A Wing and a Prayer

A dispatch from the 27th annual Snowbird pigeon race.

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The pigeons scuttle into a corner when Conrad Mullins enters his backyard loft. He lunges for a bird and they fling themselves up, battering around. His arm snaps out and he grabs one right out of the air. He quickly secures its feet between his fingers and cups its tail with his palm, and then presses it against his stomach to prevent it from flailing and hurting itself. He turns it over in his hands. “Beautiful, beautiful,” he murmurs. “I’ve got a good feeling about this guy.”

   

Two days from now, nearly 500 pigeons like this will race across the Nevada desert, back to the lofts like this, to which they have been trained to home.

The bird in Conrad’s hand seems resigned if not calm. “Here, hold it,” Conrad says. I take the bird’s feet, then its wings, and I cradle it. Conrad extends the bird’s left wing. “Look at this,” he says. “Look at the feathers.” They are stiff and sharp as blades. “Look at his breast, feel how strong he is.” I let my fingers trail over the bird’s stout chest. Its heart is racing mad. Whatever semiotic baggage this bird carries — urban blight, war hero, cash cow — it is first and foremost a powerful and exquisite flyer. It considers me blankly, algorithmically, like a machine or a god.

“There are horse men and there are dog men,” Conrad says. “And then there are pigeon men.”

We are at the Fernando Valley Racing Pigeon Club, or FVC. Conrad, the club president, has caught me eyeing the contestant boards that line the walls — all the names, all the pedigrees, all the promises of great speed. “You can feel it, can’t you,” he says, squinting at me and grinning. “You want to lay something down.” I snigger kind of feebly. I’m not much of a gambler and don’t fancy becoming one. But yes. For a moment, I do.

I am here in Los Angeles for the 27th Annual FVC Snowbird. The fastest bird could win tens of thousands of dollars, both in prizes and stud fees. Considering all the side pools, Conrad, who is race chairman, estimates the total pot will be close to $200,000 or maybe a quarter of a million if things get hot. He tells me, though, that I should have seen this event in its heyday, 10 years ago, when the pot topped seven figures. The decline of the Snowbird pains him. “I’m going to resurrect this race,” he vows.

The FVC opened in 1938, but pigeon racing is much older, and may have begun as early as 220 A.D. The modern pigeon race started in 1815, in Belgium, where pigeon racing is the national sport. Belgian fanciers, as pigeon enthusiasts are known, took homing pigeons used to carry messages and bred them for fast, long-distance flight. They called these birds Voyageurs. In 1860, Voyageurs were imported to the United States, and the first racing club opened in 1872. According to the American Racing Pigeon Union, the sport’s governing body, the U.S. has about 700 registered racing clubs. Races are held among club members, or between clubs, or at the regional level, or nationally. They range from 20-mile sprints to stiffer tests more than 600 miles long. The FVC Snowbird itself is divided into two divisions, keeping with convention: the Futurity for birds less than one year old, and the Classic for more veteran birds.

Staggering amounts of money are involved. Chinese buyers recently purchased a Belgian super dove named Blue Prince for more than $200,000; lofts of the most distinguished breeders go for more than $1 million. Even eggs are sold for as much as $1,500. Such sums, or the possibility of such sums, can encourage extremism. Conrad tells me that fanciers are often presented with ultimatums from wives and girlfriends: It’s me or your stupid birds. Almost always, he says, the pigeons win.

Conrad is 52. He started raising pigeons in Dublin, Ireland, when he was 7. “I’ve been taking pigeon heroin my whole life,” he says. He moved to the U.S. for good in 1988 and brought his habit with him. The license plate on his pickup reads “PGEON GY.” Large signs advertising the Snowbird are taped to his rear window. “That’s my real cell number on there,” he says. “And I answer, too.” More signs are piled in the bed. Conrad puts them in neighborhoods, at intersections, freeway exits—anywhere someone might see one and give him a call to ask questions. He estimates that he’s gotten hundreds of inquiries, which heartens him. He fears for the future of pigeon racing. “People think we’re just a bunch of middle-aged fat guys,” he says.

This looming demographic crisis will be an oft-raised topic at the Snowbird. Of the American Racing Pigeon Union’s roughly 10,000 members, less than 700 are 18 or younger. Even in Belgium, the number of fanciers has declined from 300,000 50 years ago to just 50,000 today. For his part, Conrad wants to reach out to kids, to bring in some younger blood, some women, anyone. He knows it will be a daunting task. “You see what we’re up against,” he says. “Computers, TV, YouTube, everyone glued to a screen.”

Conrad is putting together a New Media strategy. The Snowbird has a website, and a Facebook page is in the works. (But Twitter? “No way.”) When the pigeons are released this Saturday, the liberation, as it’s known, will be filmed and immediately uploaded onto YouTube. “We’ve got to break out of old, stagnant mindsets,” Conrad says. “This isn’t the 1960s.” He hands me his card: “The FVC Snowbird: Prepared to Evolve.”

Tonight is The Shipping, when handlers drop off pigeons at the FVC clubhouse for registration, and breeders come by to check their wares. A pigeon race is a partnership between a breeder, who raises the pigeons, and a handler, to whom the breeder ships top birds for training, a process that can take nearly a year for a race like the Snowbird. The best handlers are highly coveted — sending a pigeon to one costs $350 (or five for $1,250) — but nobody can quite articulate what makes a good handler. Everyone instead says you should “look at the results.”

Still, the mysticism can get very scientific, and individual theories abound. Izak Potgieter, a Belgian who is something of a visiting dignitary at the Snowbird, offers an impromptu seminar. He tells the assembled that in some Belgian lofts, pigeons are fed meat. Someone asks how this compares with the move in the U.S. to feed pigeons extruded seed pellets. Potgieter says that getting the correct sugar/fat ratio is the most important thing. The correct ratio depends upon the race’s length. Researchers at the University of Gent in Belgium found that in the first 30 to 60 minutes of a race, pigeons use white muscle cells, which burn sugars — glucose, glycogen, other carbohydrates. Fat fuels the red muscle cells the birds will use for the remainder of the race. Pigeons will lose 2.5 grams of fat per hour of racing flight. “He who masters the art of feeding,” Potgieter says, “masters the art of racing.” Potgieter has developed a regimen he calls the Pigeon Feed Program. He happens to have a stack of CDs with him, on sale for $19.95 each. When he is done with his presentation, fanciers cluster around him.

Meanwhile, pigeons waiting to be registered rustle about large metal crates at the periphery of the clubhouse. Each wears a band around its leg, with a chip inside. (When a pigeon returns to a loft, the chip crosses a reader that records the time.) Once all the birds are entered into a computer, the crates are loaded onto a trailer, which will drive to Mesquite, Nevada, near the Arizona border, about 305 miles from Los Angeles as the crow flies. On Saturday morning, just after sunrise, the birds will be liberated from an undisclosed location. (To reveal the starting point of the race beforehand might tempt some to cheat, Conrad says. “Not everyone is as honest as you and me.”) The pigeons will then home back to Los Angeles. Since they travel to different lofts, and thus fly different distances, the winner is determined by average speed in yards per minute. Even in a 300-mile race, mere seconds might separate the victor from the rest of the flock.

Conrad looks around the room. “We’ve got a lot of freaks and idiots here,” he says. “I mean that in a good way.”

His own backyard is a monument to fanatical pigeon love. Conrad is an electrician and general contractor. He has 500 or so birds housed in eight lofts, all of which he built himself around the edge of his property. The lofts are further subdivided into rooms, each with dozens of little cubbies where the pigeons can rest if they’re so inclined. Small cardboard boxes and pine needles cover the floors. In several of the boxes, or in the larger cubbies, females sit on scrubby nests of pine needles, incubating clutches of two eggs. Conrad encourages this. “If they’ve got eggs,” he says, “then they’re burning that much more to come home.”

This year, Conrad has been charged with training 108 pigeons, some of which he received from breeders as early as April. He is realistic about his skills as a handler. He wins a race or two each year, and almost always has one or two birds in the top 10. “I’m not a superstar, but I’m pretty good,” he says. “I’ve got a real job, though — I’m not one of those retired folks who can do this all the time.” The number of birds in his care has dwindled to 18 during months of progressively longer training flights, called tosses — first two miles, then three, then five, on up to 150 miles or so. Conrad says that ending with about 10 percent of the initial brood is about normal. Hawks kill pigeons. Power lines and cell phone towers fry them. Others get lost. Some of the weak of heart simply give up and join the rabble of the anonymous and unaffiliated, from whom nothing is demanded.

Conrad is zonked when he comes to fetch me two days later, on Saturday morning. Friday night, after a club banquet, he had planned to drive to Baker, about 170 miles away, to get a sense of the winds. A nice tailwind would be best for the birds, but if there were stiff crosswinds, he planned to shorten the race by about 50 miles to ensure that more birds return. But he only made it as far as Barstow before he fell asleep in an AM-PM parking lot. At 7:35 a.m., the liberator, John Doland, called Conrad to say that the pigeons had been loosed, as planned, near Mesquite, and were last seen headed southwest toward Los Angeles. More to the point, the liberation was filmed, and would be uploaded to YouTube within the hour.

We go to Conrad’s house and sit in his backyard. The sky is a warm rich cloudless blue. Conrad idly strokes a small gray-and-white speckled pigeon. This one, he tells me, is The Dropper, and will lead the pigeons to the correct loft when they arrive. (Only the racing loft has the electronic reader, so tested is the pigeon’s homing accuracy.) To ensure that The Dropper doesn’t do anything cheeky, like fly away or lead the racers to another loft, Conrad snips off its flight feathers, which he assures me will grow back when the bird molts in the spring.

It’s nearly 1:00 p.m. Conrad figures that if the pigeons were released at 7:30 a.m., they should start to arrive soon. This anticipation only reinforces its absurdity. Here we are, sitting in plastic lawn chairs in southern California, awaiting the return of 459 one-and-a-half pound birds with brains the size of a garbanzo bean that were tossed into the air more than 300 miles away in a desert in the middle of winter. Using the sun, using the Earth’s magnetic field, using olfactory cues, using landmarks, using (maybe) special optical cells with a protein called cryptochrome, they have wended their way across novel terrain for five-and-a-half hours without stopping, and are now near the San Gabriels, which they will have to climb 8,500 feet to cross, and if they can manage that and finish — and more than half of them probably won’t — their reward will be water and birdseed.

Perhaps ruminations like these are affecting Conrad. The wait is killing him. He starts to succumb to dark thoughts. “I hope it’s not a smash, it better not be a smash,” he mutters. “It’s probably going to be a smash.” He sighs. This is the first time I’ve seen him close to despair. A smash, in racing vernacular, is when only a few pigeons — or none at all —make it back on race day. A smash would be disastrous to his efforts to revive the Snowbird. Everyone would lose a lot of money. Everyone would be mad.

Conrad just wants the Snowbird to finish so he can relax for a few days. Everything has been go go go. “Getting this race together, the only thing I can compare it to is the Oscars,” he says. To blow off steam, he calls Shane Dowhey, who supervises a sober living home Conrad owns. He asks Shane if he wants to drop by and see the pigeons when they come in. Shane doesn’t own pigeons, but, as he tells me later, “When the boss calls and asks you to come, it’s a good idea to come.” He was also at The Shipping, looking bemused in the back of the room. He later told me that he had been pretty bored. But in 20 minutes he is here in the yard, eating an oatmeal cookie and watching the sky with Conrad and me.

Our eyes catch anything that moves — sparrows, planes, dust motes, and, most especially, wild pigeons. We are like pigeons ourselves, heads cocked, constantly scanning. Conrad’s pacing becomes more spirited. Then, at 1:21 p.m., Shane says with an almost cruel nonchalance, “Hey, are those pigeons?”

We strain and see four approaching at speed. They are coming from the northeast — the right direction — and as they get closer they split into pairs. Two continue on, but the other two turn and start to circle Conrad’s house.

“Shit shit shit shit!” Conrad yelps. “Get down here, you bastards!” But the pair ignores him and continues to sweep around in great unhurried loops. They descend inch by excruciating inch. “Shut up! Don’t move!” Conrad barks at Shane and me, even though we’ve neither peeped nor twitched. When the pigeons glide in again, maybe 15 feet above the houses and trees, Conrad hurls the Dropper at the loft. It flails through the air and lands with a splat right in front of the reader. “Look at that!” Conrad yells. “Fucking Joe Namath!”

Won over at last, the two pigeons brake sharply and, wings sculling, alight on the platform. Conrad spreads his arms and hurries towards them, coaxing them to the reader. They cross, and we hear two little beeps.

“Yes!” Conrad races into the loft. He checks their time and lets out a joyful torrent of profanities. He feels he has a good chance of winning the whole goddamn thing, but he won’t know until all the handlers compare clocks in the evening at the clubhouse. When they do, he will learn that he had the sixth and seventh birds in the Futurity, and the eighth in the Classic — not quite what he’d hoped for, but a respectable result nonetheless. The overall winner in both races will be Saul Landa, a handler who lives nearby, whose pigeons we somehow didn’t see. They traveled over 1,540 yards per minute, or about 52 miles per hour.

But none of that matters yet. “The Snowbird!” Conrad crows. “We’ve got the toughest birds! You’ve gotta be one helluva pigeon if you’re gonna fly with us!”

Shane later offers to drive me back to Pico, where I’m staying with a friend. Soon we’re sailing along down I-405, which is surprisingly uncongested for so bright and sunny a Saturday afternoon. I ask Shane if he has ever thought about racing pigeons. He snorts. “No way, man,” he says. “The commitment is huge, and it doesn’t interest me enough. I’m a simple guy, I like simple things. But everyone’s got to have a hobby, you know?” He falls silent. His brow furrows. “But if I were to do it, I’d do it my way. Strip it down. Bare bones. I wouldn’t have a ton of lofts or anything, like Conrad or some of those other guys. Just one loft, you know, in my backyard.”

As Shane muses, I glance out the window. To my right, on the other side of the highway, four or five pigeons are flying in tight formation. They keep pace with seeming ease.

Shane goes on, a little faster. “And I wouldn’t feed them any of that crazy stuff, you know, no vitamins, nothing ‘extruded.’ Just regular bird seed, like they eat naturally.”

I peek over at the speedometer. We are going about 60 miles per hour, or 1,760 yards per minute. A good clip.

“And none of this driving-to-the-middle-of-nowhere-all-the-time business. I’d just take ’em out 50 miles and toss ’em up in the air, see if they come back.”

The pigeons dip and weave in a precise choreography, change positions, wings briskly pumping. They are utterly mesmerizing. I feel I can almost hear the air rip through their feathers.

“And I wouldn’t go nuts buying ’em. I don’t need fancy birds. I’d just grab some pigeons off the street, you know. Breed ’em for a few years, and then see what you’re made of!”

Up ahead, a cop has pulled someone over on the shoulder. We slow a touch to get into the next lane. The pigeons whip past us and bank over Van Nuys, are silhouetted for a dazzling brilliant moment, and then I lose them in the sun. • 4 February 2011

Eric Wagner is a writer in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared in High Country News, Orion, and Smithsonian, among other places.

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