Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Colorado's Foothills Club Featured

Excerpt from article appearing in the Denver Post
Colo. clubs race thousands of homing pigeons
By Jason Blevins
Photographer: Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post

The white-winged pigeon had flown 150 miles when it finally landed atop its home in Wayne Rozendaal's backyard.

"Come on now. Get on inside," says Rozendaal, checking his watch. "Many, many a race has been lost on the roof."

As if hearing his owner's plea, the bird squeezes through a tiny one-way gate, where a scanner reads a computerized chip in the pedigreed pigeon's leg band.

A quick calculation shows the bird — one of about 1,100 released by the Foothills Racing Pigeon Club a little more than three hours earlier in Burlington — had flown home at about 41 mph.

"Pretty fast," Rozendaal says with a shrug. "If he keeps it up, he could be a champion."

There are six racing-pigeon clubs in Colorado, most dating to the 1960s. While the venerable sport — its roots trace back to ancient Greece — has not seen robust growth in the past four decades, it remains vibrant.

The state's roughly 150 fliers, known as fanciers, race thousands of homing pigeons in 20 weekend races every year.

"I do it with my kids, and we get to see the benefits of our work every time we see our birds come home," said Tim Calerich, a Brighton racer with a 250-bird loft whose passion for pigeons was seeded by his late father.

The sport got a bit of a boost last week, when Boulder County zoning leaders categorized pigeons as pets, ending an argument raised by neighbors of a Gunbarrel pigeon racer.

Those neighbors, irked by fancier Jim Williams' 35-bird backyard loft, argued he was raising poultry, violating zoning codes against residential livestock.

Denver's zoning codes consider pigeons "household animals" and allow for lofts of up to 25 birds.

In the U.S., where there are about 15,000 registered racing-pigeon lofts, racing has remained a hobby, whereas in Europe or Taiwan, contest purses rival American horse racing. Breeders here can sell a race-proven champion for several thousand dollars, but most birds trade for a few hundred or less.

Breeding pigeons rest on their perches inside their loft at Wayne Rozendaal's home. Denver allows up to 25 homing pigeons, classifying them as household animals.

"It used to be the sport of kings," said Al Christeleit, a nationally recognized pigeon racer from Gypsum. "It's amazing when you raise a bird from an egg and watch it race 500 miles in a single day. It's a real sense of accomplishment."

Every flier gets the same age-old question from kids and newcomers: How do pigeons know the way home?

The birds are trucked in crates across open plains in the middle of the night and released shortly after dawn in areas they've never visited. Circling up from the release, they'll take a couple of short laps and then, invariably, fly straight home for hundreds of miles at speeds that can top 70 mph. How?

"God has kept that little secret locked up," Rozendaal said.

While the source of a pigeon's uncanny sense of direction remains something of a mystery, fanciers have strong ideas about what makes a pigeon fly faster. Breeding, training and diet have reached an art form for most racers . . .

The biggest threat to racing pigeons is other birds. Hawks and even owls can terrorize racers, and some pigeons return to their lofts scarred from encounters with the winged predators. Rozendaal has seen his birds hobble home with crooked wings and broken legs, which seem to heal with rest.

"Their metabolism is something I can't comprehend," he said, cradling one of his racers. "They are amazing animals, that's for sure."

For the entire article, see