Flying the coop
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 13, 2009 2:00 AM
News-Argus Video Report
The blue-gray pigeon, its feathers speckled with white and black, twists free as its owner examines the small band clamped around the bird's thin leg.
Like a stone launched from a slingshot, the bird leaps out of Greg Jones' hands and sprints into the air. With wings capable of propelling it at speeds faster than 50 miles an hour and sufficient endurance to fly for hundreds of miles, it could have been a state away within a matter of hours.
But Jones isn't worried as one of his prized birds zooms its way through the gray sky around his LaGrange home.
Moments later, with a flutter of feathers, the pigeon loops back to the loft, settling on the roof, looking for its dinner of pellets.
Far from making a break for freedom when released, Jones' pigeons are instinctively wired to return home, regardless of how far they have to travel to get there.
The birds' instincts are why he and many other avian enthusiasts in Wayne County and around the country spend months breeding, raising and training their racing pigeons, only to drive them miles from home and set them loose.
Jones' 130 birds don't have names and aren't exactly pets. While some are more tame and friendly than others, their owner doesn't play favorites, lest he tempt the hand of fate.
"I'm not going to say that. It'd be the first one gone," Jones said.
The birds in Jones' coop aren't the type of pigeon commonly seen pecking for scraps on street corners or roosting on the rooftops of large buildings. Racing pigeons are specially bred for speed and strength, not unlike horses, and some are even pedigreed.
Blue bar, black eagle, blue check and dark check are just a few of the color varieties of pigeon Jones owns, and with breed names such as Jacobin, Schmalkaden Moorhead and Damascene, they might sound more like exotic tropical birds than pigeons.
Jones breeds and hatches his own birds at home. He has to.
Pigeons develop an innate instinct to return to the place where they were born. While any of his birds raised at home from a young age would seek to return there, Jones still has to keep a handful of his pigeons safely locked up or risk losing them.
He purchased some of his breeding birds as adults, and their homing instincts are still keyed to their own place of birth, which for some is as far away as Washington state.
It takes only 30 days for newly-hatched pigeons to grow feathers and build wing muscle strong enough to keep them aloft. Training them is fairly simple and is accomplished using positive reinforcement. The birds learn dinner is inside the coop, and the sooner they get home, the sooner they get a tasty meal.
And despite pigeons' poor reputation as dull-witted creatures, it is incredible they can find their way home, again and again, with such accuracy and speed, Jones said.
"They're pretty smart to come home 600 miles," he said.
Pigeon racing has two age divisions. Pigeons more than a year old are sometimes raced across distances of up to 600 miles, while younger, more inexperienced birds are raced for shorter distances.
The hobby is so popular it even has its own organization, the American Pigeon Racing Union, which keeps a database at its Web site, www.pigeon.org, to help people find or report lost birds.
The longest any of Jones' birds has traveled during a single race is about 200 miles, he said, but that could increase dramatically when he enters a handful of his pigeons into a race starting from Illinois in the coming months.
The bird that gets home the fastest wins the race, and sometimes hundreds or even thousands of dollars in prize money for its owner.
Jones hasn't won a lot of races yet, but he already knows the winning formula.
"Keep them hungry, keep them in shape. Train them hard," he said. "You learn as you go, little things to do and not to do."
While it's enjoyable, racing pigeons is time-consuming and most of the people who do it are retirees, he said. And there are no guarantees that a loosed bird will make it home safely.
Although he has had birds go missing during long races, the worst blow happened less than three miles from home, when 20 of Jones' young birds still in training failed to return home.
Despite being big, fluffy birds, pigeons can actually outmaneuver a hawk in some situations and, if they can build up speed, might even be able to outpace one. But if a hawk dives on a pigeon, the bird can't escape, Jones said. And his birds know it.
"If a hawk flies up there, they go crazy," he said.
The coop is solidly constructed to keep out foxes, dogs, cats and hawks, but one time a snake made it through the chicken wire and devoured one unlucky bird.
On the whole, however, his birds live healthy lives, and live longer than they would in the wild. His oldest birds are about 4 years old, and might live for up to two decades.
And in the end, pigeon racing comes down to one thing.
"You either like it or you don't," Jones said. "I enjoy it."