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Feature

Off to the Races

Up, up and away: Time after time, logic-defying flights bring pigeons, the thoroughbreds of the sky, safely back home

As Jim Keng stood sentry, scanning the skies from his patio in La Porte, he had a healthy hunch that Miss Elite would be the first bird home. Sure enough, the petite, 1-pound pigeon made a final circle above Keng’s backyard, swooped smoothly onto the stoop, and walked calmly back into a pigeon loft.

Miss Elite had just wrapped up a mind-boggling feat: She flew 10 hours straight, at 50 mph, from 500 miles away in Hoxie, Arkansas. With her uncanny internal GPS and single-minded determination, she made a beeline for one tiny speck in a semirural neighborhood just east of Houston.

Every time Miss Elite arrives home from the long-distance races she’s aced to earn elite-flier status, “she still looks like a million bucks,” says Keng, an affable general contractor who’s president of the Texas Center of Racing Pigeon Clubs.

For Keng and the other 400 or so pigeon racers in Texas, moments like Miss Elite’s quiet triumph are unforgettable. It’s the payoff for pampering the pigeons from egg to birth and beyond, patiently training them day after day to carry out their ancestral mission of flying home—fast. For many owners of these so-called thoroughbreds of the sky, it’s all part of a thrilling high-stakes sport that pits top fliers for lucrative purses at races like the annual Texas Showdown and Texas Gusher, two of the state’s top pigeon competitions.

For the rest of us, it’s an astounding reminder of the abilities of pigeons to perform jaw-dropping feats while carrying on one of the world’s oldest methods of communication.

“The Romans and Greeks used pigeons widely to carry messages,” enthuses Bulverde’s Robert Tomlinson, a pigeon racer and former executive vice president of the Oklahoma City-based American Racing Pigeon Union, which has close to 700 clubs and 10,000 members. For centuries, pigeons provided postal services—everywhere from a fully bird-staffed service in 12th century Baghdad, Iraq, all the way up to India’s Police Pigeon Service, an 800-bird “P-mail” service for emergency messages that was used until 2002.

Texas pigeons performed a paramount task, outrunning all human methods to get the scoop on The University of Texas’ football photographs for the San Antonio Express in the days before wire photos. Throughout the 1940s, photographer and pigeon racer Bill Goodspeed stuffed photo negatives into small canisters, strapped them to the pigeons’ breasts in specially made pouches and sent the birds zipping home to his loft atop the newspaper—often from the field during a special halftime ceremony. The pigeons made deadlines regularly, far outflying the motorcycle delivery of the competition, the San Antonio Light.

Heroic wartime homers performed even nobler tasks. During World War II, a pigeon named GI Joe was credited with saving the lives of at least 1,000 British soldiers. He delivered a message to the Americans not to bomb an Italian city where, unbeknownst to U.S. forces, the Germans had retreated and British troops had just entered.

During World War I, a carrier pigeon named Cher Ami delivered messages within the American sector at Verdun, France. His last message, carried from the “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Infantry Division, elevated Cher Ami to legendary heights. Shot through the breast, the bird somehow managed to return to his loft where a message capsule was found dangling from the ligaments of a leg also shattered by enemy fire. Mere hours after the message was received, 194 survivors of the battalion were safe behind American lines.

The U.S. Army disbanded its Signal Pigeon Corps—which numbered 54,000 pigeons at its peak—in 1957.

Historically speaking, commerce worldwide once partially relied on the pigeon. In the early 1800s, a network of pigeon couriers ferried financial information all over Europe for firms such as the Rothschild family companies. Pigeons carried stock prices between Aachen and Brussels for the Reuters news agency until a telegraph link was established in 1851.

In 2009, a South African information technology company proved it was faster—at least in this one instance—to transmit data with a carrier pigeon than via Telkom, the country’s leading Internet service provider. It took the pigeon 1 hour and 8 minutes to fly 50 miles to the coastal city of Durban with a data card strapped to its leg. The transfer of data, including downloading, took 2 hours, 6 minutes and 57 seconds—over that same period, only 4 percent of the data was transferred using a Telkom line.

Pigeons still create plenty of commerce: Pigeon racing carries big-buck purses in places such as South Africa, where the Sun City Million Dollar Pigeon Race attracts an elite field. European, Latin American and Asian countries are known for lucrative races and plenty of pigeon gambling, Keng notes. Racing pigeons of prized pedigree and speed—they’ve been clocked up to 92 mph—have been sold for $250,000 at auction.

Most Texas enthusiasts, though, are drawn to the hobby for family fun and a chance to hone skills to produce exceptional pigeons. “It’s a fascinating pastime,” says pigeon racer Gerald Schoelzel, a San Antonio entertainment attorney. “You use genetics to breed the best bird, medicine and animal-husbandry knowledge to keep them healthy and training well and meteorology to strategize about weather conditions for flying.”

Kids are entranced by racing pigeons, notes Tomlinson. His wife, Barbara Ann Tomlinson, also is a prize-winning racer with their member club, the Texas Hill Country Racing Pigeon Club. The couple has reached out to schools and community groups to educate them about pigeon care and racing, bringing boxes of amiable birds for eager kids and adults to hold and watch. “If you can get someone involved at an early age, it becomes this wonderful addiction,” Tomlinson says.

“Everybody wants to know how the pigeons know how to get home—even from a place they’ve never been before,” he adds. “We still don’t know exactly how!”

Studies show that pigeons use the position of the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass. Researchers have found iron-containing structures in homing pigeons’ beaks and posit that the birds form a “magnetic map” based on magnetic fields. Pigeons also rely on a keen sense of sight, smell and sound.

Pigeon fanciers reinforce these abilities by providing care that’s “like training a world-class athlete,” says Harry Rauch, a retired ironworker who’s a member of Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative. He built his pigeon loft, an airy, whitewashed building that looks more like a guesthouse than birdhouse, in his spacious backyard near New Braunfels.

Pigeons coo softly as he points out the nesting areas where he’ll mate the best fliers after poring over lineage records. He shows off the special grain mixes and details the daily care that includes weekly baths to keep feathers primed for flight. “They love their baths—even when it’s colder, they’ll fly right over and jump in,” Rauch says.

As for baby care from mom and dad pigeon, they share round-the-clock duties, with both sitting on eggs and then feeding their young “milk” secreted through their crops. Babies get banded with their lifelong numbered leg band at the age of 1 week, and by 6 weeks, they’re ready to begin with test flights called “training tosses.”

“First, you let them fly around the yard, and you train them to come back through the trap door,” explains Barbara Ann Tomlinson. “Then you’ll take them five miles and let them fly home, then move up to 10 and eventually 50 and 100.”

Homing instincts are reinforced with tossings timed to make the flight home coincide with breakfast or dinnertime. And pigeons are also motivated to fly home to return to a mate or baby. But human bonding is a crucial part, too.

“I talk to my pigeons and snuggle them,” says Tomlinson, who believes the maternal touch may explain why female pigeon owners, who are a small but growing minority in the pigeon-racing world, are increasingly producing prizewinners.

The “young-bird” race season for pigeons born in a calendar year begins in Texas when the weather cools down in September and October. Club members transport pigeons to the starting point, where all birds are boarded in a special trailer rigged to open each cage at precisely the same moment. Then the race is on, with winners calculated by the elapsed time until the pigeon touches down on its home-loft landing board. Technology ensures fairness: Each pigeon has a computer chip in its leg band, and each loft features an electronically wired landing board that will automatically register the bird’s band number as soon as it alights there.

The “old-bird” season begins in the spring for pigeons older than 1 year. In Texas, 500 miles is the racing max. “With the heat, it’s too stressful to make them fly farther,” Keng says. From the second they’re released, tension builds as owners worry about how their birds will maneuver within changing weather patterns while dodging hunters’ bullets and swerving around high-line wires and other tall obstacles, such as utility towers.

“There’s a lot that can go wrong in a race,” says pigeon racer Andy Poznecki, a civil engineer who works in San Antonio. “But those times when you’re waiting for them to come back and then they come soaring in,” he muses as the sun sets over his Bulverde-area loft, “that moment makes every bit of it worthwhile.”

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Writer and editor Helen Cordes lives in Central Texas.