Give Him the Bird

What do Bill Owens and Bert from Sesame Street have in common? Pigeons.

It's springtime in the Rockies, the time of year when a young first-term governor's fancy turns to education reform, gun control through legitimate legislative means and...high-stakes pigeon racing. Or so I'd heard -- about the pigeon racing, anyway (the other stuff seemed reasonably true).

"That's right," says Richard Ott Sr., a former judge now in private legal practice. "I understand that Bill Owens used to be quite a pigeon racer back in Texas. Although," Ott, a longtime fancier himself, adds disappointedly, "he hasn't done it since moving to Colorado."

Before Westword spreads any gossip about the personal life of a governor of this state, however, there needs to be plenty of exhaustive research and investigation. Some phone calls, certainly. One, anyway. I punched in the number of Dick Wadhams, Owens's press secretary.

Homeward bound: Adam Adugalski wants big money from his pigeons.
John Johnston
Homeward bound: Adam Adugalski wants big money from his pigeons.

"I know you've probably already got about a half-dozen phone calls about this today," I barked into the phone when his message finished playing. "But I need to talk to the governor about pigeon racing. Please call me back as soon as possible."

A few hours later Wadhams left a message on my answering machine. "Well," he said slowly, "it turns out that the governor does want to talk to you about...pigeon racing. He should be calling you sometime today."


Before I grilled the governor, there was much to be learned about racing birds. And if you want to know about pigeon racing, there is no one in Colorado who takes the sport more seriously than Denver's Adam Adugalski.

How seriously?

"This year my goal is to win a half-million dollars racing my pigeons," he told me when I reached him on his cell phone. "I'm going to hit it hard. I'm going to do it. I know I can do it."

Adugalski lives on the featureless fringes east of Denver, past Commerce City, past the new office parks bristling from the plains, past the new airport. His white single-story house sits on twenty acres. Outside, in the backyard, set among patches of tree seedlings, are three lofts for his racing birds. Inside, the house is decorated in late 1970s Fastidious Bachelor: The walls are bare -- no photos or art -- the carpet is thick and white, and the kitchen counters, which he wipes with a sponge almost obsessively, are perfectly clear. The clock above the wall says 12:44. It is about 11 in the morning.

"I live here alone," he explains unnecessarily. "No housekeeper. No woman."

Adugalski has recently returned from South Africa, where one of his birds came in nineteenth in a contest known as the Million Dollar Race. Although he has entered the race before by mailing his birds to Africa, this was the first time that Adugalski actually traveled there to watch it. His bird's finish earned him about $11,000 in prize money -- enough, he says, to cover all his travel expenses to and from Sun City.

Yet the finish was better than it sounded. Just ten seconds faster and his pigeon would have come in fourth place and earned $50,000. Seven minutes faster and Adugalski would have flown home with the $200,000 first prize. It is such arithmetic that keeps Adugalski pushing his pigeons so hard.


Another call to Dick Wadhams finds the press secretary away from his desk again. "Perhaps," I suggest into his machine, doing my best to sound helpful and only slightly put out, "you could tell me when the governor might be calling me so that I can be sure to be around to receive it?"

While I am away from my desk, Wadhams calls back. "Well, it looks like the governor won't be able to call you back today after all," he says briskly. A weak excuse about gun-control legislation follows, and then Wadhams is gone.

I quickly dial back, but the governor's flack has already left. "Look," I say amiably. "I don't need to talk to Mr. Owens today. Just tell me when he can call, and I'll be here."


Adugalski first began fancying pigeons while he was growing up in Sosnowka, a small village in northern Poland where the only real choice available to residents was to love the birds -- or tolerate them. "Every second house had pigeons," he recalls. "Even if you like it or not, you got pigeons in your house." In the spring, the races were held on Sundays. The air soon would fill with a great rush and thrum as hundreds of birds sped to their home lofts in the villages dotting the countryside.

"My grandfather didn't know too much about birds -- just kept pigeons in the village," Adugalski recalls. "My father kept them, too. Then, when he died, I inherited them and started learning from a friend." By the time he was fourteen, Adugalski could breed his own birds.

When he was 26, he applied for a passport to leave Poland. He had wandered during his late teens and early twenties, working at a variety of jobs: bars, restaurants, a shipyard, a little black-market entrepreneurship here and there. But Poland in the early '80s was in turmoil, stumbling from communism to free markets, and the future looked grim, so he applied to escape. The odds of receiving a passport were slim -- infinitesimal, even -- but somehow Adugalski's name was drawn, and he didn't hesitate to leave home.

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