Fly Away Home 

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

Henry Marganski's newest brood of pigeons was born in February and March, in time to train them for the "young bird" season, which started this month. Marganski raises racing homers, pigeons that race back to the home loft from a distant release point. The sport is huge in Holland, England and Belgium but hasn't really caught on in the U.S. "Americans like action," says Marganski, a transplanted Pole. "Pigeon racing is more like fishing -- you wait."

What they wait for is the return of their entries, feathered thoroughbreds winging home from 100-300 miles away, flying at treetop level at speeds of 45 mph or more. The owner of the fastest bird gets a trophy and perhaps a few bucks, the stakes of friendly wagering. But the training starts early, when the pigeons are barely out of their down.

"I'm just a rookie," says Marganski, 73, who came into the sport in 1992, after his retirement. His loft -- a solid, ventilated pigeon coop the size of a tool shed -- sits behind his Concord Village home in South County. Marganski constantly checks feed and water, opening and shutting doors to let birds in or out. The young birds need lots of attention, especially during the first seven weeks, when their primary flight feathers are developing. The pigeons spend this critical time hovering around the loft, sitting on the roof and taking short flights. "They are easily spooked at this stage," says Marganski, a slight man with merry blue eyes behind plain-frame glasses. "I lost five young ones earlier this year when ducks flew over and scattered them. They probably died in the wild." He compares the fledglings to a toddler: "You take a 2-year-old two blocks from home, he can't find his way back. The same with young birds. They fly too far, and they can't get back."

One day, they will disappear temporarily. "That's called 'tripping,'" says Marganski. "They fly off into the neighborhood -- who knows where? -- their first time away from the loft. This is the time you can basket them, take them on training flights, take them five, 10, 15 miles away from home, up to 50 miles." This builds up a bird's wings and respiratory system and hones its navigational powers. Marganski has 26 pigeons, unlike other owners or "flyers" who keep 60 or more. They take their birds out daily; Marganski is lucky if he does it twice a week. "I don't want the pigeons to take up all my time," he says. "I'm already busy with other things." He's involved with his North City parish, St. Stanislaus, known among Catholics for its polka Masses. He's an avid gardener and active in the Polish-American War Veterans Association. He spends Wednesdays at Jefferson Barracks, where he stands as part of the honor guard at veterans' funerals.

The personalized plates on Marganski's Jeep Cherokee read SYBRAK -- short for Sybirak, "Siberia" in Polish. Marganski's 30-month stay in Siberia indelibly stamped his character. He was only 11 in February 1940, living near the town of Jezierzany, when the Russians came in the middle of the night, taking him, his family and neighbors prisoner. A labor camp 4,000 miles away in Siberia needed fresh bodies.

"I had two pigeons at the time -- my pets," says Marganski. "I asked the Russians if I could take them along, and they said yes. Then we were on a train, 60 in a boxcar; somebody said, 'How are you going to feed your birds when we don't have enough?'" At one stop, he saw his brother Ignatz and gave him the birds. Marganski never saw Ignatz or the pigeons again. In Siberia, he worked in the forest, sapping pine trees to make turpentine, worrying about bears and wolves. His family subsisted on coarse bread and, in the spring, mushrooms. His father, assigned to a cavern, where he made wooden casks for the turpentine, died during the second winter. "We couldn't dig a grave, so we buried him in snow," says Marganski. "In spring, we went to dig him out for a proper burial, and his body was gone."

In the summer of 1942, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Soviets needed more troops. Marganski's older brother was consigned, and the family traveled along as refugees, which took them to Iraq and Palestine. In 1946, the family emigrated to the U.S. In St. Louis, Marganski found work with the old Ozark Airlines and, later, TWA as a ground-equipment mechanic. He tried racing pigeons for a while in 1962, but the results were poor and he got discouraged. Thirty years later, he felt he had to try again.

Marganski can't explain his affinity for the birds. "I just like pigeons," he says with a shrug, "not only racing pigeons but acrobatic rollers and fancy pigeons."

Marganski and his wife, Shirley, are in the basement of their home, showing bird catalogs and pigeon photos. He ambles over to the trophy shelf and pulls one out, a first prize for a 240-mile race held in 1996 that was won by one of his birds, a blue chick hen with no name. None of the birds has a name. This one was No. 8453. "He was a good one," says Marganski in his slightly halting speech. What became of No. 8453? "Well," he replies, "the very next race, he never came home."

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."

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.

No. 8082 takes its own sweet time, straggling in a day later. It's a mediocre showing for Marganski's pigeons, but all the birds are home. There will be other races, one every week until the end of September. Marganski now has an idea which birds are the most promising, the ones that could bag trophies and win him a few bucks. He's got their number.

More by Wm. Stage

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