Pigeons’ Opening Dash Makes Their Hearts Race

Rusty and Ethel Williams of Sepulveda sat in their backyard, watching the sky intently. Pine and eucalyptus trees waved gently, clouds floated lazily westward, and the couple faced north, nervous and expectant. It was a nice morning for the opening pigeon race of the fall ’85 season.

The race began at 8 that morning with the liberation of 15,000 pigeons at the Delano fairgrounds, 32 miles north of Bakersfield, and 114.096 air miles from the Williams loft.

In a dozen other yards around the Valley, fellow members of the Devonshire Pigeon Racing Club kept similar vigils, hoping their birds would be the first home.

Rusty, 43, and Ethel, 40, are among about 25,000 people who race pigeons in this country. It’s a hobby with an image problem, though. And most people, according to Rusty, have the wrong idea.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “the public conception of pigeons is that they’re dirty. That’s not true. They don’t carry any diseases communicable to humans.”


The Key’s in the Eyes

Rusty, an administrative manager for a video rental chain, talked proudly of his clean loft, intelligent birds and the hundred strains of racing pigeons. A pigeon’s eyes, he noted, are “a window of his soul.”

Like many husbands and wives who race pigeons together, Rusty and Ethel are a true team, armed and ready for the climax of this race: On a clipboard, she will record the arrival times of the 61 pigeons flying out of the family loft. At Rusty’s feet is a crate holding four “droppers,” pigeons specially trained to fly a short distance up in the air and then directly to the landing board of the home loft to draw his racers out of the sky.

“If I’m going to get a good drop,” Rusty said, “they should come right over the neighbor’s tree, just to the left of the loft.” He indicates a flight path due north. “If they come in over the freeway, that means they’ve followed someone else’s, which, since they’re babies, they usually do. And that will cost me the race.”

The night before, 54 members of the Foothill Concourse, an organization of five Valley-area pigeon-racing clubs, gathered in a Sepulveda parking lot to register their birds for the next morning’s race. Each bird was fitted with a numbered “countermark” to wear around its leg, along with its serial-numbered racing band, and loaded into the trailer.

“I’d like to think they are smart enough to come home,” Rusty said, “to get out in front and race. Some birds are just dumb. When they’re let out, they would just as soon turn around and land in a tree.”

More than 1,000 pigeons rode the custom-made trailer to Delano. To prevent random breeding, the hens and cocks were separated. But the birds don’t suffer from pre-performance jitters, and driver Russ Vadman said they always sleep well before the race.

After a quiet night, the birds were released. They hit the air at the same time and headed in the same direction: toward Angeles National Forest and south to their home lofts as fast as they could go.

A few years ago, when Rusty had only 30 or 40 pigeons in his loft, he could grab any one of them in the dark and tell you its band number just by feeling its body structure. Now he has about 200 racers and stock birds, too many to keep track of that closely, and he and Ethel recently bought a computer to keep track of breeding records.

Rusty’s hobby dates back to his childhood. His dad raced pheasants, and one day a banded racing pigeon flew into the garage. Soon the boy had a small team of pigeons.

When he went into the service, he said, “I thought I got them out of my blood,” But he was wrong. A track man in high school, Rusty needed an outlet for his competitive instincts, and, for 17 years now, he and Ethel have been flying pigeons.

In 1977, they auctioned off their team for $18,000 to help pay for a house. They had to start over, but Rusty was, in his words, “a pretty good judge of birds, so it wasn’t hard to get back in.” Indeed, for a family used to getting up with the birds every morning, it was impossible not to.

An Obsession for Many

Rusty calls racing pigeons “a hobby and a sport,” but for many racers, it is also a business, and an obsession.

“You’ve got to have a screw loose” to enjoy flying pigeons, says 90-year-old Eddie Seldon of Sepulveda, who got his first homing pigeon in 1911.

“If you start up, I’ll raise you some, no charge,” offered Waldo Hotchkiss, 90, of Chatsworth, who once owned a 1,000 pairs of pigeons. “I started a lot of guys up. Rusty bought birds from me about 15 years ago. It takes your mind off your business. I can sit in my air-conditioned living room and watch my birds in the yard.”

Some of his pigeon-fancying friends would disagree, but they all agree that breeding and racing pigeons is a lot of hard work.

Early Riser

During training season, Rusty rises at 5:30 a.m. to catch his racers and put them in their crates. He loads the crates into a truck, and Ethel drives the pigeons to a release point, 30 miles away. While she’s gone, Rusty changes the water, cleans the lofts, feeds the stock birds, and puts food out for the racers. In the afternoon, Ethel lets the birds out for exercise and gives them their evening meal.

The cost of maintaining a racing team can be substantial. Rusty has two lofts, one of which he built recently for about $2,000. He confesses to some extravagance, saying, “The average racer spends about $200 for a loft,” but the proud structure embodies Rusty’s commitment to his hobby. “I’ve won more than my share, and I figure my pigeons deserve a good home,” he said.

Other expenses include a timer, which costs up to $500, feed, gas for training runs, club membership and pigeon-oriented publications. But most costly of all can be the price of good breeding pigeons.

Price Can Be High

Rusty once paid $1,100 for a stock pigeon, and he sold one to a Taiwanese racer for $1,000.

Guy Sihavong, a native of Thailand who now lives in Sun Valley, received $5,800 for a bird from a Japanese racer. “It makes me good money,” Sihavong said. Sihavong, a musician, works on the side as an agent for Asian pigeon shoppers, who invest and wager huge amounts of money on pigeon racing.

“Officially, there’s no gambling,” Rusty said about local pigeon racing. But sometimes, he acknowledged, racers make one-on-one wagers and pool a few dollars in “a friendly bet among friends.”

At 10:25 a.m., Rusty and Ethel spot pigeons in the sky at the same moment. “Here they come!” they yell in unison. Rusty jumps up, starts whistling urgently, trilling like a bird.

Two flocks, six in one, nine in the other, came across the blue sky from the north, right where Rusty and Ethel wanted them. But they flew high over the yard and kept going.

Could any of those belong to the Williams’ loft? If so, Ethel said, “They didn’t realize they were here.” Pigeons, she explained, like to fly in flocks.

Return to Roost

Ethel saw one dropping toward the yard from across the freeway. “Here’s one, Rusty!” she shouted. It started to circle the yard, dropping steadily, and Rusty, whistling, threw one of his droppers, which flew straight to the landing board. Ethel was whistling, too.

The bird circled again. Rusty threw another dropper, and another. The bird swooped toward the loft, coasted in, flapped its wings and settled on the landing board.

Rusty ran over, arriving with his arm outstretched, fingers wiggling and, gently but decisively, grabbed the bird. He removed the countermark and deposited it in his timer, stationed on a shelf under the landing board. Now he will be able to measure the bird’s flight time, which is calculated in yards per minute. He let the pigeon into the loft, grabbed his droppers and ran back across the yard, sweating fiercely.

By 10:33, 22 pigeons had come home. By 10:42, 14 more had arrived. By 11:15, all but three of 61 birds were back.

No Winners in Lot

Rusty and Ethel were pleased with this ratio. By 1 p.m., the last three had straggled back, which meant all 61 birds, some of them born only three months before, found their way home from 114 miles away, including 30 miles of territory they had never seen before. The Williamses didn’t field a winner, but they take solace in having five birds in the top 10%.

Rusty said he’s certain several of his pigeons were among the flocks that first passed over his yard. Like their owner, he said, the birds were nervous, and flying in a flock of strangers distracted them. He is counting on his birds’ inbred intelligence for a better showing in future races.

How does one determine a pigeon’s IQ?

“It’s hard to see. Intelligence is a certain look in the eye,” Rusty said. “All you can see in a bird is what you think is intelligence.”