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In the face of race bans, dwindling membership, and a low, low profile, metro Detroit’s pigeon racers struggle to keep the sport flying



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).

In metro Detroit, pigeon racing was quite a sensation in the first half of the 20th century. It centered on neighborhood clubhouses that had the feel of old ethnic halls, with Sunday chicken dinners and bars serving beer and seven-and-sevens. Cadieux Cafe was a pigeon-racing mecca, with Belgian bands and dancing on Saturday night. Even Ye Old Tap Room on Charlevoix was the Union Homing Club, which flew pigeons until 1959.

Over the last 50 years, however, pigeon racing here has been in sharp decline. Even 40 years ago, there were approximately 600 people engaged in the sport in the tri-county area. Today, it's fewer than 60. And the number of clubs in the Detroit area has diminished accordingly.

But if one wanted to see metro Detroit pigeon racing in all its glory, the place to do it would be at the Motor City Race, sponsored by the East Side Members Club. It attracts racers from all over the region, even from Ohio. It's advertised as offering 10,000 points on the pot for the first-place winner. That could amount to a nice chunk of change, and serious bragging rights. The 350-mile race for young birds happens every September, starting in Greenup, Ill., arcing over central Indiana, and continuing to Detroit. (Races usually start to the southwest so pigeons aren't blown off-course by prevailing winds toward uncrossable obstacles like Lake Erie.) The air race is so prestigious that one local racer compares to the Kentucky Derby in importance, and for many fliers, the racing season is all about training birds to excel in this particular competition.

For any pigeon flier, it all starts with building up a flock. Racers look for any number of things in a bird — health, size, a proud bearing, a preferred gender, and much more — but perhaps the most prized quality is a bird's bloodline. Many of the pigeons have sprawling genealogies that can go back a century or more. For instance, one area racer, 89-year-old Jack Schmelzer of Detroit, recently had some birds with a pedigree he could trace to the English birds his father received in the 1920s from prominent breeder E. Lang Miller of Buffalo, N.Y. And that isn't the most extreme example by far.

One way in which club members are able to improve their birds' bloodlines is through the club's auctions, where birds get picked over and inspected like prize livestock. Which they are, in a fashion. In metro Detroit, some of the most coveted auctions take place in springtime at a low, squat clubhouse on Little Mack in St. Clair Shores. It's a thoroughly modern facility, with a bar, a meeting room, and even a garage with the club's shipping truck, a special type of panel truck that can release birds from 40 cages at once.

In order to participate in races, members have to offer a few of their birds up for auction at the beginning of the club's racing season. Most of the bids are modest, but every so often the auctioneer will ring a bell, signifying big bidding — in this case, one that has gone over $100. Sometimes, the bidding ends with a bird going to a new owner as breeding stock for next year's pigeons. And they're often bidding against the bird's owner, who will sometimes offer that much just to win his own bird back again. It's a ritual in which the members jockey with one another, to try to steal a bit of a winner's breeding stock, with the spectators offering a bit of color commentary to a neighbor, and some good-natured ribbing to the bidders.

One of those genial smack-talkers is 60-something Larry Fatalski of St. Clair Shores. A longtime flier with an institutional memory, he points out the psychic terrain of the auction: who the really good fliers are, who's playing the "influencer," and who's just "stirring up shit." Though spending several hundred dollars in an afternoon can seem extravagant, Fatalski points out that running a good-sized loft can cost about $6,000 a year. Pigeon racing is a sport that demands some means, and the auctions are a part of that. As Fatalski puts it, "Racing horses is the sport of kings, and racing pigeons are the poor man's racehorse. But nowadays you have to have some money on you."

In stark contrast with all this masculine energy, the words used to describe the birds themselves are poetic and sublime. The lyrical vocabulary of the sport comes through even in the auctioneer's booming baritone: Birds are described as ash, or brick-red, or "a blue bar," "a lacy check," "a silver hen," "a three-barred silver," and "a strawberry grizzle with a splash of white."

Fatalski gives the lowdown on training. "When you first buy them and take them home you keep them in for a week, feed them and water them, and make sure they're at home and settled," he says. "Once a bird is part of the group, you let him out, and he'll fly around the house. When they start traveling, they take off for a half-hour and come back. A half-hour at 50 miles per hour can be quite a ways."

Letting birds fly around isn't just for exercise. The birds get to know the countryside, which gives them an advantage finding their way home in a race. Then a flier will crate his birds and drive out into the country to release them, taking them a bit farther with each trip. "The more familiarity they have, the faster they'll fly and the farther they'll go," Fatalski says. "When they start traveling and coming back, then you start taking them in the direction you want."

It's practice for the big race, when the birds are packed into the shipping truck, driven down to southern Illinois, and released. "The truck parks, we water them and rest them," Fatalski says, "then all the doors open at once." Typically, the birds will wheel in the sky for a minute or so, and then take off for home. From there, computers and sensors take over, and the birds with the fastest overall velocity win.

"We're racing for yards per minute," Fatalski says.

That competition for the best speed can be juiced up with all sorts of technical innovations, such as controlling when a bird feathers out with a technique called "the darkness system," so a bird molts in February and enters the racing season with a full set of feathers. Other contemporary tweaks even include artificial insemination with cryopreserved pigeon sperm, which raises the possibility of a genetic market that could give fliers all over the world access to hallowed bloodlines.

Again, good bloodlines are vital, and pricey too. That's because they represent decades' worth of breeding work to find birds that excel at racing. It would be possible to collect wild pigeons and find a racer, but the costs of finding those few feathered athletes make it impractical.

"A guy who is stealing them under freeway overpasses can breed 100 and have two of them be good racers," Fatalski says. "But with thoroughbreds, 98 out of 100 of them would be good. It pays."

There have been other innovations that make racing easier, such as the microchip-sensor technology now widely used. Today, fliers can even see their birds come home on updates via mobile devices. "I can be out having breakfast," Fatalski says, "and say, 'Look! I got two!' Back in the old days you had to actually grab the bird. An inexperienced guy would tear his bird's leg or rip his feathers out. He'd say, 'I won the race,' — but let's see what you do next week."

Indeed, among the some of the better fliers, that concern about a bird's well-being is paramount. The birds will allow themselves to be gently manhandled by their fliers, such as having a wing fully extended for inspection, or its tailfeathers spread like a deck of cards. It's because the men treat the birds well, talking or whistling to them, getting the birds to associate their presence with good things, like being allowed out to fly, or getting fresh food or water. And they return the favors by trying to find their way home as quickly as possible.

The sport is almost exclusively male, and it survives in the way that the best (and worst) stubborn habits tend to be — passed down by father to son. That's how Jack Schmelzer, who'll be 90 in December, got his start. His father, Arthur Schmelzer, an ethnic German, was a flier, and out of seven children, Jack and his older brother took to the sport. Jack started his racing career in 1937, when his dad entered a bird in a race in his son's name in the Lafayette Homing Club, on Lafayette right near the boulevard. Since they were teenagers, Schmelzer and his brother combed Belle Isle looking for racing birds, crawling atop the rafters in the horse stables or walking out on the frozen river to find them nesting under the bridge to the island. Every so often, the boys would find a bird with a band around its leg to bring home for breeding stock.

Lost racing pigeons, it turns out, weren't uncommon on the island park. He says, "The reason they all went to Belle Isle is that they used to throw corn out there for the deer. The pigeons liked corn, you know? So they found food right away and plenty of water. They made a home there. The tag stays on for life. I caught a lot of good pigeons there."

And good birds are in demand for their skills, as mentioned before. During World War II, as part of the war effort, the U.S. government drafted pigeons to send messages in combat zones. (The most decorated of these pigeons, "G.I. Joe," was exhibited at the Detroit Zoo and lived to the ripe old age of 18.) Schmelzer's pigeons were drafted into the U.S. Army a year before he was. Schmelzer only served stateside and was mustered out in June 1946, but the one of the Schmelzer's pigeons the Army returned served longer than he did, working in the Middle East and not getting out until 1948.

After the war, Schmelzer was an officer in several different homing clubs, and learned all the tricks of the trade. This was back in the days when birds returning from a race had to be taken in hand, their identifiers removed and inserted into a mechanical clock to record the time of arrival. He still has one of the contraptions at his home in Detroit, a bulky piece of machinery almost as big as a breadbox.

But Schmelzer feels the emphasis on prizes and high-tech gimmickry hasn't been good for the sport. "It was more fun when we were all poor," he says. "I haven't flown yet this year. I'm old. I'm retired. But think of a guy with two or three kids coming up, he's gotta come up with $350 for trucking, he's gotta pay $100 for dues, he's gotta pay $3 for each chip you buy for the electronic computer. That's $3 a band, you have to pay for that. Some guys nowadays got 70 or 80 pigeons. That's another $240 you gotta come up with. The sensors have come down in price but they're $728."

And that's just for racing, not for breeding, training, or upkeep. The grand tally easily reaches into the thousands. Organizing a really big event for fliers — between hotel reservations, the expenses, the pot — can run into the six figures, calling for a kind of accounting not normally found among hobbyists. Schmelzer, as a former accountant and banker, felt more at home doing the books than others, and remembers one large racing convention that totaled $698,000, including the pot.

Reminded that many fliers don't much want to talk about pots, kitties, points or the like, Schmelzer laughs. "Everybody knows you bet on them," he says.

The schedule for any racing club is full of short races that help train the birds. But September's 43rd Motor City Race is the big kahuna, offering the biggest prizes. Unfortunately, in an unprecedented turn of events, almost all Midwestern pigeon racing has been halted due to an outbreak of bird flu since early June. (Bird shows and poultry exhibitions have also been casualties.) The news couldn't be much worse for the region's fliers.

Indiana's ban is expected to last six months. Ohio announced its own ban on June 2. Michigan announced the next day. The big race is off, and the already-embattled pigeon-racing scene is on lockdown. Officials did temporarily reverse the ban on pigeon racing in mid-June only to re-establish it a few weeks later, citing any commingling of birds, even in the air, as too dangerous to allow.

Karen Clifton, the executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union, has been dealing with state officials regarding the bird flu outbreak. She's doing her best to go to bat for pigeon-racing clubs with state departments of agriculture, participating in conference calls with the USDA and trying to educate poultry-oriented officials about the finer points of racing birds.

That's important when industry efforts to eradicate a strain of flu can involve drastic measures. For instance, in 2002 and 2003, an 11-month outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease in California resulted in an eradication program that saw more than 3 million poultry destroyed, and California enacted a ban on moving all birds out of state. "The good news is California is a very long state so they could still get their races in," Clifton says.

But the strain of bird flu affecting the Midwest this spring is something else. "My understanding, through USDA sources and websites, is that approximately 50 million poultry — chickens and turkeys — have been destroyed. ... This is largely unprecedented," Clifton says.

The outbreak has effectively grounded all Midwestern pigeon clubs, given bans on crossing state borders with birds of any kind, and it affects Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Precautionary measures have been taken in almost two dozen states, including many in the "Mississippi Flyway," a bird migratory route roughly following the Mississippi River. Fliers are allowed to let their birds out of the loft for exercise, but that's about it.

There's a possibility that the strain affecting edible birds may not affect pigeons as severely, though it would be a tough job establishing that to the USDA's satisfaction. Clifton says, "Pigeons are typically not susceptible to many if not most of the viruses that poultry are for a number of reasons. Their body temperature is in excess of 107 degrees. Their metabolism is so rapid that they shed anything that they might pick up, and if they're shedding it, they can't host a virus, therefore they can't transmit it. In fact, even the USDA has done studies where they've found a minuscule rate of occurrence with regards to bird flu. I'm hopeful that some solid science will support that fact. And I would hope that that would alter the way the officials respond to any future outbreak."

Advocating for pigeon racers with state agencies trying to fight a disease threatening an entire agricultural sector is no simple errand. Clifton has to be cautious, and she words her answers carefully. "We've been really trying to stand where the state vets want us to. The USDA has even indicated that they believe pigeons should be at the very lowest end of the list of species even remotely affected, but again at the end of the day it's up to each state vet to do what they feel they need to do, and they're taking precautionary measures."

Clifton also has to remain true to the people who have made the sport their life's passion, and some certainly feel it's overkill. "Oh, sure," she says. "They're passionate about their hobby. And if pigeons are susceptible, you would think by now, with the outbreaks that have occurred, that there would be feral pigeons that would be found all over the place that had been impacted by this strain, and that's not the case. However, on the flip side of that, our members by and large want to be part of the resolution, not the problem. They also respect that the poultry industry is huge and their various officials are doing what they feel they need to do to protect a multibillion-dollar industry. So while our members may not really like it, they do understand and they're willing to be responsible. It could be much worse. Conceivably, the state governments could order that all the pigeons be euthanized."

If some metro Detroiter fliers characterized the pigeon racing scene as moribund to begin with, it doesn't help that they can't compete in 2015. It's one less season for the father-son bonding process that keeps the sport going. As both Fatalski and Schmelzer have pointed out, the scene is drying up as members age out without younger fliers to replace them. It's a phenomenon driven by several factors, not just the sport's lack of cachet among younger people who'd rather be snowboarding or surfing than cleaning up pigeon poop. As both men noted, the cost of the sport has gone up considerably. And there's little doubt that suburban sprawl has diffused the neighborhood and community energy that fed into pigeon racing's classic era. When Schmelzer lived on Harper Avenue in the 1940s, he could count eight families keeping pigeons; today, among the dwindling number of fliers, some will drive an hour or more to meet at the clubhouse.

That's why many consider the future of pigeon racing to be firmly in the hands of metro Detroit's Mexican community, made up of mostly 30-something fliers like Zamudio, family men poised to pass on the hobby to the next generation, men with deep ties to the sport and its place in their modern culture back home.

"I would say if you had to pick a nationality, it would be more Mexicans racing than anyone else I can think of. They actually they get together and party more than the rest of us," Fatalski says. "The Mexican Union Club is growing."

Eighty-nine-year-old Schmelzer agrees. "They're getting better and better and better, the Mexicans. I'd say most of them are in their 30s. They're young guys. But they're very cliquish." He quickly backs off and clarifies, "I shouldn't say that, because the Belgians and the Polish were very cliquish too at the time when we were growing up. Nationality meant a lot more than it does now. But Mexicans brought nationality back into it."

He adds, "And they talk about them now 'cause they're winning."

Zamudio is no longer with the Mexican Union Club — he says the duties of office were a chore — but the Mexican fliers seem more motivated by trophies and glory than points on the pot anyway.

"We fight for the trophy. I mean, we have prizes and stuff too, but it's mainly for the trophy," Zamudio says. "In other clubs, you can find fliers that fly one race that's big for the money, even if they have 12 races. When we say we are gonna have the first race on a certain day, 95 percent of the guys are ready."

Asked about being grounded by the government this season, he admits he misses racing. "Flying is the top of the mountain," he says. "You can work all the time breeding the winner, trying to make your best pairs, and it's fun, but nothing compares to when you see a bird coming back from the race. I can't tell you how you feel expecting your baby to be home, and, of course, to be the first. And you don't imagine how you relax sitting in a coop. Sometimes, when I come home from work, or I got some discussions in my family, you just get out, get into the pigeon loft, and it's certainly therapeutic. You touch the birds. You look around at them and then you get more relaxed. You get out of your house and then you're calm."

And as for whether he thinks Mexicans in metro Detroit can carry the sport on for another generation despite the hurdles, the way the Belgians and Polish did before them...

Zamudio smiles and says, "I can answer that question in 20 years. But I hope so. It's a pretty good sport."

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