club members form an assembly line. The owner pulls his pigeon out of the cage, then hands the bird off. The members feel the birds and judge the competition.
"This bird's too skinny to win. That wind's gonna blow him out of the sky."
"This bird's too fat to fly. How does he get off the ground?"
"This bird's too stupid. Watch him fly backward. He don't know the way home. Flathead, all your birds are dumb."
"Hey, be careful. You might get a flathead bird for Christmas."
As the truck fills up, the coos of the pigeons grab the background. The sounds bounce off each other softly and quickly. It's loud enough to be heard but not powerful enough to interrupt. The sound sits in the background, recognized every now and then.
With the truck loaded, some of the members head inside to grab a hot dog. A few buy bags of pigeon feed and load their cars. Each member sets his race clock on his own.
The master clock at the Hillside club is a small white clock with black hands and a red second hand all circled by a green boarder. It's the kind of clock you see in a bathroom. It is the official clock.
"Look at this clock. How slow is this thing?"
The clock might be slow, but for the race it's the official time. Each member's clock has to match the clock at the club. Members are penalized if their clocks don't match.
The jobs of the night are over, but the racers linger. They joke with each other, compare and laugh about birds, talk about the race tomorrow. They watch the game, sip on sodas and eat hot dogs.
Many have been racing at Hillside for years. They compete against each other, but they're friends.
"Other clubs are serious," Weaver says. "This is friendly. We have fun. Things do get competitive, but it's a friendly competition."
Hillside has drawn these men together from different places and different backgrounds. Some race pigeons because it's fun; others like the competition. For some, taking care of the birds is a hobby. For others, it is a way of life. But pigeons and racing is the thread that ties these men together and brings them to this old horse stable each Saturday night.
In his backyard off Deale Beach Road, Al DeToto is waiting for his pigeons to come home.
DeToto wakes up just after 7:30 this Sunday morning. He heads out to his loft to feed and water the pigeons that aren't in the race, give the birds a bath and clean the loft.
"The loft will get as dirty as you let it," DeToto says. "Some people clean their loft every day. Some let the bird ---- pile up. I try to clean my loft once a week."
While he's cleaning, DeToto brings a bath of hot water and borax to the loft for the birds. The pigeons hop in the water and clean themselves.
"I raise about 60 birds a year, but you lose a lot of birds," DeToto says. "It's funny, a bird flies a 250-mile race, and then you can lose him the next week on an 80-mile training run. You never know."
While growing up in Carmody Hills, Maryland, DeToto's father raced pigeons. His father was one of the founding members of the Hillside Club.
In 1984, DeToto and his wife moved to Deale. DeToto slowly rebuilt the beach cottage into a year-round home.
After feeding the birds, DeToto heads inside and grabs some breakfast. He still has a few hours. The birds usually average 45 to 50 miles an hour. With the help of the strong northwest wind, DeToto's birds might fly a little faster today. He'll head back out at 10am to watch for his birds.
DeToto is a former drywall mechanic retired with disability. Years of work have taken a toll on his body. Back and knee operations have taken some of his nimbleness and some of his strength, but his chest and arms have a power that comes from years of keeping busy.
DeToto took up pigeon racing again in 1994. The loft he has built over that time looks like a mobile home, and in a way it is.
The loft started as an eight-by-10-foot house for pigeons in the backyard. It has grown into a 32-by-12-foot loft complete with a four-foot walkway, so DeToto can walk through and look into all the individual cages. The back wall has three cabinets full of medicine to fight any disease a pigeon might get.
"My wife says that if I put another addition on the loft," DeToto starts to laugh, "I'm moving out there. I try to make the loft feel like home. The more the pigeons like it, the more they want to get back, the faster they fly."
DeToto's pigeon loft grew so big he had to move it. He cleared the lot adjacent to his property, lifted the loft with a hired powerlift and set it in the adjacent lot.
The top of DeToto's loft, like other pigeon lofts, is lined with a white picket fence. Fanciers use the fence to keep pigeons off the roof of the loft and get them to the landing board as quickly as possible. It's another trick to shave seconds and increase the average speed.
Just before 11am, DeToto sees a group of birds. He throws a dropper out. A dropper is a released pigeon that will fly straight to the landing board on the loft. The dropper gets the racing pigeon's attention and gets the bird heading to the landing board.
The pigeon follows the dropper to the landing board. DeToto chases the pigeon into the trap between the landing board and the loft. He ducks under the landing board, pulls the race band off the pigeon's leg, puts it in the clock he has positioned under the landing board and turns the handle. The exact time down to the second is recorded on a slip inside the clock.
DeToto clocks his first three birds today. After those, the other birds don't have a chance of winning. The racers will bring the clocks to the club later tonight. The time slips and the rubber bands will be checked, and the speed will be calculated in yards per second. The fastest bird is the winner.
With one race left this season, DeToto is glad the end is near.
"I'm tired of running up and down the road," DeToto says. "It's a lot of work training and caring for the birds. I can use a break, but I'll keep racing as long as my back holds up. I want to keep doing it. It keeps me moving. Racing is a lot of fun. If I didn't have the birds to play with I might do nothing."
| Issue 44 |
Volume VII Number 44
November 4-10, 1999
New Bay Times
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