Homeward Bound

Pigeon racing is a local passion few know about—but that’s starting to change.

Pigeon racer Chris Davolos, with one of his prized birds in Jennersville.Chris Davolos remembers scurrying up the steps of his grandfather’s garage into a bright-white loft. Pigeons cooing, wings fluttering, birds hovering and landing from perch to perch. At age 12, his uncle gave him a pair of roller pigeons. Tiny versions of racing pigeons, rollers are celebrated as aerial acrobats.

“You let them outside, and they fly around in a flock and then twirl down,” says Davolos, an ophthalmologist with an office in Jennersville. “They flip over backwards multiple times, then they catch themselves and land on the ground. After watching that, I was hooked.”

In 1993, Davolos and his brother—then 16 and 13, respectively—competed in the Lenox Park Racing Pigeon Club’s Futurity Race. As the sun came up on the second day, a pair of their birds took home the top prizes, finishing first and second. They also earned first-place and runner-up rankings in the auction portion of the competition staged by the Chichester club. The Davolos’ total purse winnings: $2,700, plus another $100 they collected on wagers placed on their birds in what’s known as the “sheet pad.”

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Dubbed the thoroughbreds of the sky, homing pigeons can fly at speeds approaching 60 miles an hour. And they have an uncanny ability to find their way back after flying over hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. Hence the name.

The birds have little in common with scruffy street pigeons that scrounge for handouts in city parks. A finely tuned 1-pound athlete, the race-ready homing pigeon’s breast muscles account for 40 percent of its body mass. That enables the bird to endure flights of 100 to 600 miles, while often battling headwinds and predators.

In horse racing, you’re the owner or the breeder, the trainer or the bettor. In pigeon racing, you can be all of these. Bred and re-bred from carefully documented lineages over hundreds of years, racing birds only get faster and stronger.

In pigeon racing, there’s a single starting gate and a hundred different finish lines. A day before the race, the birds are trucked to a central starting destination, the release station. At pre-dawn, weather conditions are checked. Once the sun is up, the starter checks his watch and pulls the levers. All are released at once—a cloud of pigeons homeward bound.

Nick Lebresco raises birds in a cozy loft behind his East Goshen Township home. The older birds are breeding pairs; the younger ones he’s training to race.

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“It’s a fascinating sport,” says Lebresco, the treasurer/secretary of the West Chester Pigeon Club. “When you’re working with the younger birds, there’s both excitement and anxiety. Will they come back home? Will they develop into top-notch racing birds? It’s all about hope and expectations. You’re always checking on pedigrees or bloodlines, body conformation and eyesight, trying to breed a champion.”

Race competitors can number in the thousands, but there are no spectators. Bird owners don’t watch the start, since the swift-flying birds would beat them home. Along the way, hazards include electric wires, hunters’ bullets and hawks.

At the finish, the pigeons spot their loft and dive-bomb home. Over the past decade, electronic clocking has been developed and refined for widespread use. The birds land on a wooden platform, where a scanner reads an electronic chip on a numbered elastic band attached to the birds’ ankles. Winners are judged by calculating the speeds (not times) over their respective courses.

“With hundreds of birds arriving nearly at the same time all over the region, every second counts,” says Lebresco.

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The Greeks and Romans employed pigeons as speedy messengers vital to both military and business leaders. For centuries, people have marveled at their innate ability to return to their nesting places from great distances. And for almost as long, humans have tried to understand how they accomplish that feat.

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Most believe they get their bearings from the sun, the Earth’s magnetism and low-frequency sounds. But a recent 10-year study in England suggests that homing pigeons navigate simply by following the motorways.

At 4 to 9 months, the birds begin racing. They’ll continue competing until they’re 6 years old, typically living into their teens.

Local pigeon flyers have been known to give away birds to get newcomers into the sport. Racers can pay tens of thousands for those with premium bloodlines. The highest sale price ever recorded is $225,000.

Worldwide, there are roughly 1 million pigeon fanciers, with more than 15,000 registered lofts in the United States. The two racing seasons include one in the spring for pigeons that are more than a year old, and another in the fall for younger birds. The 22nd Triple Crown Classic series in San Diego happens around Thanksgiving. It awards $248,963 in total purse money.

In this region, Chris Davolos is training his birds for the Lenox Park 2010 Futurity Race, with a $3,000 purse—the same one he snagged in 1993. He feeds his pigeons grit—a mix of oyster shells, granite, pulverized brick and vitamins—and keeps them on a strict diet that stores energy for the longer races. They drink plenty of water. When they return to the loft, they get electrolytes (pigeon Gatorade).

As their confidence builds, the young pigeons are taken on progressively longer “training tosses,” driven a distance away from their home and released. It simulates the format of a real race, yet on a much smaller scale. The practice continues throughout a bird’s career.

“It’s so exciting waiting for them to come home off a long race,” says Davolos. “If it’s a hard day, where people aren’t getting their birds home, to get a couple of mine home, that’s a fantastic feeling.”

When Davolos enrolled at the University of Delaware in 1996, he gave away his pigeons. His growing practice as an eye doctor and starting a family left him with little free time. Still, the urge remained. In the summer of 2009, he jumped backed into the world of pigeon racing. His father and uncle donated 18 pairs of older birds, and he bred his first crop of youngsters in January 2009. Top breeding pigeons can produce for up to 10 years.

Inside a compact loft, Davolos reaches down and brings out a pair of furry, 5-day-old “squeakers” nestled in his palm. Higher up are the 3-week-old pigeons—roughly 80-percent full-grown. Never named, racing homing pigeons are identified by the band number on their legs. “Regardless of the color of the bird, they should have a purple sheen in their feathers,” Davolos says. “The more sheen, the healthier they are.”

Late one summer morning, Davolos tells a visitor to lift a slanted screen and 15 young pigeons are released, soaring into a clear, blue sky. Spending quality time with the birds sharpens one’s racing record, says Davolos. “Give them kind, gentle and regular attention, then they’ll become contented and unafraid,” he says. “It encourages their instinctive love of home and motivates them to deliver their best performances on race day.”

Thirty minutes after the birds’ release, Davolos scans the skies above his Appleton Acres home. Shaking a can of bird feed, he lets loose with a melodic whistle. Within a couple of minutes the young birds appear above the towering trees, flying tighter and tighter circles around the house. Then they fold their wings and dive in, one by one, to land on the loft’s roof.

“The loft is my man cave,” Davolos says. “Family’s first. But when everyone’s asleep, I come out here, turn on the lights, give the birds some peanuts, and play with them a little bit. Hey, everybody needs an outlet.”

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