Home is where the bird is Wagner's Point: When they realized a city buyout would ground their racing pigeons, the Smith brothers became the opposition.

August 29, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Harvey and his brothers Thomas and James stand next to their green wooden pigeon coop in Wagner's Point, their heads cocked skyward.

"C'mon, birds!" shouts Harvey, pausing to drink from a big bottle of Bud. "Get in the coop!"

When one of the WP Fliers -- the team of racing pigeons the Smith brothers own and train in this tiny southeast Baltimore neighborhood -- stops on a power line instead of completing the race by flying into the coop, Harvey sighs.

"Some birds are stubborn," says the construction worker. "You ask them to go, but they don't want to go."

Most folks in Wagner's Point will tell you that the Smith boys are pretty stubborn birds themselves.

While the vast majority of the neighborhood's 270 residents want the government to finance a buyout of their homes and a relocation of their neighborhood, the Smith brothers -- Harvey, 37; Thomas, 36; and Jimbo, a 33-year-old maintenance man and bar operator -- form the backbone of the opposition.

The Smiths' neighbors want to fly away because the neighborhood, surrounded by chemical plants and oil tank farms, suffers from foul air and high cancer rates. The city government, in an attempt to accommodate them, has indicated a willingness to buy the homes and bulldoze Wagner's Point -- pigeon coops and all -- to make way for an expansion of a sewage treatment plant.

"We need to move because we're not safe here," says Debbie Hindla, a resident who is a leader of the relocation effort. "Moving out is a matter of life and death."

But theSmiths argue, forcefully, that life would not be worth living without their pigeons.

Their opposition is based almost totally on the nature of a sport that Harvey calls "horse racing for hillbillies."

The Smith pigeons, like all racers, are taught from birth to return home, in their case to Leo Street where all three brothers live. It is next to impossible to retrain pigeons, the brothers say.

"Wagner's Point is the only home the pigeons will ever know," says Thomas Smith, also a construction worker. "You could burn down that coop and bulldoze Wagner's Point, and the pigeons would still come back here.

L "And I guess we pretty much feel the same way the birds do."

No one knows exactly why, but pigeon racing has been something of a tradition in Wagner's Point for 40 years. The Smith brothers remember watching races as boys.

Three years ago, searching for an entertaining hobby that would bring the family together, they decided to invest hundreds of dollars in developing a racing team.

They race in the circuit sponsored by the Baltimore Pigeon Fancier's Social Club, which organizes tournaments for trophies and, sometimes, a few hundred dollars of prize money. Unofficial side bets can be worth hundreds more.

Members of the club, many of them senior citizens who call the brothers "the kids," got the Smiths started by donating a few birds with strong racing pedigrees -- a considerable gift, because a good racer can fetch hundreds of dollars.

"Those birds are in better health than most of the people down here," Harvey says.

Over three years, the Smiths have even discovered that Wagner's Point is a good place to base their pigeons. Neighborhood scourges, such as the nearby chemical tanks and the air's uniquely foul smell, are a great guide for pigeons.

"The smell lets the birds know they're home," says Harvey.

The Smiths are still getting the hang of the race season; this year's series begins in earnest tomorrow, with a 100-mile flight. Each entrant will put his pigeons in a cage that is loaded on a truck, which will drive to a location in Virginia.

The cages will be opened at once, and some 60 teams of pigeons, if properly trained, will fly to their home coops at speeds approaching 55 mph.

Most pigeons will finish the race (though usually a few get lost or attacked by hawks and never make it home), but only the first pigeon to arrive at each coop counts. The Smiths will take a band off the first pigeon's leg and stick it in a secure timer.

All the entrants meet at the club, where, after adjusting for the slightly different distances between the release site and each coop, they compare timers. The difference is often a matter of seconds.

The Smiths have never finished better than sixth, though they remain proud of three pigeons that completed a 565-mile flight from Atlanta last year -- the fastest bird made the trip in 11 hours.

"It takes five years to really develop a program," Harvey says. "And we're still learning how to tell a good pigeon.

"Some people say you look at the breast plate or the veins, but we believe you look in a pigeon's eye, and see that he was born to be a racer."

The Smiths have had setbacks. This winter, a cat got into the breeding coop and killed a third of their birds.

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