Give Him the Bird

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

"Here!" Adugalski cries. He has lifted a pigeon off her nest and underneath discovered a fuzzy yellow chick, just minutes out of its egg. "Here is new life come into the world!"

A few feet away, he carefully removes a bird from a coop about two feet off the ground. "Here's my baby," he coos. "My liiiit-tle baby. My little girl." He snuggles the bird up to his chin, shuts his eyes and rocks slightly. "How are you doing, you silly?"

"She always waits for me," he says. "But now" -- a hint of irritation creeps into his voice -- "now she has a boyfriend." His voice changes back. "Ooooo, my buh-bee."

"Okay," he says crisply. "Go back to your boyfriend," and he plops the pigeon back into the coop.

None of the birds are named. This is less a matter of convenience -- Adugalski easily recognizes every one of the pigeons from a distance -- than a personal defense mechanism. Birds entered in races often must be left behind, where they will either be auctioned off (much like a claiming race for horses) or put down. "So you can't get too emotionally attached to your birds," he explains. "Like anything else in life, right?"

One of Adugalski's backyard lofts is completely caged in. It holds a handful of his most successful birds, the ones that have placed well in big races, now roosting in retirement like living trophies. For example, "Here is my pigeon that won second place in a big race in 1999, in Baltimore," he boasts. "See how smooth and beautiful she is, like a queen?"

The building is completely caged; nothing can enter, nothing can leave. This is because the birds were trained to return to lofts at each race site's finish line. If they were to escape from here, they'd leave to look for their other home and never return to Denver. "They are like me," he says. "Just like I am an American now. I will never return to Poland."

Back inside his house, Adugalski looks fondly out his kitchen window, letting his eyes linger on some birds that have wandered outside in what has now become a heavy snow flurry. "Look!" he says. "There are my pigeons! That is what a man likes best -- to look out his window, any window, and see his pigeons."

The phone rings and I pick it up. "Hello," a familiar voice says. "This is Bill 'Pigeon' Owens. And it's true -- I was quite a fancier in my day."

The governor's day turns out to be a period of time that is not so recent. "When I was in about third grade, a gentleman down by our shopping center, a friend of me and my friend's families, got us interested in pigeons," he recalls. His interest grew until he had about forty birds stashed in a loft outside his sister's bedroom window. "I don't know if she's forgiven me for that."

The Fort Worth pigeon club to which Owens belonged met on Friday nights, when members would bring their birds and prepare them for the Saturday race. The pigeons were placed on a Railway Express train and taken 150 miles or so out onto the Texas plains. There the stationmaster would release them all at once, and they'd race home.

Owens says his hobby was a valuable preparation for life, teaching him about responsibility by having to care for the birds, and (note to current death-row inmates) "how to make tough decisions, if you had an injured or sick bird." Still, by the time he entered middle school, Owens says, he found himself favoring other hobbies over his birds. "When I got old enough for girls, I ditched pigeons."

Although Owens claims he now has no time or inclination to return to the hobby, he adds that "occasionally I'll see a flock of pigeons and wonder where they're going." And last year, just before the governor's widowed mother sold the old family home, Owens visited the place for one last look around. Even though three decades had passed, he still could see where his old loft had stood. The recollection of his beloved birds brought the governor to a realization.

"It turns out that six to eight years of pigeon droppings can do permanent damage to a lawn," he says.

Last spring, Adugalski returned to Sosnowka. It was the first time he'd been back since the day he left Poland nearly two decades ago. He brought a camera with him, and as he walked through his village, he snapped hundreds of pictures -- of every corner, every building in the town, and from every angle, as if trying to re-create a three-dimensional place in only two dimensions. He put them in a small album. "This," he says, "is my memory," and he opens it.

His first stop upon arriving in Sosnowka was his father's grave. "He drank too much alcohol, got sick," he says. The memories continued:

"Here is the church. The graves where we used to start fires when I was five. Here is the grocery market where everyone goes every day -- look and see how all the homes are now falling apart?"

"Here, this corner: Every day, every day, twenty, thirty kids would come: 'What are we going to do? Let's go to the orchard, steal some fruit!' Or, 'Do we have 22 guys? Let's play soccer...'"

"Here is where a friend of mine lived. He died of alcohol, too."

"Here is where I went to school, from seven years old to fifteen years old. One year I had to repeat."

"Here is the stream we used to go catch trout, by hand."

"Here is my house. And there, behind it, in the field, that's where we used to play Indians and cowboys; everyone had a slingshot."

"Everywhere you look, every street, I walked millions of times."

He points to small buildings along the route, usually behind a house. "There were pigeons here, pigeons here, everywhere pigeons. And here! Here! See this little house? This is where we kept our pigeons."

The prize money for winning big-time bird races is nice, and triumphing against the wealthy poseurs who enter 150 birds each race is particularly fun -- "The rich pigeon fucks, they just go and buy the most expensive pigeons," Adugalski sneers. "They don't breed. They just buy. And I still beat them."

But, he adds, that's not the best part of pigeon racing. Not at all. The best part is simply looking up to the sky and watching as the birds arrive, home at last after a long journey. "You see how they come," he says, "so sure of themselves, so strong, so confident. So happy they are home."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer