A Different Spin

Story from the Hamakua Community News.  Article not dated.


A Different Spin

Story and photos by Sarah Anderson

The sun hadn’t yet cracked the eastern horizon as Eldon Cheney walked up the lawn from the guest room wearing a red baseball cap that read, “spin‘em if you got’em” under the initials “NBRC”. Cheney, who looks like a seasoned rancher with a white handlebar mustache and a twinkle in his eye, had stayed overnight in Kalopa Homesteads as a guest of Rick Schoening. The stop was the last on a circuit that had began in late July and had taken Cheney all around the United States as the judge for the National Birmingham Roller Club 2008 Fall Fly.

Schoening, with a cup of coffee in his hand, motioned toward the padlocked doors on the old plantation house garage that now serves as the home for his birds, “I don’t want to open the loft until we’re ready to go,” he said in the understated tone which steady hands use.

Schoening had qualified for the national 2008 Fall Fly competition by scoring the highest in the Hawaii Regional Championships several months earlier with his kit of 20 Birmingham Roller Pigeons. These birds were hand-picked from the family of English pigeons that Schoening has been breeding since 1983.

“20 birds going out, Eldon,” Schoening called as he chose particular birds from their roosts in the loft and slipped them into a carrier. Out on the lawn he opened the crate and the white, black and grey birds quickly took flight. They climbed into the cool, clear dawn and formed up into a flock, known as a “kit”. There was a five minute grace period before the clock started and the judging period began.

Birmingham Roller Pigeons are distant relatives of the rock dove. They travelled west from the Middle East during the Crusades along with their nemesis, the falcons. Falconry became a pastime of the royalty and the peasants ended up with the pigeons. The birds have been bred over the past one thousand years for the ability to break in midflight and roll backwards in tight rotations of reverse somersaults before resuming flight. They execute these acrobatic maneuvers as a synchronized group.

Roller pigeons in competition are judged on several factors; the number of birds in the kit that roll simultaneously, the distance, or depth, that they fall while they’re rolling, as well as the quality of the roll.

After the five minute grace period ended, and birds were on the clock, and these behaviors were what the experienced eyes of Eldon Cheney were looking for. Beside him Dexter Aoki, from Papaiko, who also raises and flies Rollers, was keeping the time and scribing notations as Cheney called out his observations in a practiced, even voice.

On the other side of the yard Schoening paced, glancing upward from time to time at his kit on the wing. He explained, “The oldest bird up there is just nine months old, they’re young, they’re teenagers, they act like teenagers… They don’t always do what they’re supposed to.” As Cheney and Aoki stood with their heads tilted back and their eyes trained on the kit, Schoening explained how he moved to the Big Island a year ago and doesn’t have a good gauge on the temperature, still expecting it to be cooler at night, and the miscalculation is showing in the behavior of the birds.

The training regimen is critical to the performance of the kit. The birds need to be in top shape, but a bit on the edge, not so strong as to dampen the trigger reflex that cause them to roll. Diet is a big factor. Schoening starts about ten days prior to competition with a low protein high carbohydrate diet of milo grain then reduces the ration of milo and introduces peas, which are high in protein, for two days. Then he switches to high fat millet for the last twelve hours before competition. “But it works better on older birds…figures, trying to manage teenagers” he added.

Both Schoening and Cheney have been involved with pigeons since they were about five years old. Schoening’s breeding line is matrilineal, hen lines, he calls them, although both men noted that Schoening had an outstanding cock-bird in flight.

With no fanfare, after the 20 minute judgment period ended, Aoki called the time and the competition was over. Cheney took the notepad, pulled a calculator out of his pocket, and retired to the front step while Schoening and Aoki continued to watch the Rollers circle over the house dropping as much as 30 feet all together from time to time.

Cheney finished his calculations, tore the top page of his notepad off and handed Schoening his score. Schoening took a look at the paper and continued the conversation about how pigeon fanciers love to hate the raptors, the birds of prey. They are not a huge issue in Hawaii, since the only predators here are the I’o, and the two species of owls; but in Missouri, where Cheney lives, he can’t even fly his pigeons without losing them to the Cooper’s Hawks. He described the hawks as pests on the wing, “You have your life’s work up there and along comes a hawk and takes your best bird.” He said shaking his head with his eyes fixed on the ground.

Back inside the loft Cheney asked to handle the birds. His calloused hands gently cupped a hen with lifetime of familiarity. He manipulated the bird demonstrating her extremely flexible conformation, bending her tail feathers over her back to touch her head and rolling her into a feather ball. He explained how this level of flexibility shows excellent flying and maneuvering potential. Schoening looked pleased by the high praise proffered from a master not easily impressed.

Schoening’s rookie birds earned him 413.10 points to give him a ranking of 14th among the 47 different kits of Roller pigeons that were flown nationwide in the 2008 Fall Fly competition. Although he didn’t rank among the top ten as he hoped, he noted that he was especially proud of the high mark of 1.7 out of a possible 2.0 that his birds earned from Cheney for their excellent quality.

And they are just teenagers.

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