Pigeons with a pedigree

May 30, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Tommy Erskine is a flier without wings, a racer who sits and waits, an enthusiast for an ancient sport that is fading in Baltimore.

He breeds racing pigeons. The fact that they always come home, and nobody really knows how, fascinates him. He is full of facts about them.

"The cock pigeon may be the only male animal that produces milk for its young," he said, and waits for that to strain your credibility.

"A well-conditioned pigeon can outfly a hawk in a heartbeat," he said, adding that pigeons are smart enough to seek the proximity of crows, which attack hawks in flocks as dolphins attack sharks.

"I love my birds," Mr. Erskine said. "I can trace their pedigrees back to 1908. I have traced birds back to their original families in France."

Mr. Erskine's is truly an archaic sport, originating probably in 5th-century B.C. Egypt. Pigeons carried the mail in Baghdad in 1150 B.C. They delivered messages for Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan.

In World War I, the French gave one pigeon a Legion of Honor for carrying a message through enemy lines at Verdun. At least half a dozen won the Dicken Medal in Britain in World War II, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

More recently, the Iraqis used them in the Persian Gulf war to frustrate allied jamming of their communications. The birds enabled Serbian fighters in former Yugoslavia to keep in touch with the home front. Israeli commandos still carry them into combat.

Raising pigeons as a sport or hobby in the West began in Belgium. It was brought here by immigrants coming into the cities. Urban congestion encouraged the formation of clubs, which fostered the sport of racing.

"In Baltimore the golden age of pigeon raising was right after the turn of the century," said Henry Yaeger, 78, of Towson. Mr. Yaeger breeds show pigeons, as his father did, not racing homers.

The popularity of the sport in Baltimore continued through World War I, Mr. Yaeger recalled, and though it was most popular in East Baltimore, it wasn't confined to the hoi polloi. Rich families with summer houses in Towson raised the homers. The Depression of the 1930s forced many fanciers out. It has been in decline ever since.

Mr. Erskine estimates there are about 130 serious pigeon fanciers in Baltimore, compared with about 300-350 in 1960. In addition, he says, there are a number of people around town with one or two birds in backyard coops.

It was once a popular hobby for children, but Joe Bowers, who runs the Exchange Feed Store in Fells Point -- Baltimore's sole pigeon supply store -- said only about 10 children a week come into his shop to buy birds at $1 to $2 apiece.

The decline in interest in pigeons is attributed to cost (a proper loft and racing clock can reach $2,000, a pair of good breeding birds about $300); zoning laws, which make raising birds in cities problematic; and bird loss due to hunters or poisoned seed set out to eradicate street pigeons.

"In five years I raised about 300 birds," Mr. Erskine said. "I now only have about 50 left, fliers that is." He doesn't count his breeders and show birds.

Rescued bird

Mr. Erskine, 49, is alight with nervous energy. His grandfather raised pigeons on a farm, but Mr. Erskine didn't raise his own until about six years ago when he rescued a bird from some children.

"They were using it as a football," he said. "Its wing was shattered; one eye hanging out."

He treated the bird, named it Penelope and bred her. She was the foundation for his flock, the hundred or so birds he owns. She is still with him. Racing pigeons live 13 to 15 years, unlike street pigeons, which, more susceptible to disease, last only two to four years.

His loft is in the back yard of his Essex home. It is made of plywood, chicken wire and fiberglass; it has separate roosts for breeding and nesting birds, even a hospital roost for the sick and injured.

Inside it, Mr. Erskine talks to the birds as he moves among them, examines them close up through his tinted glasses, scratches the bristly beard that sprouts from his narrow face. "Here, come here. Who do you belong to, you little sweetheart?" he asks endearingly of one. He handles another: "How's your band today? Still got it on?"

The birds respond. The writer Jane Schwartz, in her book, "Caught," likened their collective sound to that made by a child blowing air through a straw into a glass of milk. It is the bubbly cooing of pacific, gregarious birds.

Though most of Mr. Erskine's birds are racing homers, he keeps some show birds (they are not allowed to fly, but are bred for

their beauty), like his two Nuns with their black heads and tails and surplice-white fronts, or the nine large white Dragoons.

The birds define the bird fancier. In this country nearly 12,000 people raise homers, down from about 20,000 two decades ago. About 5,000 prefer the show birds, about 3,000 the tumblers or tipplers, pigeons that fly up and "tumble" acrobatically, but really don't go anywhere and have no homing instinct left.

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