Growing up, Loa Blasucci was never in need of a playmate. The local make-up artist and physical fitness trainer enjoyed the company of her parents, her siblings and, of course, pigeons. Her dad, Chet Johnson, was an avid pigeon rancher and always had several pairs of the birds on hand that were being raised. Looking back it seems a little different growing up with pigeons, said Blasucci, but it was fun. Her friends were always coming over to see the birds and when no one could play, the pigeons were always there.
Her dad is now 83 and first became acquainted with pigeons when he was just a small boy growing up in Phoenix. He raised them to exhibit, eventually starting a squab ranch and racing them.
Pigeon racing is not prolific in the United States, but it has caught the attention of some well-known Americans. Actor Jimmy Smits, boxer Mike Tyson and Walt Disney are reputed to have raised and raced pigeons. In Europe, the sport is very popular with the Royal Pigeon Racing Association which boasts that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is a patron of their organization.
Like most pigeon owners, Johnson began breeding his birds for speed, taking special care with them. One of his birds, Methuselah, faired especially well under Johnson's care living until the ripe old age of 22 years, far surpassing the average life span of a pigeon. Johnson recalls that though Methusaleh had a fine disposition, his offspring were a different story.
"I'd set him up with one female, and they'd get along for five or so years, then he'd wear them out and I'd have to set him up with another female," Johnson remembers with a chuckle. "He got along fine with everyone. But his children! They were bad. We eventually had to discontinue the line."
Johnson has been working on selective breeding of pigeons for more than 40 years, specifically with the Arch Angel and Show King varieties to create a new breed that is both beautiful and disease-resistant. Johnson said that most people would have given up along the way, but for him it became an obsession.
"In 40 years, we probably moved five times with the birds," he remembers. "On average, we had to move 20 to 30 pair so the gene pool wouldn't self-destruct." But, his efforts paid off with the creation of the Gabriel.
The Gabriel is a genetically refined show bird, a hybrid between the Arch Angel and Show King varieties. It weighs on average between 26 and 32 ounces. A strong pigeon, it is brightly colored with black wings and tail. The large head, breast and undercarriage are a dark, rich copper color. Running down its back is a beetle green iridescence. Johnson said the Gabriel is one of the most beautiful birds ever produced. Once they were available for sale, Johnson quickly sold all of them to breeders around the country.
"People were after them. There are probably 16 to 18 breeders that have six to eight birds each," he estimates. Some will continue improving and refining the Gabriel, while others will just retire it to admire its beauty.
Not one to sit on his laurels, Johnson is now working on another hybrid, which he has named the Bishop. The fact that he probably doesn't have another 40 years in him to finish the work on the Bishop doesn't slow him down. Creating the beautiful birds is a labor of love. He said with a smile, "The Gabriel and the Bishop are payback for all the pleasure they've given me over the years."