Wineka column: Pigeon racers are high fliers

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 4, 2011

SALISBURY — The thrill of watching your racing pigeon come home never gets old.
“There’s nothing that beats being there, seeing that speck in the sky,” says Jeff Caster, president of the long-established Tarheel Racing Pigeon Club.
Bill Songer says he’s still like a kid at Christmas when his racers return from a 100-, 200-, or even 500-mile trip.
The birds see their loft, cup their wings and dive for home’s trap door, ready to have their race time recorded.
Who knows what difficulties they faced along the way. Hail? Hawks? Headwinds?
Owners constantly clean the birds’ lofts, inoculate them twice a year, dish out special blends of food and vitamins and train the racers on weekdays and weekends.
Still, “the biggest thing is their coming home,” says Songer, who has raced pigeons off and on since the mid 1950s.
Becky Mishak, a Carson High School senior and the racing club’s youngest member and only female, feels sure that racing pigeons will become a lifetime hobby for her.
“I’ve caught the pigeon bug,” the 17-year-old says.
Over the years, the Tarheel Racing Pigeon Club has been tough as birds in terms of longevity. Organized in 1949 and chartered with the International Federation of American Homing Pigeons Fanciers Inc. 10 years later, the club has seen membership drop at times to as few as three people or grow to as many as 17.
Today, roughly a dozen members are active and meet regularly at the clubhouse at 1002 N. Church St., an old plumbing shop. They plan their racing seasons and auctions, talk birds and relive their proudest moments and fastest times.
“Our club is like a great big family,” says Mishak, who lives in eastern Rowan County. “It’s like I have a bunch of grandpas and uncles.”
The other club members come from Mocksville, Statesville, Charlotte, Rockingham, Concord, Lexington, Spencer, Linwood and Lewisville.
Homing instinct
Pigeon racing relies on the birds’ instinct to return home.
Some are better than others at that. To travel the distances asked of these racing birds takes special breeding and training for speed and endurance, much like thoroughbred horses.
The racers should not be confused, Caster says, with the “feral pigeons” people might see scavenging for food in downtowns or parks.
Success among pigeon racers is measured in yards per minute. It’s not uncommon, Warren Werbeck says, for races among a couple hundred birds covering hundreds of miles to be decided by seconds.
In simple terms, clubs arrange for their members’ birds to be transported by truck and trailer to a predetermined spot at least 100 miles away. Owners generally send as many as they think are ready.
In the coming spring season, the Tarheel Racing Pigeon Club has six race days scheduled: one in Florence, S.C. (100 miles), two in Summerton, S.C. (150 miles), two in Walterboro, S.C. (200 miles) and one in Savannah, Ga. (250 miles).
When the club participates in 500-mile races, the birds usually are released in Brewton, Ala.
All the pigeons are released at once and timed until they arrive home, going into their home loft’s trap door.
Because the distances to the home lofts vary from the release point, calculations have to be done in yards per minute, which determines the fastest birds.
For example, birds in the Florence race will be traveling distances that range from 95 to 133 miles to the various club members’ homes.
If all things were equal, you would expect the pigeons going to the home 95 miles away from the release point to arrive sooner, so that has to be factored in.
With today’s computers, GPS technology and scanning devices, the timing of racing has become quite sophisticated.
Traditionalists still like to use the less expensive, manual Benzing clocks for stamping the arrival times of each of their birds in a race.
Other owners have gone to electronic devices that work much like price scanners at the grocery store. The birds walk through the loft’s trap door entrance onto a pad, which reads their bands and automatically records the time.
With this device, Caster says the bird owner doesn’t even have to be home when the pigeons return, but most owners can’t forsake that thrill.
Birds have fun
George Diroma, 84, of Mocksville, says it’s important for outsiders to know one thing: “The birds love it,” he says. “They don’t have to fly — they just love to fly.”
Diroma stopped racing in 1990 but has remained a club member, raising birds and doing his part to make sure novices have starter pigeons.
A time-consuming part of racing pigeons is their training. The owners take the young birds and methodically build up their endurance, first releasing them, say, 5 miles from home, then 10, then 20, then 50 and 75.
A young bird’s first race (there are young-bird and old-bird seasons) is 100 miles. An ultimate goal or accomplishment for many pigeon racers is to have older birds that can fly a 500-mile race in a day — roughly a 12- to 13-hour trip.
Barring any unforseen hazards such as bad weather or predatory birds, “they should fly non-stop,” Caster says.
Trade secrets
Everybody has their secrets to training, nutrition, breeding and preparing a pigeon to race. Race records are the best barometers for trying to determine what pedigree birds to buy or breed.
“You try to find better birds all the time,” Werbeck says.
The better breeding pigeons usually have names, but owners prefer knowing the racing pigeons by their permanent band numbers, which can never come off.
The Tarheel Club members all have different stories of how they got into pigeon racing.
Werbeck and Diroma raced pigeons as young boys in New York.
In the Bronx, Diroma shined shoes for a nickel a pair so he would have money to buy food for his birds. He fell into pigeon racing naturally, following paths set out by his grandfather and brothers.
Caster once traveled to the home of a city co-worker and noticed all his pigeons in a backyard building.
He offered to get rid of the birds until his friend explained they were racing pigeons.
Soon he was helping the guy train the birds, amazed they could be taken so far away yet miraculously fly back to the home loft.
Caster took a 20-year break in his own racing for marriage and raising a family, but he has gotten back into it in a big way. He has about 12 years of pigeon racing experience.
Mishak, as you can imagine, is not the typical high schooler.
“I’m lucky if anybody at my high school has even heard about it “ she says of pigeon racing.
As a fourth-grader, she started researching pigeons, later got into the homing breeds and started racing in 2008.
She won her first two races.
“I don’t think these old guys were too happy about that,” she says.
Mishak won’t be racing this spring, giving attention instead to a heavily populated loft that includes 15 pairs of breeders. She has roughly 30 young birds and 30 old birds, “and that’s a lot to feed,” Mishak says.
While Mishak is the youngest, the club has an original (non-active) member, T.L. “Bud” Sprinkle of Salisbury, who is now in his 90s.
Rick Smith of Linwood says most longtime pigeon racers in the Southeast know Sprinkle, whose home used to be a meeting place for pigeon fanciers throughout the region. They visited him to buy pigeon feed and sit in his basement, trading racing stories.
Competing for pride
Through its long history, pigeon racing often has been associated with betting — a side of the sport that the Tarheel Club members say doesn’t involve them. They offer cash prizes for top finishers in their races and say the real glory comes in winning trophies.
Done right, their hobby is an expensive one. And the saddest part for an owner is when he or she realizes a racer isn’t coming back. It happens, of course.
“I can’t say every bird comes home every time,” Caster says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or