Random Thoughts on Old Bird Racing
in the Ohio River Valley
in the Ohio River Valley
By Coop Kohli
|Lee Kohli, AU Lakes Zone Director|
To those that know me locally, I should explain the thing with the pen name. As a child, 50 years ago, Gary Boyers, a pint-size neighbor boy always called me “Coop”. In my coop was where he and the rest of the little truants could always find me. It was my nickname. I finally grew ok with it, as I finally grew to like the little nerd. And today, he is still a fond memory of those innocent days, and a good friend. So, with this article, I’m bringing Coop back. It will be easier for new friends to remember, and finally, I won't have to keep spelling my name for everybody. Gary, on the other hand, grew up to become a first-rate, five foot, young adult, a former nerd I’m proud to say I have been friends with all my life.
First, Finishing the Last One.
It has bothered me that I never responded in writing to local comments two years ago about an excellent article I wrote for the Digest on a highly respected flier in Florida, Mr. Andy Kowalewski; a pigeon man of class and achievement, long racing birds in Spring Hill. The article also ran in the Australian Racing Pigeon Journal, got a lot of attention, and nearly all of the comments were exemplary, save, of course, for a few local ones, that as one could have anticipated, were not so much.
A few thought I was denigrating an icon Cleveland club with a 15 word comment about their boundaries. I was not. I was instead praising my subject for his exceptional skill against exceptional competition, no more, no less. I apologized to that Cleveland-area club president for the confusion from my choice of words, but I felt justified to stick by my original writing based on other information I had at hand. They were still not happy, but it was not an attack article. I do not write attack articles. The sport does not need attack articles.
I have written nearly twenty profiles of exceptional flyers in the last several years, without so much as a burp from anyone, but the blow-back from this one confirmed for another retiring champ that there was little to be gained by sharing his exceptional secrets in an article. We will be all the poorer for that when he takes with him what he’s learned over a life-time about how to win the big race. Few around here could beat that Polish master when the game was on. But, Bobby Krzewinski, the offer still stands if you ever change your mind.
I was motivated recently at our annual Federation meeting to get back to writing about my favorite topic. I had backed off after the Andy article, but, locally, my sport needs someone to fill a void that when filled, promotes excitement and participation, just as encouraging words from people I respect, rebooted me. Those kind gentlemen went home from the meeting having no idea that they had made an impact. Frankly, the Andy Kowalewski article was probably the most widely read article I have ever written because of the flak provided by a handful of his old club members. Thank you, Andy, Gene Swanson and Jim Bedell, for your encouragement.
Some Quit I Should Have Helped.
I write these articles as my own contribution to help the local sport move forward by appealing to every man’s quiet craving for a little positive recognition. Few get credit for their achievements. No one in our neighborhood has yet been crowned a Thone', Gyslebrecht or Evans. Most of us just slug it out in solitude, in our back yards, unrecognized, pinching our pennies, without so much as a peep from anyone about what we have accomplished. Sometimes even our loved ones are the harshest, when our infatuation tips the scales and our pigeon activities collide with the family’s schedule, or its budget, but nothing reinvigorates the spirit like a pat on the back by your peers.
It is a certainty that encouragement will keep some in the game longer that might otherwise quit, or help still others find the sheer will-power to shove their performance to another level, but one must also work to keep himself motivated. Keep Mark Gordon’s widowhood book in the bathroom where you can devour it frequently. Change motivational systems. Renovate the loft. Buy a new Jim Jenner CD, or an electronic timer. Feed twice a day, instead of once. Train more. Brave the cold. Breed earlier. In-breed. Out-cross. Attend the convention. Nothing good happens without first getting motivated. You have to win the fight with yourself before you’ll ever be able to beat the rest of us.
This sport is all about the beautiful athletes we create each spring, and the life-long friends that we make in the process. That is all that really matters, and in that respect, we are all artists, even the gruff ones among us.
Thoughts on PETA
Contrary to the notion PETA spews to an increasingly urban, un-schooled public regarding animals, no one I have ever known in my 61 years has engaged in this quiet, peaceful sport just for the money or because of an orientation to violence. (PETA called it a blood sport).
It's a ridiculous narrative that says that a guy minding his own business, in his own back yard, tending to the needs of his pigeons (that he desperately doesn't want to lose), is up to no good; a mischievous conniver with a gambling strategy in a blood sport, so to speak.
First, regarding the money, what a farce this is. Pigeon racing has always been a place where we are parted from our money , i.e., all expenses associated with the hobby's day-to-day requirements. In my experience, cash from pigeon related enterprises has overwhelmingly flowed the wrong way, and I don’t see that ever changing. I don’t think I have ever known anybody personally that made money from their pigeons, and if they say they are, they are probably negligent in their cost accounting. My wife would have my head if she really knew the extent of my pigeon hobby spending.
The public and (our city councils) need to be encouraged respectfully to factor in the good that could follow if more of America’s juvenile population got exposed to our sport (or animal agriculture) as a means to fill its shallowness and aggression. Yes, the neighbors may occasionally hear a rooster crow, see some poop on a sidewalk, or a feather in the grass, but where would your son, nephew, or adolescent neighbor more likely become a productive citizen, strutting down the street like a peacock in a neighborhood gang, or in his own back yard making perches and nest boxes because his mind is focused on the next big race? Sports and like-minded activities that preoccupy the young, restless mind have a solid moral place in our society. PETA will never win that argument.
There are some among us, however, that think the way to defeat this new challenge is to say nothing; that it is wrong to give the topic airtime. “Pretend it isn’t a problem and perhaps it will go away.” I heard that viewpoint recently from attendees while at the AU convention. In my opinion, that is almost as ridiculous as providing demonstrations to complete strangers that end up on PETA You-Tube in which the fancier becomes the central figure, with a bird and a paper feed bag as a prop. In that view, the only air-time the subject would get would be that provided by the PETA crusaders.
We should fix the areas where we know we are at fault, clean up our commentary, educate our peers as to the public-relations ramifications of having the wrong people speak as if they represent the rest of us, and provide to the media, when necessary, our own well prepared counter points. We should rightfully look to both national organizations to get this done, consistently and effectively. They have the contacts, the time and the funding to hire the appropriate experts, and this is one of the fundamental reasons we have them.
The rest of us, have to have enough common sense to filter the information we pass to complete strangers, and to understand that the embellishment of these comments when radicalized in the media can really skew the thinking of a previously ambivalent, un-informed public; the same uninformed public that sits on the city council that makes the laws you have to live by.
We obviously aren’t the first group to face this new reality. All of animal agriculture has been dealing with it for years. What can we do locally? We can cut off the “loose cannon” spouting off beside us when he rattles on to strangers in ways that are ignorant, flagrant and indefensible, as if he speaks for all of us. That’s what we can do. We all know the difference. It is time to be alert. It’s also way past time for us to be sensitive about what, how and to whom we share opinions. We have been warned about it for years. The wolf is finally at the door. Sadly, we most frequently are our own worst enemy.
Breeding Loft Burns to the Ground.
In 2005, I had a $150,000 fire in my old general store. My wife was on a cruise able to find out only that the place was on fire! This year, our Federation President Jim Bedell had a fire, and lost a breeding loft that was of commercial quality, and obviously, with it, all of his breeding stock as well as pedigrees and breeding records of even the flying teams that survived. I know his pain. With 50 individual breeding pens, it was full of expensive birds he had purchased, and birds from departed friends he had made over 50 years while calling on customers all over the country. Obviously, many of the lines were irreplaceable. Also lost was a line based on winning Ohio-Penn Federation pigeons, but that effort will soon rise up from the ashes, as those same lofts are generously restocking the project. It’s an interesting and creative genetics effort by Bedell who is concentrating strictly on long distance performance. A man with a lot of stock sense, he has become the point man on what is almost a “university type” research program that many of us are following with great anticipation. A word to the wise; you guys that have bred tight-knit families for years should consider placing replacement stock “in the cloud”, in case you have to start over. Bedell certainly wishes now, he had.
We all know that not all forward motion is progress, but progress is more likely to be discovered in that direction. Since 2012, the Ohio-Penn Fed has added back to the schedule its second 400, and in 2014, will fly its first 600 from a location not yet chosen in Tennessee, bringing to five, the total number of races in the program. In addition, there is conversation occurring with groups north of us to expand the Federation. When combined with our new Ohio-Penn Federation awards jackets with wins embroidered on the front (the “chicken salad”) and our new website, we feel pretty good about the direction we are headed. Our new website designer still has the project under construction, and with a formidable command of the English language, has been helpful in herding the least of us toward a civil presentation. Mr. Lester Mull, an old family friend and Ohio seed-corn salesman, loved to remind everyone that “no one wants to deal with a loser” as he drove from farm to farm in conservative northwestern Ohio in his 1960 white Cadillac. Good marketing is everything, and even our pigeon hobby needs to be pro-actively marketed. We’ll market ourselves, or biased entities like PETA, will do the marketing for us, on their terms. For our website, that is no small undertaking.
The Changing Face of the Fed.
Octogenarian Dr. Paul Benz retired from the sport a few years ago after a tornado picked up his second story loft and slammed it down onto the street beside his old dentist office. Since then, we have also lost the Ohio clubs of Mansfield, Winesburg, Jeromesville, Alliance, and the Steel Valley and Pittsburgh Combines. The times are changing, and will test us. With that there is little doubt that the followers of the race have no idea what the metrics of our Federation races have become, so here’s a look at some interesting averages, and, also, a look at how the race has changed over the last decade as that change has become reality.
The Ohio-Penn Federation 300, our most recent distance for which stats are available, is always flown the weekend of Memorial Day, when the temp has averaged a very comfortable 74 degrees. This race serves as kind of a key-hole to the rest of the season. Over its five year life-time, the race has averaged 97 lofts, 1306 birds (12 per flyer), with typically eight lofts (8%) clocking the top 1% of the race birds, over a 78 mile front, within 15 minutes.
The Ohio-Penn Federation 400 now includes two races, both flown within three weeks of the Fed 300, and usually sees a temp around 77 degrees. The thirteen-year race average is 112 lofts, 1370 birds (12 per flyer), with ten (10) lofts (9% of the total lofts) clocking the top 1% of the race birds, over a 126 mile front, within a 39 minute time-span.
An aging demographic is taking a toll on this great race, however, as participation has declined from 158 lofts/1998 birds in 2000-2004 time period to 80 lofts/870 birds over the last three years (5 races), a drop of forty-seven percent (-47%). The number of lofts clocking the top 1% of the race birds has declined to 7% from 10%, while the front has dropped to 95 miles from 124 miles. The clocking of the top 1% of the birds has tightened up from 55” to 31” over the last three years (5 races).
The Ohio-Penn Federation 500 is flown the last weekend in June, and has had an average temperature of 82 degrees. The last eleven-year race average is 110 lofts, 1488 birds (13 per flyer), with ten (10) lofts (9%) clocking the top 1% of the birds, over a 104 mile front, within a 70 minute time-span.
Again it looks like aging is taking a toll, as participation has declined from 139 lofts/1941 birds in 2002-2004 time period to 82 lofts/989 birds over the last three years (3 races), a decline of forty-one percent (-41%). The number of lofts clocking the top 1% of the race birds has increased to 11% from 9%, while the front has dropped to 98 miles from 110 miles. Clocking of the top 1% has tightened up from 57” to 35” over the last 3 years (3 races).
The 2013 Numbers: Winners and Section Winners
The 2013 Ohio-Penn Federation 300 was flown on May 25, from Cloverdale, Indiana, going up in 45 degree, partly-cloudy skies with northeast headwinds at 3 to 5. The race ended with birds arriving home in 86 degree, sunny skies with NNW winds blowing at 15 to 20 mph, a real challenge for the northern lofts in Cleveland, Erie and Buffalo. The race was won by the Interstate Combine’s John Bianco of the Latrobe, Pa., club with the first 2 birds, being three minutes ahead of the Penn-Ohio combine’s competitive Bob Buechel of Pittsburgh, Pa., who placed 3rd overall. (This was the ninth race in which Buechel has placed in the top 1% of Ohio-Penn Federation races.) Winning the Erie Section was 500 mile day-bird genius Mr. James R Berdis, of Erie, Pa., while a new name, Mr. Trajon Cinc, won the Cleveland Section. Coop Kohli won the Akron-Buckeye Section. 1100 birds from 91 lofts competed.
The 2013 Ohio-Penn Federation 400 was flown from Effingham Illinois, on June 15, when 993 birds from 90 lofts were released into partly cloudy skies, and 60 degree ssw winds @ 4 mph. On arrival, wsw winds were blowing at 12 mph with temperatures at 79 degrees. The race was won by Coop Kohli, flying 382 miles, at 1389 ypm. The Desmet-Matthys widowhood cock was the grandson of the 2004 Fed 400 winner, a third cousin of the 2003 Fed 400 winner, and the fourth time Kohli has had the overall win in this great classic race. Nearby, Norm Tschrner of Massillon, Ohio, was 2nd, being edged out by a mere 2 minutes. At 3rd, the ace handler Heber Nelson won the Penn-Ohio Section. Level-Green loft won the Interstate section. Dennis McNaughton won the Erie Section, while Mr. Larry Ryan, of Seven Hills, Ohio, won the Cleveland Section.
On June 29, 2013, the Ohio-Penn Federation 500 was flown From the Bellville, Illinois pigeon club with 894 birds from 80 lofts competing. The birds were up in 64 degree nw winds @ 8 mph. The temperature at home was 81 degrees with winds from the wsw @ 10 mph. Ralph, Rick and Chris Withrow (Windy Point Loft) were 1st overall, followed at second by Pittsburgh’s Tom Erdner, winner of the 2012 Fed 400 from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Section winners were Heber Nelson of Penn-Ohio, Coop Kohli of the Akron-Buckeye Section, Jim Hazek of the Cleveland Section, Gary Marsh of Interstate Section, and Adnan Wienczkowski of the Erie Section.
Twenty-Four More at the Top of Their Game.
We celebrate overall winners, and section winners, but frequently overlook the other exceptional flyers that repeatedly make up the top one percent of the birds in the race. Find out who these guys are, buy birds from them, and one could well be on his way to significant performance improvement, if perhaps accompanied by some minor loft or handling adjustments, concepts that are well illustrated in the Jim Jenner’s "Secrets ofChampions” I-VI" CDs.
Over the course of 46 races since the Federation’s start-up in 1993, twenty four (24) Ohio-Penn Federation lofts have been in the top 1%, five or more times. Statistically, our greatest flyer measures up to be the racing ace, Mr. Heber Nelson of East Liverpool, Ohio, who has placed in the top 1% twenty-six (26) times, while posting 2 overall Federation wins. He also has two (2) GNEO Futurity wins. No one else even comes even close to Heber’s performance. Locally, Heber is our Louis Janssen!
If this was the business world, Heber would be getting frequent visits from anxious competitors who would drop by to study his lofts, his genetics, his handling, his health, his nutrition and his motivation. They would record everything he would share with them, and they would try to buy his best pigeons. They might even evaluate the secret management contributions of Roberta, his wife, which we all know he depends on. Then they would try to beat him, brazenly using the best of his own techniques and livestock against him. In one of my old companies, we would even visit competitors for sale, not to buy them, but to evaluate them, just to better know the future competition. The friendly Heber has a target on his back. The rest of us should soon be headed to his house for coffee.
The others, placing in the top 1% in at least 5 races, listed by frequency are: the postman, Dave Schaffer, Cranberry Twp, Pa at 15, with 2 overall wins; Coop Kohli, Winesburg, Ohio @ 13, with 4 overall wins; Bob Kelvington, Beaver Falls, Pa @ 10; Bob Buechel, Pittsburgh, Pa @ 9; the Withrow boys of Windy Point Loft, Flushing, Oh @ 8, with 2 overall wins; Tom Gatrell, Lisbon, Oh @ 7, with 1 overall win; John Nugent, Beaver Falls, Pa @ 7; Dr. Paul Benz, Pittsburgh, Pa @ 6; Jack Yohe, Stow, Oh @ 6, with 1 overall win; Rich Dworek, Pittsburgh, Pa @ 6, with 1 overall win; Andy Federouch, Oakdale, Pa @ 6; Butch Gatrell, Lisbon, Oh @ 6, with 1 overall win; Mike Koenig, Medina, Oh @ 6, with 1 overall win; Harry Humbarger, Mule Shed Loft, Jeannette, Pa @ 6; Tom Erdner, Bakerstown, Pa @ 5, with 1 overall win; Don Green, Cleveland, Oh @ 5, with 1 overall win; Rick Holloway, Flushing, Oh @ 5; Mike Jenkins, Massolin, Oh @ 5, with 1 overall win; K&L Loft, Beaver Falls, Pa @ 5; Carl Lex Loft, Pittsburgh, Pa @ 5, with 1 overall win; Mike Scherer, Bakerstown, Pa @ 5; Del Stine, Alliance, Oh @ 5; and Tommy Rowe, TNT Loft, Hopedale, Oh @ 5, with 1 overall win.
Another 136 lofts have been in the top 1%, four times, or fewer.
It is important to remember in all this, of course, that there are some locations in the extremes of the Federation that are not as conducive to winning by the sheer nature of their locations, and that there are some really exceptional flyers in those areas that can be identified by the number of 500 and 600 mile day-birds they produce. James R Berdis of Erie, Pa, is a great example, having produced as his first bird, six (6) 600 mile day-birds and fifteen (15) 500 mile day-birds since 2001, and has had these day-birds in 26 of 32 races. By any standard, that is exceptional pigeon racing, and in my mind Mr. Berdis is still the finest long-distance competitor in the whole of the Federation. He would surely be first pigeon loft drafted to my ‘Fantasy Football’ team. Evaluate the players on your team, and expect a lot more from your coaches.
Campbell Strange Visits Protégé Charles Agee at GAR
We can say many things about the champion flyers in our area, but one thing we can not say is that many of them receive visits in their lofts by the big names in the sport. We all know how it works; the little local guy goes to see the big guy with his wallet in hand. The big boys may make sales calls, but they don’t generally come to rub shoulders with the little guy. This thing works from top down. They are the genetics base. They are the knowledge base. We are the customer base. They are here to sell to us, not to buy from us, or to seek our advice. That’s the routine, right?
Not always. The Greater Akron Racers club (GAR) in Akron, Ohio, has a member in their midst with an interesting background, and many Federation participants may not even be aware of it. Affable, but serious, and always of strong opinion about things pigeon related, Charles Agee is an exceptional pigeon handler that was mentored by one of the great positive forces in our sport, Mr. Campbell Strange, the former owner of Oak Haven Farms in Texas, but now retired from pigeons. And, like an exceptional student, Agee has continued to expand on that early training by traveling the European countryside twice with his wife, seeking information and direction from other elites in the sport with visits that ranged from breakfast with Ad Scharlaeckens to loft visits with the late Louis van Loon, Leen Boer, Ludo Claussen and Louis Janssen. Today, well-versed in the thinking and techniques of these champion pigeon racing personalities, Agee has assembled an enviable colony of world-class Van Loons that are highly sought after. And, that was what brought the celebrity, super breeder, Campbell Strange back to the Agee Family loft in January, 2014, with a contingent of Taiwanese buyers in tow looking for exceptional bloodlines. He came to buy racing stock from a local, a protégé, a guy he had trained.
For many years, two names were bantered about in northeastern Ohio as being almost unbeatable, dominating futurity flyers; the great Polish champion, Bobby Krzewinski, mentioned earlier in this piece, and Charles Agee, of Cleveland, Ohio. In the last few years, age has finally slowed down Krzewinski, and family health problems have temporarily rearranged priorities for Agee, giving others a chance to see the top of the sheet.
Agee was first introduced to Strange in 1985 when Charles enrolled in the AU Beginner Program, and like the winner of an interstate lotto, Agee was lucky enough to have Campbell Strange assigned to him as a mentor. Talk about luck! Over the years, Agee grew to have tremendous respect for Strange because of how Campbell conducted business. As you would expect, Strange provided the rookie with top-shelf birds, but was also very determined to indoctrinate the student on how the birds were to be educated and handled, and then followed-up with ample time to review with Agee what was important in evaluating how the birds responded. Outstanding young birds were rolled back into the OHF breeding program, but, as you could have predicted, were more than generously replaced.
Agee elaborated, “The man’s character and ethics are beyond reproach. In my life-time, I have purchased a lot of expensive pigeons from a lot of people, but I have never seen anyone do it with the ethics of Campbell Strange. He is in a class by himself. If you went to his home, you were treated like a king. (Agee attended the private sale held at Campbell’s home three weeks before the final Rockford, Illinois auction.) If you bought stock from Strange and weren’t satisfied with the bird’s breeding results, you could send the bird back for replacement. It was Campbell’s way of confirming for you that he was in business to sell only superior stock, and it galvanized your respect for him. What he sold was top-rate, nothing else, period. Campbell also raced his own stock before he sold any of it. If he couldn’t prove the quality of the line himself, or find a suitable cross for it, he would not sell it. He always told me that ‘the heart and soul of the sport is in old bird racing’, and, he always reminded me that you could tell good breeders because they were the birds that would keep on coming. Great breeders may not win, but they’ll keep on coming. They won't quit."
Arriving at the Agee home-place with a small suitcase carrying what could only be described as a portable laboratory, the Taiwanese broker, introduced by Strange, spent the entire day alone, looking at bird after bird with a jeweler’s eye-piece, and pulling throat swabs on birds he was interested in. The swabs were evaluated on site. After finding the stock he was searching for, the deal was sealed, and the Chinese pulled away in a stretch limousine with 26 expensive birds in their possession.
The Campbell Strange mentorship program had its intended impact on the young Charles Agee. The teaching lasted 3 years, and Strange taught Agee many, many things, but especially the value of starting with well-bred performance pigeons. He also learned a few other things: (1) There is no such thing as a pure-bred racing pigeon. (2) A 3-way or 4-way cross may produce your best birds (Super 73 and the 083 hen were both crosses). (3) Always question pedigrees, but don’t be overly impressed with pedigrees. (4) Americans don’t help each other like Europeans do. (5) You don’t go out on the street and run down your club.
Charles Agee is a generous man that has developed relationships with some incredible breeders on the world stage. He is also an exceptional pigeon handler that we haven’t heard the last from. Agee’s biggest challenge currently is to provide direction, leadership and stability for the newer members in his own GAR club as it works its way through its own leadership turnover. The GAR club has set the pace in Ohio for high quality auctions, seminars and futurity races, and is the sponsor of the nationally known GNEO Futurity Race. Charles likes to talk about his Van Loons and all other things pigeon related, and can be reached at 216 990 4458.
About the author: Coop Kohli is Secretary and Publicity Officer for the Ohio-Penn Racing Pigeon Federation. He is a 4 time winner of the Ohio-Penn Federation 400 and has been 2nd overall a fifth time. He has also been in the top 1% in 13 Ohio-Penn Federation races, has a BS Degree in Poultry Science from the Ohio State University, and owns and operates a 100 year old General Store and 2 pizza shops in Ohio’s Amish country with his wife and step-son. Kohli is a certified life-time fanatic of the sport. Comments on this article can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org.