Pigeon racers say rule won't fly

February 17, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

The pigeons may have been cooing at the Patapsco Feed and Supply store, but the patrons certainly weren't.

No, these men were serious, and they were angry. That the city Health Department would propose a regulation that could restrict the number of pigeons they're permitted to have to 50, well, that seemed preposterous.

Being limited to just 50 of their avian athletes quite simply is not feasible. And besides, pigeon racing is more than just a sport, said Keith Wilkerson, 40, as heads bobbed in agreement all around him.

"It's a way of life for us," said Wilkerson emphatically. "This is a family sport. This is what brings families together. It brings race relations together," said the man, an African-American, as a white man named Bear patted his back.

"Older persons and younger persons," continued the Edmondson Village resident. "This is what brings a community together."

The more than two dozen men, young and old, black and white, gathered in the dusty southern Baltimore pigeon supplies store on a recent morning raising opposition to a city Health Department proposal putting restrictions on various animals, including pigeons. Many were city residents; others came from the county, or as far as Anne Arundel County, in support of their brethren.

"These yuppies don't care about our freedom," snapped Bear Friedel, 47, who said he has 250 pigeons, but lives in Baltimore County. "It's not a free country? They can't tell us what we have in our house is wrong."

Under the proposed regulations, residents would be limited to 50 pigeons and would have to pay a one-time $80 permit fee. There would also be regulations for the coops the birds are kept in.

Though waning from its popularity of yesteryear, pigeon racing is still alive, its enthusiasts - mostly old and older - clinging to a sport they hope will never die.

There are several Baltimore-based racing clubs with members living in the city and surrounding areas, though no one knows how many city residents race or harbor pigeons. Most race the bigger pigeons, called homers, which make their way home from hundreds of miles away. Some others harbor tipplers, which fly up high into the sky for hours, or rollers, which can tumble in midair.

Across the country, lawmakers have found themselves balancing the peculiar hobby with complaints from neighbors. Many cities and towns have some sort of regulation. In Chicago, the city council became the first to outright ban pigeons from residential areas in 2004, a move that was challenged but upheld in a federal appeals court.

Complaints crop up in suburban and urban areas, though they are more pronounced in densely populated urban centers, said Deone Roberts, sports development manager of the Oklahoma-based American Racing Pigeon Union.

Roberts said the organization has been successful in blocking regulations that would effectively kill the sport. "We've had great success in other cities when they simply understand how the racing happens," said Roberts.

As for Baltimore's proposal of limiting pigeons to 50, she agreed that such a restriction would make it difficult to compete. "To have an appropriate race team, you need to have 100 birds," Roberts said. "But 100 is not out at one time. Also, the birds aren't out flying loose. They need to be controlled so they come in right away. Every second counts in this sport."

The city's proposed Health Department regulation is not subject to a public hearing or City Council approval. But the department is allowing 30 days of public comments on all aspects of the regulations, which include bans and limits on some reptiles, farm and exotic animals.

"The comment period is still open," said Olivia Farrow, assistant commissioner for environmental health. "We are open to revising the regulations where it makes sense and where we can. We are totally open to taking a second look at the proposed regulations."

Farrow said once the period ends on March 2, the department will review all the comments and post a summation of them on the department's Web site.

Bob Anderson, the city's director of animal control, estimated that he receives close to 100 complaints a year regarding pigeons. "The trouble is some people love pigeons and some people call them flying rats," he said. "Some people want them around; some people want them dead. Not just removed. Dead."

Herein lies the problem, pigeon enthusiasts say, this confusion between street pigeons and their birds, which are fed, vaccinated, and well-groomed, not to mention pricey.

"A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about pigeon flying," said Randy Barnes, 45, of Arnold, a member of the South Baltimore Social Club.

The men said any complaints about bird droppings aren't from their flocks but from wild pigeons. Their birds do not wander around aimlessly and are trained to enter their coops immediately after flying.

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