Give Him the Bird

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

He wound up first in Hamburg, Germany, and then, sponsored by Catholic Family Services, made the move to -- of all places -- Amarillo, Texas. After a couple of unremarkable years there, he remembers, "I met a Polish guy, and he said, 'I live in Colorado, and it's like Poland.' I said, 'Really?' When I was in Texas, I thought the whole United States has no trees. But I come to see Colorado and discovered that this country does have trees and mountains."

Something about Colorado did look familiar, so he decided to stay. He'd saved up enough money to buy an old blue pickup truck. In 1983 he loaded it with his pigeons -- he'd never abandoned the hobby -- and drove from Texas to Denver. The day he arrived, he built a coop for his birds. In 1989 he bought a house, and his mother flew over from Poland to live with him. (She has since gone back.) She arrived bearing Polish pigeon eggs in her luggage, and Adugalski began breeding at once, building a genetically superior stock of racing pigeon. In 1996 he moved to his current house so he could have even more room to breed his better birds.

He'd begun entering local races in 1990 and was meeting with wonderful success. Many times his pigeons arrived home first. In several races his birds would take three of the top four places. Emboldened by his local victories, he decided to hit the big time -- the national and international homing-pigeon racing circuit. His first international race was in China; he came in seventh. Later he began entering his birds in races being held in places like Thailand and Africa, Detroit and Las Vegas, Florida and Baltimore. If his birds could have earned him frequent-flier miles, he would never have had to pay for a plane ticket again.

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

The week of my first message exchange with Dick Wadhams ends, and the days waiting for the governor to chat about his reported hobby turn into weeks. A month goes by. In a slow moment, I place another call to the press secretary. Friendly has not worked, so I downshift into barefaced toadying.

"Uh, I'm calling just to remind you that -- heh-heh -- I'm still interested in talking to the governor about pigeon racing. Let me know when he has time. I won't need more than a few minutes..."

As the days pass, I learn from reading the papers that Owens has found a few spare moments to chat to Barbara Walters about a Boulder murder. He has carved out some hours here and there to hammer out a new education plan for grading schools, and he squeezed in a Scottish jig at a Scottish Day photo op. But he "has no time" to discuss pigeons.

There is something desperate and moving about homing pigeons. Their one skill -- the thing they are trained to do from birth -- is to return home from wherever they may be. Yet their genetics also say that where, exactly, they consider home can be taught: They are programmed to return to the place they remember when growing up.

In practice, this means that to enter a bird in a faraway race, it must mature at that location and learn to know its new home at the finish line. Adugalski begins shipping his pigeons to race locations when they are about three or four weeks old. They arrive some eight months before the race starts. This spring, he has already sent 26 birds to Detroit for a race in October and six birds to South Africa for a January contest. Sometime in the next few weeks, he will send another twelve birds to Beijing for an October race there.

On the day of the race, the birds are loaded into a truck and driven to the starting line, which typically is several hundred miles from the finish. There the pigeons are released all at once in a great burst and flutter. The pigeons can fly several thousand feet every minute. At last year's race in China, the winning bird, pushed by a steady tail wind, covered the 200-mile course in about six and a half hours. When a pigeon arrives at its home loft at the finish, an electronic scanner reads a small tag on its leg and records the time.

Although fabulous riches await the fastest birds, pigeon racing -- at least among serious practitioners -- can be an expensive hobby to enter into. It can deplete your wallet before the starting gun even sounds. Entry fees for the races vary, but most major events these days charge about $1,000 per bird. Then, once the birds arrive, a local trainer must be hired to teach them to return to a nearby loft, an expense that tacks on another couple of hundred bucks. When all of the loft fees and handling charges are added up, it is not unusual for each pigeon entered in a race to cost $3,000.

Indeed, for those who are serious about it, pigeon racing can be nearly as dear an avocation as thoroughbred horse racing. Well-bred birds, purchased directly for racing or for breeding, typically cost thousands of dollars, and prices can soar much higher. This past winter a California fancier paid $30,000 for a single bird. In England recently, one pigeon sold for $202,000.

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