by Mark Lawton
(Suzanne Tennant/Staff Photographer)
August 19, 2010
Adam Hajduga grabs a pigeon from the coop he's built in the garage behind his Franklin Park house. The pigeon is quiet though Hajduga, 33, turns it every which way while showing off a band around one leg that contains an electronic chip.
When the pigeons return to the coop from a race, the chip notifies a computer. Race organizers then pull out their calculators and divide distance by time traveled to figure which pigeon flew home the fastest.
From 6 to 7 a.m. several days a week, he trains his pigeons before he heads out to that day's work as a general contractor.
His grandfather in Poland raised pigeons, as did his father. Every Saturday during the summer season, Hajduga ships his pigeons along with a truck full of others to a location anywhere from 100 to 500 miles west.
Pigeon racing is an activity with a single starting gate and 1,000 finishing lines. For unknown reasons pigeons recognize where they were bred and fly back there.
Pigeon racing may go as far back as the second century. In contemporary times it dates back to the mid-1800s in Belgium. Such pigeons, Columba livia domestica, were used to carry messages in the first and second world wars and by Reuter's news service in its early years.
The sport remains more popular in Europe, where as many as 75,000 pigeons may compete in a single race. Still, there are about 250 pigeon racers in the Chicago area who belong to the American Pigeon Racing Union, one of three pigeon organizations in the area.
In Franklin Park there are four or five pigeon breeders and racers. The sport was temporarily outlawed in the village during the previous administration, though the Pedersen administration reversed that in 2009.
While racing pigeons are the same breed as pigeons that eat bread crumbs off sidewalks, they are still very different, said Dan Andronic, a Franklin Park resident and owner of Belmont Breed & Seed, a pigeon store in Chicago.
"It's a stray dog and a pet dog," Andronic said. "A lot of people go, 'Oh no, they are going to poop all over my house and car.' They don't do that. Most pigeon fliers are very disciplined people. They clean their coops twice a day."
Andronic's father raised pigeons in Romania, but Andronic didn't get interested in racing until 1999 when a friend in Glenview asked if he wanted a couple. Up until that time Andronic had raised rabbits.
"It's just a weird sport and you fall in love with it," Andronic said. "When your bird beats 2,000 other birds, you're jumping for joy."
Training racing pigeons takes a lot of effort. When his son was 17, Andronic had him out at 4 a.m. several mornings a week, driving the pigeons an hour away then releasing them.
"They call it a second wife, a pigeon," Andronic said. "If not training, you're in the coop cleaning, medicating them, watching them."
Homing pigeons are usually bred toward the beginning of the year. A hen and a cock are put together and have two eggs. Incidentally, there are no divorces among pigeons, which mate for life.
Pigeons will work cheap, racing for water and food. For those who prefer purchasing to breeding, pigeons sell for as little as $50 and as much as $150,000 in the U.S. and more in Europe.
Like Olympic athletes, different birds do better at different distances. There are sprinters, marathoners and those somewhere in between. Pigeons can fly as fast as 75 mph.