“How long have you been racing pigeons?”
I asked Gene Hamilton.
“That’s quite a while.”
“Actually, it’s 80+ now. I’m 91.”
“What got you started?”
"Pigeons underneath a barn in Portland, Oregon. We used to go under there, and it filled with water, so we made a big raft out of boards and reached up to get the babies. Then we’d hand-feed them and tame them and they’d follow me around and go to school with me. I didn’t get into homing pigeons until a year later. Neighborhood fellows had them, and they took me in and showed me how. And of course I started racing and they gave me some good birds and I beat them!”
Hamilton would win many more races in the years to come, and through the changes of his life — two wives and varied careers (clerk in the Civilian Conservation Corps, seaman in the merchant marine, horse trainer, hairstylist, railroad dispatcher, credit manager) — the one constant of his life has been pigeons. He even kept them on board an oil tanker for two years, with the approval of the captain, who saw them as an early-warning system for toxic fumes. “None of them ever died,” Hamilton said, “so we were always safe.”
Today, Hamilton and his “grandson,” John Timmerman, have about 750 pigeons in Jamul, the largest collection in San Diego County. As we sat on the deck of their loft, amidst soft cooing and wafting feathers, Hamilton looked at his birds and smiled. “We’ve won every race there is. All the top races, top prizes, we’ve won. All sorts of trophies. I’ve done it, I’m happy. I could die right now, and I wouldn’t miss a thing.”
Pigeon racing has been around even longer than Gene Hamilton. In fact, pigeons have been around considerably longer than humans. The birds are about 30 million years old, and during that long stretch of evolution two noteworthy things happened: they decided not to be afraid of humans, and some of them developed a mysterious ability to find their way home. These “homing pigeons” can be released 600 miles from where they were raised, and they will circle a few times until they get their bearings and then fly 50 to 60 miles per hour, nonstop, with no rest or water or food, against headwinds, over mountains, through scorching heat and freezing cold, evading hawks and hunters, with hearts pounding 600 beats a minute and wings flapping ten strokes a second, until they find their way back to the loft they knew as a youth.
Humans have used this instinct not only for sport but for communication. About 5000 BC the Egyptians developed a lightweight paper for pigeons to carry, and the empires of Persia, Carthage, and Rome used these airborne carriers to establish reliable networks of communication. Caesar made strategic use of them during his conquest of Gaul. India relied on them; Greece announced Olympic victories with them; China organized a postal system with them.
Knowledge is power, and the pigeons’ swift conveyance of knowledge made them power brokers in military campaigns, political exploits, and economic expansion. Count Rothschild used them to receive news, before anyone else, of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, thus enabling him to make financial decisions that would turn into a huge fortune. Reuters news service, founded 150 years ago, actually began as a line of pigeon posts. Even after the advent of the telegraph, pigeons continued to be of use, particularly by the military. During World War II, a pigeon carried a message across enemy lines that was credited with saving the lives of 1000 British troops.
It was inevitable that sooner or later some guy would say to his buddy, maybe after a couple of pints, “I’ll bet my bird can get home before yours,” and the other would reply, “Put your money where your mouth is,” and thus was born what some now call “the poor man’s horse racing.”
Some in our area who fly pigeons may be of modest means, but some could, if they wished, just as easily raise thoroughbreds. There are about a hundred of them, and they are plumbers, businessmen, contractors, lawyers, and restaurant managers; they live in every corner of the county; they belong to clubs based in San Diego, Coronado, Vista, and Fallbrook; they are older, mostly, and worry about how to draw younger people into the sport. And they hesitate to talk much about the money involved, the race pools and side betting, though one flier confided that in a Las Vegas meet he had a bird place first and another third, an achievement that rewarded him with over $100,000.
If you get them talking about pigeons, you have to listen carefully: they’re soon flying above your head and going as fast as a pigeon headed for home. After a few interviews, I pieced together the basics. Essentially, it comes down to this: there are four things to do with pigeons, two kinds of races, and two racing seasons.
Perhaps the most important thing fanciers do with pigeons is enjoy them, which entails watching them, listening to them, handling them, and speaking baby talk with them. They also care for them, which consists chiefly of providing water, supplying food, and shoveling poop. They also breed them, which demands a working knowledge of “the birds and the bees,” or at least the first half of it, and that means, come spring, letting a cock jump a hen, waiting 8 days for the first egg and another day for the second, waiting 18 days for the youngsters to hatch, and waiting 28 days before beginning the training program. And finally, they also race them, which happens in two different ways.
There are local club races that take place every weekend during the season. On Saturday evenings fanciers bring up to 20 of their birds to the clubhouse, pack them in a truck, and then share beers, swap lies, and enjoy the camaraderie of a shared passion. Through the night the truck journeys north, usually up I-5 or 395, and early on Sunday morning, at some point between 100 and 600 miles away, the pigeons get released to start the marathon. Each bird flies to its home loft, of course, and its arrival time is recorded digitally. A computer compensates for variations in distance (a bird from Fallbrook may be the first home, but a bird from Jamul may win with a better time), and the bird with the fastest flight time is declared the victor.