Pondering the great homing pigeon panic Is it microwaves? Cell phones? Pigeon lovers' minds are racing over just what might be causing their formerly unerring birds to fly the coop.

October 18, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Monica? Bill? Impeachment? Glendening? Sauerbrey?

No, no, no, no and no. None of the above.

The big buzz at the Hamilton Homing Pigeon Club is the Disastrous Year of the Lost Pigeons.

"You're going to have a big earthquake," predicts John Butler, a veteran pigeon flyer from Bowley's Quarters. "The magnetic field's changing. You watch. The pigeons go according to magnetic field."

The Hamilton racing pigeon flyers have lost plenty of pigeons this year. But they're not alone. The whole country began hearing about roaming homing pigeons a few weeks back, when Philadelphia area clubs suffered the sensational and mysterious loss of some 1,600 of 2,200 racing pigeons launched in Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

Butler's big rumble theory is no more far-fetched than most of the theories as to why the pigeons' usually precise homing systems are going awry. Butler, a retired printer who's been racing pigeons since he was a boy, thinks the birds may be telling us something, their erratic behavior a kind of early warning system.

"Somewhere down in the core of this Earth you're going to have a tremendous earthquake," he says. "Or whatever they're doing up there - salting the atmosphere with spaceships, or something like that - is changing all those magnetic fields. This has been a disastrous year. I mean losing pigeons, good pigeons."

He points to fellow racer Bruce Vain. "There's one of the top flyers around. Bruce, he'll tell how bad a disastrous year it's been."

"I lost about 60 of them this year," says Vain, 49, a stocky guy whose bird won Hamilton's most recent 300-mile race.

Sleek racing pigeons should not be confused with the scruffy "rats with wings" that beg for food in the street. These are elegant, intelligent, highly trained and conditioned, and sometimes quite expensive birds. Not long ago a Taiwanese syndicate paid $1 million for a single male bird, according to Tom Erskine, a Hamilton club flyer who is chief copy editor for the nationally prestigious Racing Pigeon Digest. The million-dollar pigeon won't be racing anymore, but he'll get a $5,000 stud fee each time he mates.

Erskine, 54, a retired Air Force translator, says that street birds and homing pigeon racers are as different as Wild West mustangs and thoroughbred racehorses. Some of his birds have pedigrees stretching back to 1908.

Racing birds average 45 miles an hour on a good day without a head wind. And for centuries, they've been remarkably consistent in returning home over amazing distances. The Sultan of Baghdad established a pigeon post in 1150 A.D., according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

But for the past two decades, racers say, homing pigeons have become increasingly erratic.

"The losses are worse every year," says Nick Trapani, 70, club president. "The last 10 years it's been getting progressively worse."

The losses grate on pigeon flyers, who are fiercely competitive in a sport that's curiously passive and mostly anticipation. Racers actually see their birds in flight only when they're nearly home at the end of a race. Then there's a flurry of activity to get the pigeon as quickly as possible into the loft.

In the club's recent 300-mile race, 874 pigeons were taken in a specially constructed truck to Lexington, N.C., where they were all released simultaneously. Every racer is banded and numbered. As each returns to its loft, its numbered band is dropped into a sealed clock and the time recorded. The fastest bird home - determined by dividing the time into the surveyed distance to the loft - wins.

Routinely, only a few seconds decide the winners in races of 300 miles, which last about seven hours. Pigeons are flocking birds that fly together and don't split up to head for their own lofts until close to home.

"The weak ones fall back and the strong ones keep coming," says James Esbrandt, 72, club secretary.

Esbrandt recalls that "years ago, if you sent 20 birds down on a race and you got 17 or 18 of them home on a Sunday, you could almost bet the next morning when you got up the others would be sitting on the landing board waiting."

Earlier this season, one of Butler's birds entered in a 150-mile race ended up in North Carolina instead of Baltimore. That's a real wrong-way pigeon. People all over the country have reported finding birds that detoured in the Philadelphia debacle.

It's not happening just during races. "The training this year is the worst it's ever been," Butler says. "And I been training them 35 years."

His grandfather, Lou Gill, who ran an A-rabber horse stable on Durham Street, started him out with pigeons years ago. Baltimore has always been a big pigeon town; East Baltimore once had a "tremendous" number of lofts, says Trapani. Pigeoneering was relatively cheap then; now, keeping a loft of 80 to 100 birds probably costs $2,500 a year.

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