Fly Away Home

Henry Marganski's pigeons fly the coop all the time. Some race back, and some don't.

Unlike some owners, Marganski is attached to his birds. "I grieve for every one I lose," he notes. "They don't like to be touched -- it's not a pet -- but there's still a lot of love for the birds."

"Has to be," chimes in Shirley. "Otherwise, he wouldn't be out there cleaning the cages in 95-degree weather."

Henry Marganski is attached to his birds: "I grieve for every one I lose."
Jennifer Silverberg
Henry Marganski is attached to his birds: "I grieve for every one I lose."
Pigeons need lots of attention, especially during the first seven weeks.
Jennifer Silverberg
Pigeons need lots of attention, especially during the first seven weeks.

In ancient Greece, the homing pigeon (Columba livia) carried news of the Olympic games. Armies used them to send messages to and from the front. The longest distance on record is about 2,300 miles, logged by a U.S. Army Signal Corps-trained bird. Pigeon racing didn't become popular until the 19th century, but by the late 20th century, purses had reached a record $30,000. Mass liberations of 70,000 racing birds are not uncommon in Europe, and in a 1992 race from France to Holland, an astonishing 186,816 pigeons were set loose -- the largest release ever.

Pigeon racing comprises two categories: birds under a year old and older birds. The young ones are simply flying back to their perch and food. The older ones are returning not only to their perch but to a mate and, possibly, incubating eggs. Marganski races only young birds.

He knows it isn't merely endurance that wins a race. A bird must be smart enough to know when to break away from the starting flock to speed home by the most direct route. Theories abound on how these birds travel vast distances without getting lost. Research points to a combination of navigational resources -- sensitivity to the earth's geomagnetic field, to ultraviolet-light patterns in the sky, to polarized sunlight and to recognition of landmarks on the earth's surface.

Chris Peeman, a pigeon expert and owner of Oak Haven Farms in Springtown, Texas, believes the iron molecules in the pigeon's brain work on the magnetic North Pole, giving the bird a built-in compass. Pigeons have strayed or disappeared altogether over areas where earthquakes or volcanic activity have recently occurred. Jon Hagstrum, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., believes the bird's compass relies on picking up low-frequency sounds human beings can't hear. He thinks that the loss of a third of the 60,000 birds in races between France and England in 1997 was caused when they entered the cone-shaped shock wave in the wake of a Concorde jet's flight path. The iron bird flummoxed the feathered bird.

In an old streetcar turnaround in an alley near Virginia Avenue and Meramec Street, men mill about a squat brick building, the official clubhouse of the Mount Pleasant Racing Pigeon Club. It is Saturday evening, the first race of the season, and Charlie Klipsch, the club's secretary, checks in the members arriving with their caged pigeons. The birds get rubber racing bands, each with a different number, and the time clocks are synchronized. Soon the birds -- 96 from this club, 300 from all five bi-state clubs -- are collected in a trailer, which is driven 100 miles to Newburg, Mo., in Phelps County, where the driver will spend the night in the truck with the pigeons. The next morning, he will liberate the pigeons in two groups, a half-hour apart. Because the birds are flying varying distances to their home lofts, the winner isn't the one that gets home first but the one that flies the fastest. The normal speed is 35-45 mph, but a tailwind can push it up to 70 mph.

But the birds don't always come back, or they may come back a bit ruffled. Hawks sometimes attack, scattering them off course. They may run into wires. They may take a wrong turn and get lost. Sometimes a bird will straggle in a day or two late. But usually when a bird fails to return, its fate remains a mystery.

It's 9 a.m. the next day. The weather is getting hot, with a slight wind from the east, and the Marganskis are on their back deck. The loft is 30 yards away, across a bridge spanning a scenic rill that runs through the yard. The couple waits, watching for shadows out of the corners of their eyes, the sign of circling pigeons. "This can be the best part of the race or the worst, depending on whether they come home," says Shirley.

Even close to the finish line there are perils. "A hawk got one of my birds, and he ate him right there," Marganski notes, pointing to a grassy spot off the side of the deck. Do the birds understand they're in a race? "No," he says, "they're hungry. They want to get back to eat."

He glances toward the loft. Nothing yet. His wife looks out on the lawn for circling shadows. "Sometimes they don't go right to the loft," she remarks. "They head for the creek, or they dilly-dally on the roof, and you say, 'Hurry up!'"

Finally, at 9:55 a.m., shadows appear. Marganski rushes toward the loft. As each bird walks into the loft's entrance, a pair of wire bobs go up and the pigeon finds itself suddenly trapped, but only for the short time it takes Marganski to reach in, remove the bird's leg band, place it in a small capsule and drop the capsule into an opening in the time clock. He turns the clock handle with a key and -- ba-ding! -- the precise time of each bird's arrival is recorded. The arrivals are No. 8080 and No. 1366, both from the first release, at 7 a.m., which means they were slogging along at about 33 mph. Marganski's third pigeon, No. 8082, is MIA. At 10:30 a.m., two birds from the second release arrive. The third one comes in an hour later.

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