Eagles are majestic. Doves are romantic.
Pigeons, with their tatty wings and street-living ways, are seen by many as dumb and dirty, referred to as the “rats of the sky.”
But if you ever met a sleek-feathered, iridescent-colored, sharp-eyed racing pigeon, you’d never think of his cousin—that humble creature eating bread crusts in Pioneer Square—the same way again.
Pigeon racing is a centuries-old sport, thought to have originated in Europe.
It attracts enthusiasts around the globe—including a bunch of guys crowded into a Kent basement on a recent Saturday morning, balancing paper cups of coffee and Safeway doughnuts on their laps.
Greater Seattle Racing Pigeon Club—the biggest pigeon racing club in Washington at 38 members— has begun meeting for the 2013 season.
Racing won’t start for another couple of months. But this year’s crop of pigeons are a week old and need to be banded with the numbers that will follow them throughout their racing careers.
I first saw trained pigeons flying in formation off a rooftop in Brooklyn. I’ve watched them swoop through pink sunsets in India and fly back-dropped by minarets in Istanbul. The universal appeal of pigeon racing is proven by the diverse immigrants drawn to the Seattle Club.
“We’re proud to say that we have more different nationalities than any other club we know of,” says George Dobre, an immigrant from Romania who is president of the club. The crowd happily throws out the nationalities of its members: Mexico, Poland, Taiwan and Morocco, just to name a few.
Members raise their own birds in custom-built plywood lofts, often in their backyards.
Despite the old world vibe, pigeon racing has become surprisingly twenty-first century. Birds are banded with plastic bar codes on their legs and lofts are outfitted with bar code scanners. “Like a grocery store” says Dobre.
Birds are transported to race points throughout Washington, Oregon and California, then let loose to fly back to their individual lofts. Times are clocked and stored by the scanners built into the lofts. Members compete against each other and other racing pigeons throughout the state.
While racing hasn’t always been so high-tech (pigeons used to be fitted with mechanical clocks), here in the Pacific Northwest it has historically been the pastime of immigrants.
“I got to know all the old-timers, the immigrants, Belgian and German,” says Jack Ibuki who started racing in the early 1960s as a teenager, “A lot of them lived in the Beacon Hill area. That was the so called ‘hot spot’ of racing pigeons.”
And while Ibuki says local interest in the sport has wanted since he was a kid, the Greater Seattle Racing Pigeon Club is boasting its highest membership ever. The group’s leadership credits this boom to new immigrants.
Two potential new members at Saturday’s meeting are both from Mexico. “There are thousands of people coming here from other countries every day that had to leave pigeons behind,” says member Derrick Esquerra, who came to pigeon racing through his father, an immigrant from the Philippines. “They’ve got to know about the club.”
A visit to Dobre’s home illustrates the love many pigeon racers bring to the sport.
His dining room walls feature plaques from races won and photo-portraits of prizewinning pigeons. His pigeon loft, nicknamed The Blue Danube sits in his suburban backyard. It’s the size of a mobile home and is stocked with fancy organic pigeon feed (no bread crusts here!)
He pulls his favorite pigeon, named Alba Iulia after a city in Romania, from the fluttering brood.
She is pigeon royalty. Plump and haughty, her color shifts from green to pink in the overcast afternoon light.
Through some mystery of nature, homing pigeons can permanently orient themselves to their lofts, giving them the ability to find their way home from many hundreds of miles away.
“The babies. They fly up on the roof of the house … and they spend about a half-hour up there looking around,” says Dobre, who started flying pigeons as a kid in a little town near Bucharest. “And then that’s their house for life.”
Dobre speaks freely of how much he misses Romania. Watching him coo over his birds, it dawns on me how this sport, based on the bird’s instinctual orientation toward home, is perfect for immigrants hoping to stay connected to where they come from.