Like many metro Detroiters from Mexico, Efraín Zamudio is from Jalisco, a mountainous state in western Mexico where the sport of pigeon racing is as popular and common as, say, basketball or hockey here. Some of his earliest memories are of his neighbors in San Ignacio whistling to their pigeons. The 39-year-old hits a few sharp, high notes to demonstrate — and the 40 pigeons in the nearby loft behind his Allen Park home respond by flapping their wings and dancing.
Back in the days of his childhood, kids would remove rubber bands from returning pigeons and race to get them clocked in at the clubhouse during the big Sunday races. "In some cases, the people were winning the races," he says with a chuckle, "not the pigeons."
Computer chips and electronic sensors have long since replaced rubber bands and tags, but Zamudio's early memories stuck with him. "It's a real big thing in the towns near where I lived, probably one of the most famous places for getting the best birds in Mexico. And they got the best derbies in all Mexico. We got people there that really dedicate their lives to birds. So it's something that has come out in our culture."
Zamudio moved to Detroit in 2000 and it wasn't long before he fell into the city's flier scene, which boasted a long and storied history, as well as a questionable future.
He formed the Mexican Union Club around 2005 out of his garage on Rademacher Street in Southwest Detroit with about a dozen members. "A bunch of Mexicans used to fly with [a club] in Ypsilanti, but for us, we felt like it was too far. So we decided, 'What about if we get together?' I think that most of the people that are flying here, they flew in Mexico. There are very few people that get started here that have never had birds before."
The married father of four looks back at his coop — a modest loft compared to many who train and breed pigeons for sport; he spends about $2,000 a year on upkeep — where his pigeons are sunning themselves behind a screen of chicken wire. Zamudio talks about his flock the way a horse trainer might talk about a prized thoroughbred.
"People may disagree," he says, "but I think one of the most important things in a good flier is the way you treat the bird. If you treat your bird with love, then I think that bird will have more desire to come back home, because he's going to be spoiled." (Zamudio's secret: barley. "It cleans the system. It's like eating corn flakes, something light.")
"I think a big, big point for a good pigeon flier is to have love over the birds. I know [my birds]. Each one of them."
To further prove his point, Zamudio talks about a pigeon racer he says was unbeatable and attributes it to how clean he kept his loft. "His wife was cleaning the loft with Windex, every day. Nobody could beat him. And I think it was the love they were pouring into the loft."
The question is whether love can keep the sport alive in Detroit or whether pigeon racing here will go the way of rubber band tags.
Few are alive today to recall just how big pigeon racing was in Detroit in the first half of the 20th century. It had become a craze in Belgium in the 19th century, and a wave of immigration from Belgium to the east side of Detroit helped make Detroit a hotbed of flier culture. All the elements were there: modest yards large enough to hold a pigeon loft, motor vehicles to ship birds out for races, and dense, ethnic neighborhoods to support the clubs.
That latter point is especially important because pigeon racing is, more so than other sports, a community endeavor, as well as a family tradition, passed along by generations in tight-knit urban centers. A lone person cannot race pigeons, and the costs of running a club need to be spread out across a group. And as the Detroit of 100 years ago broke down along ethnic European lines, so did the clubs. The Belgians came to the city with a tradition of homing clubs, but it quickly caught on among other nationalities, especially Detroit's Polish community.
These days, the number of people breeding, training, and racing pigeons in Detroit is dwindling, and fast. The younger generations of the European families haven't picked up the habit like their fathers and grandfathers. But the Mexicans have, and Zamudio represents the future of the sport in metro Detroit. Two of his four kids are already interested in pigeons — he says he never makes them clean the loft for fear of putting them off the sport — and most of his friends who fly are in their 30s, with families and children as well.
But there are fewer fliers in general, as well as mounting fees, and new governmental hurdles that have grounded all major races this summer due to a historic outbreak of bird flu across the Midwest.
In the face of all that: Is it possible that Detroit's Mexican community can preserve the sport for at least another generation?
No one knows how pigeons do it, but the birds have an uncanny knack for finding home. That story was well told in an article titled "The Arc of the Sun" that appeared in the online magazine The Atavist earlier this year. Writer David Samuels called scientific research into how birds find home "frustratingly incomplete." Researchers have offered varied theories: that pigeons orient themselves using the path of the sun, the Earth's magnetic field, their keen sense of smell, or even a sort of "pilotage" based on landmarks and visual cues.
However the feathered travelers do it, humans have known that they can do it for a very long time. Like many birds, pigeons have a natural tendency to return to their regular roost, and that inclination has made them excellent messengers throughout the ages. Again, Samuels collected some remarkable history on the relationship between pigeons and humans, pointing out that it "might be said to begin with the pigeon that Noah sent aloft after the flood," and continued down the ages, from ancient Egypt, Rome, and Persia to such fables as the tale about Nathan de Rothschild using homing pigeons to get news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo "three days ahead of everyone else, thus securing the Rothschild fortune for the next two centuries."
Before the rise of such innovations as the telegraph or telephone, the use of homing pigeons was common in communications for war and finance. Pigeons were vital to the Franco-Prussian War, the Boer War, and even World War I, during which, Samuels notes, a pigeon named Big Tom "flew 25 miles in 25 minutes under heavy machine-gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne action of 1918" and "Cher Ami ... at the cost of a leg and a wing, saved the 'lost battalion' of the Argonne from being obliterated by its own artillery fire." Even the international news agency Reuters started out carrying much of its information via pigeon.
Starting in the mid-1800s, pigeon racing became a source of intense public competition in Northern Europe, due to several key innovations, including railroads to allow for the inexpensive shipping of birds, and affordable clocks to time the birds' arrival back at the loft. As Germans, Britons, Belgians, and Flemings emigrated throughout the world, they brought their sport with them. Though it doesn't enjoy the popularity it once did (Americans might know the name of but one flier, but even then, it's his hobby not occupation — Mike Tyson), the sport survives across the globe, and heralded races still occur internationally (the most celebrated, the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, in which birds fly about 325 miles, awards a first prize of around $150,000).