“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.
The other type of race happens when the youngsters, at about 28 days old, are shipped to another loft to be raised. Young birds from all over the country, or even world, will be shipped to Las Vegas, say, and thus they will be “fooled” into thinking it’s home. When the race is held a few months later, the birds fly back to Las Vegas, with the owners present to watch the horizon and cross their fingers and cheer the winners.
These races happen in two seasons: young birds compete for 8 weeks, in September and October, and old birds race for 12 weeks, from March through June.
That’s pretty much all there is to pigeon racing. But that’s like saying hitting a ball into a hole is all there is to golf. The art is in the details. Most pigeon fliers spend hours each day worrying about those details.
John Timmerman said, “There are pigeons like a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods that just don’t miss. Those are kind of what you’re looking for. Especially if you’re a breeder. In comparison, like maybe Seabiscuit, here you have a horse that they’re ready to get rid of. The same thing applies to birds, because the muscle doesn’t appear right or he has something that might be out of balance. You just race the pigeon and then all of a sudden, the following year things change, the motivation might be stronger for it to home, the balance of its body might be phenomenal and, mind you, it might have a lot of heart. That’s the key, to have a lot of heart. But you as a trainer, if you know the different ways to diet the bird and when to excel that energy on the last 24 hours of shipping, that’s the key. It’s all timing, release of energy. When it comes down to the birds, the guys that are good, really good, gotta be almost a psychologist, because you’ve got to be able to read and see the birds. Then you’ve gotta be almost a fitness expert, because fats is their key to energy. You kind of want to make sure that that energy is not released two, three days before the race. You want that energy to be reserved.”
“What do you mean,” I asked him, “when you say you have to be a psychologist?”
“Observation within the loft.”
“Characterwise. You can see if the bird is really happy, if he’s motivated toward the opposite sex.”
“And that’s good?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s no different than a high school kid chasing the girl. It’s all about hormones. That’s not always the ticket. There are so many different ways of racing the birds, systemwise.”
“Do males or females tend to be the faster?”
“In Europe they feel that the males are superior. Here, the majority of guys in San Diego tend to believe that the females are more consistently faster. The males, you have to work with them a little bit more. There’s a system of flying where you show the female to the male so many times during the week, just to get him all excited, and you show him two minutes before you ship him away. He knows that that female’s at home. So you put him in the crate, and all he wants to do is get out of the box to get home.”
“So do you think it’s the case that the male flies to the female, whereas the female flies home?”
“It varies. There are males that tend to outfly the females just for the reason of being home too. The male may want to get home because of a particular spot in the loft, so there’s so many different things to look at. That’s why I say you have to be a psychologist. You have to be totally open-minded and understand what’s happening on the home front.”
At 34, Timmerman is a young flier. But he’s been developing his skills for many years. “It started back when I was a kid,” he said. “I did work for my dad. He was in the Dutch import business, and in Europe, homing pigeons is a big sport. England, France, Germany, and Holland, especially. You’re talking hundreds of thousands of people that have homing pigeons. Here in the States you’re talking 15,000 to 20,000. But Holland itself, they claim 55,000.”
“Did your father come from Holland?”
“Yes. He emigrated from Holland into Australia, and from Australia he emigrated here and got into the Dutch import of foods, cheese. Started a bakery.”
“And he had pigeons?”
“But it started way back before that. His father, my grandfather, in Holland, survived during the war in the 1930s being a pigeon merchant, so to speak.”
Timmerman grew up in Chino, where he was drawn into pigeon racing by helping his dad. “We were well to do, but not that well to do. I knew where my dad came from, coming from poverty and immigrating here, and the time, the hours he had to put in to make something for two boys. So in return, I did the sport for him. Well, for myself, how can I make this beneficial? They bet on the birds, just like you do with the racehorses. My dad, if he did something, he tried to do the right thing. So you try to buy stock. You’re basically going off a pedigree for performance. We did that and put more into it. I just kind of had a feel for it. I just grew into it.”
“How old were you?”
“I was 14, 15 years old. But it wasn’t until I was 16, 17 that I would help my dad at the beginning of these races. I would pull off a purse of $17,000 or $18,000.”
“You’d make this money by betting?”
“Did your father put up the money for you?”
“I was the brains behind it, and he was the financial person. It worked out.”
“So after high school, then what?”
“I went to Cal Poly Pomona and finished with a behavioral science degree. I was, like, what am I gonna do?”
Then a telephone call came from Gene Hamilton, who had heard of Timmerman’s racing success and was looking for a partner. Hamilton was living in the Bay Area at the time, and when Timmerman agreed to join him, they moved to San Diego. Now, after ten years, they consider themselves “grandfather” and “grandson.”
In addition to the three hours a day Timmerman cares for birds, he works full-time as a union plumber. That provides a steady income, in contrast to what he earns from racing. “You could win,” he said, “or you could lose. I’ve been blessed for the last ten years to be on a roll.”
“So you’ve made more money than you’ve lost?”
“Oh, yeah. I can compete with foremen on the job — I make what most foremen would on a construction job. But that doesn’t last forever, as far as the bird winnings.”
Those winnings can be big. Timmerman was getting ready for a race in Las Vegas with a $250,000 purse. I asked him if there were ever any races with larger purses than that. “Yes,” he said. “They’ve got races in China, Taiwan. Here in the States we fly for thousands; they fly for millions.”
The prizes can be considerable, but the pigeon fanciers I interviewed seem more deeply motivated by something other than money. To put it simply, they love the birds — love being around them and love watching them race their hearts out.
Lew Frick retired from the Navy in 1979 and since that time has taught for the San Diego Community College District and has established a successful embroidery business. He’s now moving into semiretirement, and as part of this transition, he and his wife had just moved to the eastern edge of Valley Center. I visited him a few days after his move, when boxes were still unpacked and pictures were not yet hung, and it was clear that building a new loft for his 160 pigeons was going to be one of his top priorities.
I happened to arrive just as his wife set a couple of hamburgers down on the table and announced it was time to eat. “Where do you want to sit?” she asked him. Their table was now in a new place, and they hadn’t yet decided where each would sit. “Over here!” he said, as though it should have been obvious to her, as though there would be no more discussion about it if she wanted to stay in the marriage. “That way I can see the birds!”
Frick said he became interested in pigeons before he was born. His grandfather and brother had them, and he was born into a world of pigeons. They’ve always been a part of his life. Perhaps his happiest memory is the time one of his won a 600-mile race in one day. “They let it out,” he said, “between 6:00 or 7:00 that morning from Redding, California. And I clocked him in that night, I don’t know, somewhere around 9:00. Two birds came in. I won and the other guy took second, but only two birds out of all shipped came in that day. The rest came in the following morning. So it’s not usual to get all your birds in a 600-mile day. It’s rough.”
“Were you shocked?” I asked.
“I was happy. I was thrilled. I wasn’t shocked, I was thrilled. A lot of the old-timers never won the 600-mile, let alone in a day.”
“How fast can they fly?”
“Well, a lot of birds average 55 to 60 miles per hour pretty regularly.”
“And they don’t stop at all?”
“The winners don’t. The winners come home. And you can tell. They hit the landing board and they’re tired. Oh, they’re tired. We just love them to death. They come home to you.”
When I stepped into Randy Barnes’s home on Old Castle Road, I had no trouble believing he had majored in interior design at a local community college. The walls were colors you’d never consider selecting out of paint-chip books at Home Depot, but once applied seem so perfect, so wholly appropriate, that you’re sure they embody the idealized Platonic form, manifest The Way Walls Are Supposed to Be. The artwork, the flower arrangements, the furniture — well, if Architectural Digest had any taste, it would without further delay do a feature on the home.
Thirty seconds after walking through the front door, I became painfully self-conscious about my faded blue jeans and old polo shirt. I had expected the usual feathers and dust and poop and had dressed accordingly, but now I began to suspect I should have worn a tie. Maybe a tux.
The lofts, painted bright white, were arranged along the upper level of Barnes’s back yard in a way that made me think of a New England village. Each building had little brass plaques (polished) that indicated such things as “Breeding Cocks” or “Racing Hens,” and one that I had not yet done enough research to understand: “Pigeon Racing Is Better than Sex.”
Barnes manages the buffet at Pechanga Casino. That gives him several hours each morning to keep his lofts meticulously clean and to train his birds. He watches one with particular affection, a bird named Charismatic. He once entered her — and her alone — in a race, going to see her off the night of the shipping. “The next day,” he said, “my dog and I, which was a greyhound (I like everything fast), we went to the race. Hours went by, and still no pigeons. It was a tough race. Everyone was waiting, and all of a sudden two birds appeared out of the sky. It was dead silence. Just dead silence. That’s the way it is. There’s 300 people watching. Two birds come out of the sky, and whoever’s those birds are, they’re going to win a lot of money if they pooled them. Have you heard about pooling?”
“I’m trying to understand it.”
“It starts at $5 all the way up to $100. And it’s usually in increments of, like, $10, $15, $25, $50, $75, and $100. You pay an entry fee for the birds to enter the race, and then you pool them as well. You do both. If you don’t pool them, you don’t win anything. So you really have to pool.”
“So it’s like a horse race,” I said. “Based on how much you put down on the bird.”
“How much you put down on the bird, and then, of course, if the bird comes home and your bird’s the first home in each of those increments, you get all that money in each increment.
“So,” he continued, getting back to his story, “they went down and they caught the two birds and everyone was quiet. It’s like being in a beauty pageant. I actually saw both of the birds, and they were both blue checks. Charismatic’s a blue check. I just sort of kept my fingers crossed. They announced both of the names. The first one was Mary Cox, who lives up near Fresno. Then they mentioned me. I was ready to drop to the ground. I just couldn’t believe it, you know? She’s very special to me. Her offspring fly for me very well too. She took me out of debt and bought furniture. So I was really, I was very happy. I watch her like a hawk now. Unfortunately, I lost her mother to a hawk, the one that bred me my first two winners and then Charismatic.”
“Tell me what draws you to pigeons.”
“Well, it’s a wonderful hobby. I like the fact that they come home and I’m waiting up there with my mimosas every Sunday. Waiting for them, and they come home after flying 300 miles. It’s sort of a blood rush.”
“How do they do it? How do they find their way home?”
“I’ve always believed that they navigate by the sun. When they’re released in the morning, early, the sun’s just coming up, so they know that the sun is always on the east side. I believe they also, I think, come home by smell. Of course, there’s no smell up in my loft! It’s cleaned every day.”
“It must be exciting to see a bird flying in.”
“Yeah. I raise it as a little baby, you know? It’s just like the movie Seabiscuit. Did you see it? He was a horrible little horse, but you never know. You might have a pigeon that you don’t think is gonna be worth anything. Then you turn around and completely change your mind. I think that’s the amazing thing about it. Because they’ve got a lot of heart, you know? You may have a bird that just doesn’t do anything, and then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, he’ll win you a race.”
“When you say he has a lot of heart, what do you mean?”
“I’ll give you an example. I have a bird that I flew last year. Last year I was ninth in the combine, out of about 40 to 50 fliers. So I didn’t do too bad. I did pretty good for my first year back. My last race was very difficult. My birds were molting. They didn’t have the right feathering and one of my best birds, who was coming home all the time consistently, didn’t come home. I lost him. It rained that night, and the next morning it was foggy and cloudy and it was raining. And out of the blue, here he comes in the rain and the fog! I named him True Heart.”
I imagined True Heart flapping his bedraggled wings, fighting against the elements, and I wondered what went through his little mind. Was he flying out of sheer instinct, simply obeying some mysterious impulse to get home? Or did he know he was racing, competing against other birds? I asked Barnes, “Do you think pigeons know they’re racing? After all, there is a difference between racing and just going the same direction at the same time.”
Barnes said, “I think when pigeons are crated up in the basket, they know they’re trained. When they’re at the clubhouse with a whole bunch of other birds and they’re going into that same crate week after week, and then they’re put onto the truck, they get into that routine just like a horse would getting into the gates and being released at the same time. I think they know they’re racing. As soon as those doors open up, they’re on their own. They have to think, they have to be smart, and of course, they have to be in condition. That’s up to the breeder to make sure they’re in condition.”
“The birds that you raise, do you keep them or sell them?”
“Well, I haven’t sold any birds at this point. I plan on doing it, because I’ve been trying to develop the best stock I can possibly get. Some birds I’ll stock, I won’t race them. I’ll raise two or three rounds off a pair. I’ll fly the first two rounds; the last round I’ll put in the stock loft.”
“If you sold some of your better birds, what kind of price could you get?”
“A good quality of pigeon will run anywhere from $100 up to about $500.”
“Do they ever go for more than that?”
“Oh, yeah! The highest-priced bird sold here in the United States was a couple of years ago, sold for $32,000. The bird’s name was Senna.”
“Somebody pays that much on the assumption that, like a race horse, its offspring will make the investment worthwhile?”
“Well, he was a good bird in Europe. When he came to the States he was advertised and everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon and get the same bloodline. So the guy that owned him bred him. If the offspring do well, you gotta get that bloodline. The bird can go for big bucks. So what the guy that bought the bird did, he actually advertised it and you could send the hen to him, make the pair up, and get the babies. I think he charged $1500 for a stud fee. Senna was sold to a guy in California. So Senna’s up there now. The last I heard — I just talked to the owner about a month ago — he’s no longer fertilizing eggs. He’s sterile now. When that happens, all you can do is retire them. Sort of like putting them out to pasture. I haven’t had that problem with Silver Charm yet. He’s still going. He’s the grandson of Mr. B.J.”
Barnes had already mentioned Mr. B.J. several times, and I began to get the impression he was, to the pigeon world, what Secretariat was to the horse world. The sort of animal that draws adjectives before his name, as in “the legendary Mr. B.J.,” or “the great Mr. B.J.” Barnes also said that the woman who owned him, Virginia Kraft, lives in a big French chateau in Rancho Santa Fe and has some of the best birds in the county.
To the big French chateau I went, and as I drove through the perfectly manicured orange groves and into the circular driveway, I knew I had entered another world, a place that made Barnes’s home, not to mention my own, seem like a ramshackle hovel, a place of quiet beauty and elegant charm and disciplined excellence and serious wealth.
Virginia Kraft met me at the front door with her two long-haired dachshunds; the puppy was squirming in her arms, and the older one was licking my leg. She apologized for the dogs, invited me in, and led me down a long hallway, through the kitchen, and out onto her patio. At first I didn’t notice her lofts, so beautifully did they blend in with the house itself. “Is this loft built into your house,” I asked, “or is your house built around the loft?”
“Well, both, I think. Every building had to be under the roof here, so that was one reason. But I really wanted it where I could just sit and enjoy them for a change.”
“What do your neighbors think of them?”
“At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get in here, because the rule said caged birds only. Then I met with the board and explained racing pigeons, and they finally gave me permission.”
“I suppose they’d be afraid of them landing on roofs.”
“Exactly. But you control them with feed. Always let them out hungry, and they come back.”
“Do you fly your pigeons every day?”
“Oh, yes. Every day.”
“And how many do you have?”
“I never give out a figure. Too many!”
“I’ve been told you have developed some beautiful lines.”
“I have over the years. My husband and I went to Europe, and we bought all our breeding stock over there. Belgium and Holland. It’s the national sport there. You’ll be driving down the road, and you’ll see flocks of pigeons on either side, exercising. On the radio you’ll hear when they release certain races. They race across the channel. It’s very, very interesting.”
“And is your husband involved to the same extent as you?”
“He passed away, but yes, he was. Not as much as I, but he went along with it.”
“No doubt because he knew you love it. Do you still race regularly?”
“Oh, yes. Every season. I have a whole team. I race with the Pacific Coast Invitational. It’s a North County club.”
“How have you done recently?”
“Last season I was extremely lucky.”
“Or your birds were extremely fast and you were an extremely good trainer!”
“I don’t know. I won probably 9 out of the 12 races. But I don’t like to brag ’cause you never know what’s around the corner. I enjoy it.”
“What do you enjoy about it?”
“I enjoy just being with the birds, watching them. They’re just so interesting to watch and they’re so smart. You know, a homing pigeon always returns where he’s born. If he’s born in the palm tree of your yard, he’ll kill himself to try to get back there. I’ve always thought the guts they have to get home is pretty amazing.”
I asked if I could see her lofts, and as Kraft led me down the hallway, lined with framed pictures of winners on one side and doors leading into cages on the other, I thought to myself, I would probably kill myself to return here too! This was pigeon heaven, the dream of every racing pigeon.
I asked which bird was her favorite, and she responded immediately, “I guess a bird called Mr. B.J.”
“I’ve heard of him. Is he still alive?”
“No. He died several years ago, but he died at the age of 14, and he was still filling the eggs in the nest at that time. Many of the birds in here today are from Mr. B.J.”
“Still potent at the time of his death? As the Old Testament says of Moses when he died, ‘His natural force was unabated’?”
“Exactly. That’s true. He really was an outstanding bird.”
“What’s the story behind his name? An old boyfriend?”
“Oh, he’s just two strains of pigeons from Europe, a Beckert and a Jansen. It just made it simple to use initials.”
“Is it hard to lose a bird?”
“Yes, it is. Or if a bird doesn’t come home that’s maybe had a good record. I always feel, did I have them in good enough shape, or maybe I didn’t carbohydrate-load them enough. Maybe there was some illness they had I didn’t know about. You’re going to have certain losses just because they have so many things against them when they race. The weather, the wind, going through the storms, hawks, people shooting them, all sorts of things when they’re out for a day, day and a half.”
“You’ve been breeding and racing pigeons for a long time. What is the most enjoyable part of it?”
“When I see them coming in and I know that there are not any birds in town yet! It’s really a thrill.”