Homeward Bound

Pigeon racing is a local passion few know about—but that’s starting to change.

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Pigeon racer Chris Davolos, with one of his prized birds in Jennersville.Chris Davolos remembers scurrying up the steps of his grandfather’s garage into a bright-white loft. Pigeons cooing, wings fluttering, birds hovering and landing from perch to perch. At age 12, his uncle gave him a pair of roller pigeons. Tiny versions of racing pigeons, rollers are celebrated as aerial acrobats.

“You let them outside, and they fly around in a flock and then twirl down,” says Davolos, an ophthalmologist with an office in Jennersville. “They flip over backwards multiple times, then they catch themselves and land on the ground. After watching that, I was hooked.”

In 1993, Davolos and his brother—then 16 and 13, respectively—competed in the Lenox Park Racing Pigeon Club’s Futurity Race. As the sun came up on the second day, a pair of their birds took home the top prizes, finishing first and second. They also earned first-place and runner-up rankings in the auction portion of the competition staged by the Chichester club. The Davolos’ total purse winnings: $2,700, plus another $100 they collected on wagers placed on their birds in what’s known as the “sheet pad.”

Dubbed the thoroughbreds of the sky, homing pigeons can fly at speeds approaching 60 miles an hour. And they have an uncanny ability to find their way back after flying over hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. Hence the name.

The birds have little in common with scruffy street pigeons that scrounge for handouts in city parks. A finely tuned 1-pound athlete, the race-ready homing pigeon’s breast muscles account for 40 percent of its body mass. That enables the bird to endure flights of 100 to 600 miles, while often battling headwinds and predators.

In horse racing, you’re the owner or the breeder, the trainer or the bettor. In pigeon racing, you can be all of these. Bred and re-bred from carefully documented lineages over hundreds of years, racing birds only get faster and stronger.

In pigeon racing, there’s a single starting gate and a hundred different finish lines. A day before the race, the birds are trucked to a central starting destination, the release station. At pre-dawn, weather conditions are checked. Once the sun is up, the starter checks his watch and pulls the levers. All are released at once—a cloud of pigeons homeward bound.

Nick Lebresco raises birds in a cozy loft behind his East Goshen Township home. The older birds are breeding pairs; the younger ones he’s training to race.

“It’s a fascinating sport,” says Lebresco, the treasurer/secretary of the West Chester Pigeon Club. “When you’re working with the younger birds, there’s both excitement and anxiety. Will they come back home? Will they develop into top-notch racing birds? It’s all about hope and expectations. You’re always checking on pedigrees or bloodlines, body conformation and eyesight, trying to breed a champion.”

Race competitors can number in the thousands, but there are no spectators. Bird owners don’t watch the start, since the swift-flying birds would beat them home. Along the way, hazards include electric wires, hunters’ bullets and hawks.

At the finish, the pigeons spot their loft and dive-bomb home. Over the past decade, electronic clocking has been developed and refined for widespread use. The birds land on a wooden platform, where a scanner reads an electronic chip on a numbered elastic band attached to the birds’ ankles. Winners are judged by calculating the speeds (not times) over their respective courses.

“With hundreds of birds arriving nearly at the same time all over the region, every second counts,” says Lebresco.

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