Give Him the Bird

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

That explains why, while there are still pigeon racers who enter many of the big races for prestige and fun, these days most are simply after the money. The prizes for winning pigeons have skyrocketed in response. The top prize in Detroit this year will be $30,000 -- a fairly modest amount compared to some other races. In Las Vegas, the first bird home earns its owner $150,000. Top prize for a California race scheduled for this summer is $100,000. And the 400-mile Million Dollar Race, in South Africa, boasts a top reward of $200,000.

That doesn't include the betting that goes on, either. Racers can earn many times their prize money by betting on birds in a side pool. Last year one of Adugalski's pigeons came in second place in a race in Maryland. He took home $8,000 in prize money -- and $14,000 from the $950 bet he placed on his bird. "Of course, I cover my pigeons heavy," Adugalski says.

Truth be told, there have been times when he has covered the pigeons a little too heavy. Last year he won about $55,000 -- but posted a year-end profit of only $12,000. "Maybe," Adugalski suggests, "I do a little too much." He has been known to bet $2,000 to $3,000 on a single bird in one race. Last year he bet $2,000 on one pigeon, and it never showed up -- eaten by a predator, perhaps, or a victim of bad weather.

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

Still, all in all, he has fared at least as well as other fanciers who wager heavily on birds. "If you gamble on pigeons and you get 50 percent back, you are doing well," he says. "And if you get back 100 percent, you are doing damn well. I've done that for ten years now."

But to a person driven to succeed like Adam Adugalski, breaking even offers only so much satisfaction, and so he hopes 2000 will be different. Merely getting his money back, he has decided, will not do anymore. This year he will scale back from about thirty big races and instead concentrate on only a handful -- only the biggest-money contests.

"And I will win," he says. "I know that."

It's been nearly six weeks now, and I'm getting tired of playing the governor's little games.

I place another call to Wadhams, who -- naturally -- is not at his phone. "Look," I say, "I'm beginning to think that you and the governor are ducking me on this pigeon-racing thing. We're in the middle of the spring racing season" -- of course Owens will know this, but Wadhams is probably clueless.

There must be someone remotely connected with the governor's office who will talk candidly about his alleged pigeon jones. But who?

"Hmmm. It well could be," says Dick Lamm from his office at the University of Denver. "But he's never mentioned it to me. Then again, I've really just gotten to know Bill Owens recently."

I persist. "Have you ever seen any pigeons flying around the mansion?"

"No. No, I really haven't," the former governor says. "But I would admire someone who would do something like that. Mr. Owens is a very multifaceted man. Is there anything else?"

"Um, no," I say. "That's all."

One reason that Adugalski fully intends to win a half-million dollars this year is that he has vowed to bet only on his birds -- the pigeons and their descendants he has carefully bred over the past decade. "Before," he says, "I used to bet on any bird, like this" -- here he simulates a card-dealing motion, peeling money off a wad and throwing bills everywhere. "But now I will trust only my own birds."

Over the years, those pigeons have been carefully chosen and mated, and most of the good ones are from solid Old World Polish stock. "I select the best of the best," he says. "You have to have a good eye how to mate them together. You must look for the intelligence. Just like human beings: Some pigeons are dumb, some are smart."

"Then I look at body quality," Adugalski continues. "The chest can't be too long, or too short, or too wide, too narrow. It must drop like an apple, to show space for the lungs. There must be good ventilation in the wings, and not too long a neck -- short flies better and faster -- and not too long legs. The neck must also sit nice, look like a horse.

"You look also at the eye. I look for the richness of color -- the eye, little bit, tells me, helps me. I don't like diamond or yellow. I like a little green around the pupil. A good eye looks like a mountain in fall -- green, a little red, like leaves. These are the best."

We enter one of the lofts behind Adugalski's house. He points to a bird. "That white one, she is my oldest pigeon, born in 1985," he says, motioning to a bird that looks to me like any other. He picks up another and nuzzles it to his cheek: "Easy, easy, yeah. That's a good boy..."

This loft is for the birds he is currently breeding. Several of the coops within the loft are boarded up to prevent the pigeons from nesting in them. "Pigeons are funny," he explains. "You give them too much freedom, they don't know what to do with it. So I limit their choices of where to nest and breed."

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