Late Saturday afternoon Mike Becker settled into a backyard lawn chair to wait. He was expecting a friend, one who'd been traveling all day. Number 156, his favorite racing pigeon, was flying home to Chepachet from Sandusky, Ohio, a distance of roughly 600 miles.
"He came in a little after seven," Becker says. "I think he did pretty well. The heat had a lot to do with it. I know he stopped for water because his feet were muddy."
If the only place you've watched pigeons is Kennedy Plaza, you might have trouble believing they could be trained to be athletes. The street birds, after all, seem capable of little more than life's essentials — eating, crapping, and procreating. Yet every weekend in spring and fall, dozens of feathered competitors are winging their way from distant release points to their lofts in the Ocean State.
Pigeons possess an uncanny ability to find their way back home, and it's that instinct that makes the sport. Trained birds are released and then timed as they return to their lofts over a measured distance. Enthusiasts, who unabashedly call themselves "pigeon fanciers," can be found in countries all over the world, and in all walks of life. Mike Tyson fancies pigeons; Queen Elizabeth, too. There's no shortage of them in southern New England; the region is home to at least a dozen clubs. The Rhode Island Racing Pigeon Club, one of the largest, claims more than 50 members.
Saturday's race from Sandusky — the end of spring season for Ocean Staters — was a typical event. Perhaps a hundred trainers took part; late entries meant the exact figure was unavailable at press time. On Friday afternoon all the caged birds were loaded onto a trailer. Each was wearing a numbered leg band, an identification recorded by race officials. The driver traveled through the night to reach the release point by morning. It's never anywhere special, just a field or parking lot the proper distance from home. Shortly before 6 am the driver — called the "liberator" — telephoned the club house to discuss weather conditions. Then he opened the cages and let the birds fly.
Pigeon racing is often called the sport with one starting gate and a hundred finish lines. An owner will wait by his loft for the bird to arrive, and record the time with an electronic scanner aimed at the leg band. The results are then submitted to club officials.
For tips on raising a champ, I talked to Arthur Gervais, a Scituate resident who's been racing birds for a decade. As he explains, you won't find a contender in the park; breeding is a big part of the game. "Everyone knows there's a big difference between a thoroughbred race horse and a wild mustang," he says. "If I put a racing pigeon next to one on the sidewalk in downtown Providence, you'd see they're different, too. The racing pigeon is more muscular, leaner."
Training is the second part of the equation. You have to start with "squeakers," as newborns are called. "You're hoping they'll come to see your loft as home, [the] spot they return to," Gervais says. "When they see a cat or a hawk or something unsettling, they can scurry inside and feel safe. Eventually the bird will begin landing on the ground and flying around the yard for a minute or two.They may land a bit uncomfortably at first, but they're learning.