Memories and the joy of raising racing pigeons: Time to bring it back

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A Southwest Side resident shows off his collection of racing pigeons in 1966. File Photo.

The idea of raising barn pigeons as racing pigeons made sense, at least to me. So growing up, I built a coop (with help) behind our garage, then raised and trained barn pigeons as though they were racing pigeons.

I only trained them over a few miles, not the hundreds of miles that racing pigeons (homing pigeons) can do. But my training and buried knowledge in the barn pigeons worked: They came home to my chicken-wire coop.

Memories rushed back this week when I read Fran Spielman’s Sun-Times story on Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) introducing an ordinance at the City Council meeting Wednesday to lift the Chicago ban on pigeon racing. Two other Northwest Side aldermen, Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Nick Sposato (38th), co-sponsored the ordinance.

I would love to see the return of racing pigeons — legally — in Chicago. They’re remarkable creatures.

Barn pigeons, the country cousins of city pigeons, are not as remarkable. The difference between barn or city pigeons and racing pigeons is like the difference between me and Julius Peppers.

Barn and city pigeons are descended from domestic pigeons. Domestic pigeons, such as racing pigeons, descend from rock doves.

The homing instinct is mysterious and remarkable in racing pigeons.

As a kid, my dad would drive me into the city (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) and its edifice of a massive library. I read every book on pigeons they had, but I devoured the books on racing pigeons.

I read of the exploits (some were war heroes) and looked at the photos of them — erect and firm specimens, unlike the creatures pecking grain and corn kernels out of manure on farms or the city pigeons picking up bread crumbs.

Racing pigeons required a very special mix of feed. I even found the place that supplied racing food.

On the sports pages of the daily Intelligencer Journal, the agate section (as somebody who did two staff stints as a lowly agate clerk for the Sun-Times’ sports section, I love that part) would include a small piece of fine print from the Red Rose Pigeon Club, now gone as members aged and younger people did not join.

I quickly reached what I could do in terms of training barn pigeons. I learned how to handle them and to get them to fly to me to eat grain from between my lips.

So I dug out a number for the Red Rose Pigeon Club, then found the nerve to call. The guy I reached knew a club member willing to give me an old mated pair. That was a big deal. In those days, a top racing pigeon was worth more than my dad made in a year working in a stone quarry.

There was a good reason for an old pair. While they didn’t mean much to the owner, they meant the world to me. Second, the pair would be imprinted with the old coop, but their young would be imprinted with my chicken-wire coop.

I would love to tell you I grew into a proud junior member of the club. No. While I became good at training and raising racing pigeons, soccer and girls (or the idea of girls) took over my life.

Here’s hoping some young man or woman has the chance to train racing pigeons in Chicago.

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