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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.