NEW ALBANY, Indiana — When Stephen Price agreed to let one of his tenants bring home a gaggle of pigeons, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
To be fair, the tenant, Robert “Painter Bob” Maskalick, warned him.
“He always told me, he said, ‘One day, you’re going to inherit these,'” Price said, sitting in the backyard of a house he owns on the corner of East Main and Vincennes streets in New Albany.
Maskalick built coops for the 40-or-so pigeons, kept them fed and periodically let them fly free. The birds, a mixture of roller and homing pigeons equipped with a natural GPS and survival sense, always came back.
Price thinks the birds helped Maskalick, in his early 60s, live longer than he would have otherwise. Maskalick, who had a heart condition, died about a year ago.
“I think they actually gave him several years longer, because it has a calming effect,” Price said of the pigeons. “If you ever would come out here and sit and watch, it’s like watching an aquarium or something … It calms you down, it mellows you out.”
The soft, rolling coo of the pigeons is something like a lullaby. With strangers around, they cock their heads and perch on edges. Most of Price’s pigeons are white, glistening in the low, late-afternoon sun, peeking through the wire. Others are white with black speckles, or the signature deep blues with small patches of shimmering green.
Price used popcorn — a pigeon favorite — to coax them out one day last week. Each one flapped its wings through the open gate before swiftly changing direction and landing atop the coop. They stayed there — free, but safe. Price said the birds know when darkness is near, and that the setting sun means predators are lurking. So when he releases them in the evening, they stay close, despite their ability to fly hundreds of miles away.
Still, Price has lost pigeons to hawks.
“It’s nature, but it’s very morbid,” he said.
Other than needing protection from harm, pigeons are “durable” birds, Price said. They need little more than food and clean water.
“They’re just really tough birds,” but soft as pillows, he added.
After Maskalick died, Price, who lives a few houses away and owns several nearby properties, took on the role of pigeon caretaker. He admits he’s considered getting rid of the birds, but he’s too attached to go through with it. His adoration is never more evident than when he talks to the pigeons in a steady, high-pitched tone.
“You gotta talk real nice to them,” he explained.
It’s a tactic Price has learned by doing, just like he learned almost everything else about pigeon care-taking. He’s also gotten insight from fellow pigeon people who drop tips here and there. And yes, there are plenty of fellow pigeon people. Later this month, Price and his daughter (who happens to be a longtime bird lover) will go to the National Young Bird Show in Louisville. It’s one of the country’s largest all-breed pigeon shows, according to the event’s website.
Rick Kilgore, president of the Indiana Pigeon Club and owner of more than 100 pigeons, said it’s a well-respected show competition that attracts people from all over the world.
Kilgore has raised pigeons since he was about 6 years old. He likes the challenge of improving a breed (there are hundreds of pigeon breeds) and the friendly competition of a show or race.
The Indiana Pigeon Club has 40 to 50 members and keeps growing, Kilgore said. More 4-H kids are staying interested, and it’s those kids who will keep the hobby alive.
For now, Price just enjoys the company of his pigeons.
“I tell a lot of the guys who rent from me this … in life, stay grounded and you’ll be happier,” he said. “… By living simple and doing really simple things, it’s amazing how happy you can be by doing literally almost nothing.
“You just have to kind of relax and enjoy it.”
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