Logan Dean gently cradled a pigeon named Pablo in his hands.
He stood inside the backyard loft where Logan and his dad, Scott, feed, water and care for dozens of racing homers — pigeons bred and trained to use their instinctive ability to fly long distances and find their way back home.
Scott guided a half dozen of the birds to a platform aside the loft, while a few pigeons fluttered their wings and moved from one perch to another. May sunshine beamed through screened windows, lighting the shelter.
“It’s so addicting,” Scott said of the hobby. “The birds are so calming and peaceful. Sometimes we’ll even bring lawn chairs out here and just sit and talk and watch the birds.”
And occasionally Pablo, 15-year-old Logan’s favorite, sits on the teenager’s shoulder in the Deans’ living room, watching TV with the family.
Logan and Scott are among 20 members of the Crossroads Racing Pigeon Club, which has roots dating to the 1950s. The homing ability of pigeons can be traced back 5,000 years, according to the American Racing Pigeon Union. The father-son Dean duo just got started last year, and Logan’s glad they did.
“I love being able to do this with my dad and come out here and be able to do this with the birds,” Logan said. “They just fascinate me.”
The Crossroads ranges from firefighters, such as Scott, to a retired delivery driver, doctor, restaurant manager, teachers and other vocations. Some care for 30 pigeons, while others maintain as many as 500.
The members’ ages run from 94 to 15, said Ron Deisher, club president. They come from as far north as Montezuma to Bruceville in southern Indiana, from eastern Illinois to the outskirts of Indianapolis.
They raise and train racing homers to fly back to the birds’ home lofts, where they know to find food, safety, shelter and daily attention. It’s a gradual process. Scott and Logan keep a couple dozen breeding pigeons, and their eggs hatch in about 18 days. When the racing homers hit five weeks old, they’ll start flying. Those flights begin with a simple release at the home loft, letting them fly and return. Soon, the Deans drive the birds to a spot 10 miles away, and release them to fly back home. Eventually, the pigeons can find their way home from distances of hundreds of miles, often from release points designated along Interstate 70, Scott explained.
Some perils exist. Hawks and falcons prey on racing homers occasionally, Deisher said. Also, hunters sometimes mistake pigeons for doves and shoot them. Some are killed by hitting utility power lines. The vast majority, Deisher emphasized, safely reach their destination, motivated by the desire for the food, water and comfort of their home lofts.
A natural GPS, of sorts, enables homing pigeons to navigate even confusing territory and return home, according to a report in ZME Science this spring. The story cited two curious findings. First, the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that pigeons use low-frequency waves emitted by the earth to map their path. Second, the creatures also may be able to relay knowledge among each other, Oxford University scientists said, an ability previously thought to be limited to humans and primates.
Return is ‘exciting part’
Pigeons in the Crossroads club are putting that uncanny knack to use right now. The group’s spring racing season, for older pigeons (those born before this year), is under way and continues into June. Its fall season runs from August to October and features the young racers, all born in 2017. Members drive their pigeons to a race starting point on a Friday evening, leave them with organizers overnight and drive home. Officials release the birds at sunrise and alert the competing members by email.
Each member awaits the birds’ arrivals to their home lofts, where an electronic timer records the pigeons’ identities and flight time and speed. (Some fly longer or shorter distances, depending on the owner’s home location.) Those times and speeds are relayed to the organizers, who calculate the order of finish and prize money, and all of the club’s $100-per-bird race entry fees go toward those prizes, said Walt Williams, a longtime member.
Racing homers’ flight speed averages about 45 mph, so a club member may wait more than two hours for a pigeon to return from a 100-mile race.
“That’s the exciting part,” Scott Dean said, grinning.
Pigeons fly home from incredible distances, said Deisher, a 58-year-old former college instructor and insurance businessman from Darwin, Illinois, who now raises and sells the birds for a living. He’s released his own racing homers at Kansas City, Missouri, and added, “You can’t drive on the interstate and beat ‘em home.”
“These birds are athletes,” Deisher said, “and you treat them just like that.”
Along with food and water, racing homers typically get vitamins, minerals and any needed medications, Scott Dean said. Tending to them requires time. As a firefighter who often works 24-hour shifts, Scott is grateful to have his son’s active partnership. “He does as much with them as I do,” Scott said.
Youth involvement crucial
The involvement of young people in the sport matters to both the Crossroads club and the national organization. The American Racing Pigeon Union hired Karen Clifton, whose background was in marketing, to target growth in youth participation, she said by telephone from the group’s base in Oklahoma City. Its overall membership grew from 7,100 in 1999 to just under 10,000 this year, but junior membership has tripled.
That increase “is a good thing, because you want to get young people involved to perpetuate it,” Clifton said.
Williams began the hobby as an 8-year-old. Ed Chambers, a teacher in his hometown of Hymera, started a club in 1958 for kids to raise and show pigeons at county fairs. By the early 1960s, that group — the Sycamore Haven 4-H Pigeon Club — included adults and continued until 1996. The following year, the West Central Indiana Racing Pigeon Club formed, evolving in 2006 into the Crossroads club, which keeps a “working man’s” affordability, Williams said, by spreading prize money to several places in the finish order.
Williams’ interest hasn’t wavered since boyhood. Now 68, he lives south of Fairbanks in rural Sullivan County.
“I just enjoy it,” Williams said. “The birds are relaxing and a lot of fun. And, there’s a sense of accomplishment when a bird that you raised comes back in at the end of a 300-mile race.”
Americans’ fascination with homing pigeons rose after their heralded exploits in World War I and World War II. Allied forces used the birds to deliver vital messages in dangerous zones where radio communications were either disabled or too risky, according to American Racing Pigeon Union archives. They crossed seas and endured harsh weather, yet “provided the balance between victory and defeat” in some situations.
“They delivered,” Clifton said.
Today, local and regional clubs do presentations to church, scouting, farm and service to help spread the racing and homing pigeons’ popularity, Clifton said. While most pigeon fanciers live in California and Texas, the Midwest makes up nearly half of the national organization’s membership.
Here in western Indiana, Scott Dean is happy with the niche he and Logan found in the sport. “A lot of people don’t realize how much fun these birds are,” Scott said inside his loft, surrounded by cooing pigeons. “I’ve had a lot of hobbies over the years, and this one, by far, I enjoy the most.”
Williams discovered that joy long ago. While he likes the racing, sometimes he’s happy to just observe the birds.
“I like to sit on the porch,” he said, “and watch.”