"Gradually the circle starts to widen. They'll start flying together in groups. They'll take off for a half hour, an hour, an hour and a half. You might think you've lost them, but they come back. After a few weeks I'll put them in my car early in the morning and drive them maybe 60 miles. Then I'll let them go. You do lose one or two now and then, but not many. They're getting to know the territory."

The sport does have critics. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals recently launched a media campaign that paints pigeon racing as a cruel amusement and gambling as its chief attraction. "Imagine a Boston Marathon in which half the competitors never return and are presumed dead," says the narrator in a PETA YouTube clip. "This is typical in pigeon racing."

Pigeon fanciers acknowledge some birds do end up missing in action, but say it's nothing like the numbers PETA puts forth. Gambling, they say, amounts to little more than occasional friendly bets, at least in Rhode Island.

According to Gervais, most who take up the sport are fascinated by the birds and their mysterious homing instincts. "When you're sitting in your yard near the end of a race," he says, "there's no better feeling than seeing three or four of your birds appear in the sky."

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