Each weekend, Bill Desmarais ships his birds off on a truck and somehow, they find their way home. In his backyard in Massachusetts recently, he welcomed home birds from a race that started 250 miles away in Verona, N.Y.
Pigeons have fascinated people for centuries. Charles Darwin, Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney all kept the birds. Today, thousands — including Mike Tyson — are flocking to the sport of pigeon racing.
Racing pigeons aren't like the pigeons you see in a park. They're stronger, bred for endurance and brains. Some are worth thousands of dollars.
Desmarais, Northeast Zone director of the American Racing Pigeon Union, isn't sure how the birds navigate, but he thinks it's something like the radar in a submarine. "There must be something that tells them," he says.
During a race, the birds are tracked using computer chips and GPS. They're placed aboard a truck and taken to a far-away starting point, where the driver records the exact location and time of release. A sensor pad at their home loft registers their return, and the bird that flies back fastest wins.
The Pigeon Racers
At another race in Connecticut, pigeons are loaded onto a truck bound for Toledo while the racers engage in some pregame chatter.
Tony Wiadrski used to play soccer in Poland, but for 33 years, he's raced pigeons in America. His house is right next-door to the club. He built his coop himself, building it two or three months before his house. He says his wife didn't complain because she knows "the pigeons [are] my life."
Wiadrski sometimes bets on races, but other pigeon flyers, like Wayne and Tina Spakowski, say the sport is about other things, like caring for your birds. Pigeon racing, after all, isn't without risk.
Hawks, power lines and surprise weather can all keep the birds from coming home. So the Spakowskis are careful not to get too attached.
"Once you name them, it seems something happens to them," Wayne Spakowski says.
Tina Spakowski says they had one pigeon that always chased her feet.
"So we called her 'Feets' for the longest time," she says, "and, of course, one race and she never came home ... We lost Feets."
A Trusty Trucker
Each bird represents an investment of time, money and love, so come race time, pigeon racers won't hand their birds off to just anyone in a truck.
They look for experienced drivers, like Ralph DuPree, who has driven pigeons for nearly a decade. DuPree will drive all night, releasing dozens of birds the following morning. He says he'll find a nice spot — a place with good visibility and no power lines — and then, it's just a matter of getting out of the way.
"Sometimes yeah, you get crapped on," he says.
For the Spakowskis, the day's race results weren't great. But with a competition nearly every weekend, they'll have plenty more opportunities for a win. Plus, when winter comes, they'll begin mating their best pigeons, continuing on the never-ending quest to breed the perfect, as they call it, "thoroughbred of the sky."