HERKIMER, N.Y. — At 6:35 a.m., under a blood-red sky, 1,075 pigeons sip water in a ventilated trailer in the Wal-Mart parking lot before the Greater Boston Homing Pigeon Concourse race to Boston. They are athletes, thoroughbreds of the sky, but they are also rookies, all born in 2013.
I am an aging news veteran, and a victim of gravity. But I have a heavy foot, an old Honda Civic, a GPS, and a Fast Pass. I chug a large coffee even though it ensures a pit stop and the loss of precious time.
The weekly pigeon race begins in 25 minutes, and I am an unofficial entrant.
Weeks earlier, while visiting the Braintree Racing Pigeon Club headquarters — which is a trailer in the Fore River Shipyard — the old-timers there (there are no young-timers) told me it would be nearly impossible to beat the birds back to Boston in a car.
Inspired by 64-year-old Diana Nyad’s recent swim from Cuba to Key West, I called top pigeon racer Dave Urmek, 60, and offered to race.
“Who’s gonna win?” asks Urmek, who is called “Dr. Dave” for once wearing a toy stethoscope to visit a fellow pigeon owner in the hospital.
“I am,” he says.
I wager a six-pack of beer that he is mistaken.
“You better bring more than a six-pack, and it better be cold, too, ” he says.
The Pigeon Man has done his homework. The distance from upstate New York to his backyard in Braintree is 211 miles as the crow — er, pigeon — flies, but it’s 45 miles longer by highway.
He says there is going to be a 15-mile-per-hour southwest tailwind that will aid the 20 pigeons he has entered in the race.
These are not dirty street pigeons, looking for a statue. These birds have been bred for racing, and can travel at roughly 50 m.p.h. They get great medical care and a balanced diet. Racing pigeons typically don’t make pit stops on races less than 300 miles.
“I’m going to tell you right now: Tomorrow, you’re not going to beat the birds home,” says Dr. Dave. “You’re probably going to get stopped by the State Police.
“Those birds will be going approximately four hours, maybe four hours and 20 minutes. You’re going to be longer with all the swerving and curving and traffic and stuff and paying tolls.”
I’m going to stop for breakfast, too.
“You stop for breakfast, you might as well stop for lunch, because you’ll be too late,’’ he says.
Just before race time, Steve Cappellini of the Greater Boston Homing Pigeon Concourse — a league of eight local pigeon clubs that runs the weekend races — says the pigeons are tough to beat.
“It’s amazing to me,” he says. “They usually beat me home. Sometimes it’s close, but for the most part they do.’’
He spends Friday night collecting the pigeons and driving them in a truck to the launching site. He arrives at the Wal-Mart Saturday morning at 1:45 a.m. and sleeps in his truck.
Cappellini is the last of a pigeon-racing dynasty.
His grandfather still races pigeons at 86. His great grandfather, Alfred Cappellini Sr., donated homing pigeons to the military during World War II. Homing pigeons were unsung heroes in both World Wars, delivering messages when all other means of communication failed. In World War I, a wounded pigeon named Cher Ami saved the lives of 200 soldiers in Germany. The stuffed pigeon is now in the Smithsonian.
Queen Elizabeth has 250 racing pigeons. Conquerors such as Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan used homing pigeons. More recently, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson got into his first fight at age 11 because one of his pigeons was beheaded. He still races today.
Pigeon racing is still a major sport in Belgium, where a bird named after Usain Bolt recently sold for $400,000 to a Chinese businessman. The American Racing Pigeon Union currently has 10,000 members.
But locally, racing pigeons are an endangered species.
“It has significantly diminished,” says Peter Hultman, president of the Greater Boston Concourse. “In 1968 we had 12 clubs and probably 250-300 flyers. Now we have 100 members with about 80 competing.”
The old-timers keep slipping away and youngsters are simply not interested.
“They are all into video games or something,” says Cappellini.
Ready for takeoff
At 6:59 a.m., Cappellini unlocks dozens of doors on the cages. The birds chatter loudly.
Each pigeon has an ID band that identifies it, and they carry microchips that log their time when they return to their home lofts, which are scattered around Eastern Massachusetts. Computers then figure out the order of finish. It’s a unique process: one starting line, dozens of finish lines.
At exactly 7 a.m., Cappellini pulls a lever. The doors swing open simultaneously with a loud whoosh. The pigeons rush out of their cages, their fluttering wings sounding like a deck of cards being shuffled.
They circle Wal-Mart several times, booting up just like your GPS system does, then head east into the sun.
“Their GPS is in their heads,” says Cappellini.
Scientists believe pigeons use variations in the earth’s magnetic fields to find their way home, even hundreds of miles away.
At 7:07, the Honda Civic heads for the New York State Thruway.
There is fog hugging the Erie Canal and not a single pigeon in sight.
At a rest stop in Lee, Mass., I stop for breakfast, clumsily spill a Diet Coke, and do a hurried, ineffective job of cleaning up the mess. If I were in the pit crew of a NASCAR team, I’d be fired.
Looking skyward, I see four hawks hovering around Exit 3 in Northampton looking to pick off pigeons. Whereas on the ground, there are two unmarked state troopers looking to pick off speeders.
If stopped, I decide not to use the pigeon race as an excuse. It might lead to a DUI test, and even stone sober I can’t recite the alphabet backward.
I swerve into Dr. Dave’s driveway at 11:14 a.m. He is sitting in an easy chair in the side yard, his neck craned skyward. He asks if I want a beer.
The first bird is spotted high in the sky eight minutes later.
Dr. Dave leaps to his feet and releases another pigeon to help lure the traveler back into the loft, where the microchip will be scanned. Most pigeons fly together, he says, but the good ones will break off on their own.
The first pigeon, band No. 211, enters the loft, where feed awaits.
There’s a “beep, beep” sound.
“That’s my pick bird,” he says. The time is 11:25 a.m. (and 42 seconds). That will be good for ninth place.
More pigeons are spotted in the sky.
“Go, go, go, go, go,” says Dr. Dave, shaking the can of feed. “Let’s go. Who’s hungry? Let’s go.”
Several pigeons enter the coop, which looks like a small cottage from the outside but has wired windows. Another cottage is a love nest, just for breeding.
There’s another pigeon pacing the roof. It’s not Dr. Dave’s.
“He’s lost,” says Dr. Dave. “He’s a guest. The longer he sits on the loft, I don’t have to worry about him beating me.”
Other pigeons that were circling suddenly vanish. The skies have turned into a no-fly zone.
“See that big hawk up there?” says Dr. Dave. “That’s why he’s nervous. That will make the birds scram. That hawk could probably read the band number from up there.”
Not every pigeon makes it back home.
“Hawks get them, high-tension wires,” says Dr. Dave with a shrug.
A turkey vulture lands on a telephone pole nearby.
“They only eat dead things,” he says.
Dr. Dave mentions something about taking him out with “old Betsy.”
The vulture flies off, the hawk glides away, and more pigeons arrive looking no worse for wear.
Dr. Dave relaxes.
Dr. Dave says he does this for the competition and the bragging rights.
“It’s the poor man’s horse racing,” he says.
Last week he won first place but there was no cash prize, only trophies.
“I had to buy the beer and bring the chili and food down to the club,” he says. “The winner is basically the guy who has to pay the fiddler.”
These are the shorter races. The veterans race up to 600 miles, but not these youngsters.
“This is kindergarten for them,” says Dr. Dave. “They’re learning the game. For me, this is Pawtucket. This is the farm team. Out of 60 birds, I’m looking for maybe 10-12 birds for my race team next year.”
Dr. Dave starts the training days at 7 a.m.
“I chase out half the birds,” he says. “They basically walk out like school kids in a fire drill. They march out.”
At first, he takes them out 5 miles.
“They’re like little kids in the playground.”
But then they get bored.
“They’re hanging out like a bunch of kids smoking weed in a corner,” he says. “They don’t want to do the exploring, that’s not fun anymore.
“You basically send them to Fort Dix and you start training, training, training, you go further and further out.”
The older birds have an incentive beyond food for those longer races: Sex.
“The only time they see the girls is when they come home from the race,” says Dr. Dave. “Some get a little giddy-up when they know what’s waiting for them when they come home.”
Last year, PETA launched a 15-month investigation into claims that pigeon racing is “cruel and unlawful,” with massive casualties during races and training and illegal gambling. They’ve also asked Queen Elizabeth to withdraw her support of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.
“They’re fanatics,” he says. “A little overboard.”
The Boston Concourse never allows birds to fly in winter or in unfavorable weather. The birds are never mistreated, he says. This is all about bragging rights and camaraderie.
“I enjoy animals,” says Dr. Dave. “I like animals better than people. They don’t complain. All you’ve got to do is be nice.”