Flights of fancy Birmingham roller pigeons have a devoted following
By DAVE REESE
Special to the Inter Lake
January 18, 2007
Rich Hayes watches two Birmingham roller pigeons fly out of their loft Wednesday at Hayes’ home near Pablo. Dave Reese photos/Special to the Inter Lake
Rick Schoening and Rich Hayes stood on frozen ground in the rolling hills near Pablo on Wednesday, watching pigeons circling overhead.
The birds flew in tight formation, around and around.
Then, almost on cue, one by one or two by two, the pigeons began tumbling toward earth as if shot out of the sky.
The pigeons fell and fluttered in backward somersaults as if trying to see how close they could get to the ground before regaining flight.
The birds are Birmingham roller pigeons, an English breed of pigeon whose namesake genetic trait inspires them to perform backward somersaults in the air. They perform their feat up to 20 times in a row.
Schoening and Hayes are diehard pigeon fanciers who live near each other in rolling farmland just south of Polson.
EARLIER, As Schoening opened the door on his small loft of Birminghams, the pigeons, which hadn’t flown in a few days, were quick to exit. One bird, barely 20 feet off the ground, began his tumble too early and hit the ground. The bird struggled along the ground, stunned, before it found its wings.
Within seconds of their release, the other birds were grouped in flight, making tight laps around Hayes’ yard about 100 feet off the ground.
Schoening and Hayes, two birds of a feather themselves, watched the skybound birds intently and incessantly, following them around and around – and around and around. They don’t even take their eyes off the birds to talk to each other.
The friends, both of whom have competed with their birds in world competitions, are able to see the traits of certain birds that might catch a judge’s fancy.
“That lavender one balls up nice,” Schoening says, watching the sky.
“Yeah, he’s really coming along,” Hayes provides.
(One of Schoening’s cronies found a better way to watch the birds. Instead of enduring the dizzying round and round while standing up, Schoening’s friend took a dentist’s chair and used that for watching his birds.)
After about 20 minutes, Schoening whistled and rattled two milk jugs as a feed call and the birds returned almost immediately to their loft. A small white pigeon fell into his roll too close to the shed and landed with a ‘thwack’ on top of the metal roof. Like a prize fighter, the bird struggled to its feet, shook it off and flew a few feet into the roost to join his comrades.
“We don’t know why they roll, but they do,” Schoening says. “You can see the downside of it, when they hit the ground.” An older male pigeon, not content to return to the roost just yet, continued his flight for another 10 minutes by himself. “He’s in good shape,” Schoening allowed.
Sometimes the birds don’t calculate their distance from the ground when they begin their rolls. One bird landed in Hayes’ neighbor’s yard in a tall, frozen tree, which shook with shivers of frost.
“I hope he’s OK,” Hayes said, obviously concerned. But after a few minutes, the bird erupted in flight to joined the other birds.
While Hayes is strictly a fancier of Birmingham roller pigeons, Schoening keeps two roosts, or “kits,” of pigeons; in one kit are his Birmingham rollers, while another kit holds his white racing pigeons. These large, white pigeons are released at weddings and funerals as symbolic reference to love and flight.
The white pigeons always find their way home. After one wedding in Holland Lake, at least 50 air miles directly east over the imposing Mission Mountains, most of his pigeons were home in a day. Some of his other birds, though, took three months.
“They must have taken the scenic route,” said Schoening, a game warden for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who has raised pigeons since he was a child growing up in Illinois.
After arriving in Missoula to study at the University of Montana, Schoening spent a year in a dormitory while his father cared for his birds. “I had to move off campus,” Schoening said. “I missed my birds too much.”
Now he’s part of this tight-knit group of pigeon fanciers who travel the world to watch each other’s Birmingham roller pigeons tumble through the air and compete.
In fact, Schoening was ready to board the Amtrak train in Whitefish on Wednesday for a trip to Portland, where he and other American pigeon fanciers would discuss details for the upcoming world championships.
IN COMPETITION flight, roller pigeons are judged on how well they tumble in concert with their fellow fliers. Better breeding and plenty of exercise make for better rollers, Schoening said.
“It’s like getting ready for a marathon,” he said. “You want teamwork. It’s just critical to scoring.”
Schoening’s birds aren’t just pets or hobbies; they are family to him – and among themselves. They’ve all been inter-bred to maintain their roller qualities. “You have to develop a tight-knit family,” he said. He breeds about 100 birds a year.
When breeding, the male Birmingham struts and coos to win the favor of his female mate. He’ll spread his wings and drag his tail on the ground, and often the male and female will grab each other’s beaks as if they’re kissing. They regurgitate food into each other’s mouth “to show they’re good parents,” Schoening said.
Throughout the courtship, the male and female begin building their nest together. When the eggs – usually a pair – are hatched, the male will take over incubation duties during the day while the hen keeps the eggs warm at night. “Their mating is a very delicate and loving thing to watch,” Schoening said.
After six months, the hens will be ready to breed again. Maybe. “Some old hens just won’t do it, after they’ve mated with one male,” Schoening said. But if the offspring are good, “I’ll just leave them married,” he said.
The pigeons can be targets of larger raptors.
In Schoening’s back yard Wednesday, a large rough-legged hawk stood watch from a barren cottonwood tree near the pigeon lofts. The large raptors will sometimes attack a pigeon in the air, although they generally opt for easier meals on the ground such as mice.
Still, Schoening winces when he has to watch a hawk or falcon attack one of his birds. “I know how ranchers must feel when a wolf takes one of their cattle,” he said.
Winter in Montana is a good time to fly their pigeons, since many of the birds of prey have moved south. That’s bad for the California pigeon fanciers, however, whose birds “just get butchered” in the winter, Schoening says.
Like Schoening, Hayes was bitten by the pigeon bug at an early age. He had found a small baby pigeon, known as a squab, when he was a child in California. “Ever since then I was hooked,” he said.
The license plates on Hayes’ Ford pickup truck say “ROLLERS.”
Now retired, Hayes is a devoted pigeon fancier who dotes on his birds – so much so that it probably cost him his last marriage. His wife at the time, he said, felt he spent too much time with his avian friends.
“I love my birds and like flying them,” he said. “The whole thing … the breeding, the flying, the camaraderie, is just a very unique hobby.”
Flight of the pigeons: Rich Hayes’ Birmingham rollers are best in the world
By VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian
Photographed by MICHAEL GALLACHER of the Missoulian
August 18, 2008
POLSON: If you happen upon a certain flock of birds flying west of Pablo Reservoir around 6:30 in the morning, your first reaction may be, “What in the heck is wrong with them?”
The answer: Nothing.
Sure, they may seem to come to a screeching halt in mid-flight and start doing backward somersaults as they twist toward the earth like a spinning yo-yo, and sure, you won’t catch anything from an eagle to a sea gull doing anything so preposterous.
But Rich Hayes’ birds are bred to tumble through the skies, performing a feathered air show like no other.
Not only is there nothing wrong with Hayes’ Birmingham roller pigeons, there is everything right with them.
Indeed, they are the best Birmingham roller pigeons in the world.
Hayes, who lives just south of Polson, won the 2008 World Cup Fly with his pigeons, which rolled better than any other Birmingham rollers on the planet.
The 66-year-old n who has raised pigeons since he was a kid in California n started competing 13 years ago. His birds had three times qualified for the World Cup prior to this year, finishing 15th twice and 16th once.
“I’d always thought, ‘Man, it’d be great to finish in the top 10 sometime,’ ” Hayes says.
“That’s the only group anybody notices.”
Instead, his pigeons registered the highest score ever seen in the United States during regional qualifying, then easily beat the other 67 World Cup finalists. The top 10 included birds from South Africa, England, Denmark, Australia, Holland and the United States.
The championship carries no cash prize but does deliver one serious perk: an all-expenses paid, darn-near around-the-world 10-week trip to serve as the judge for the 2009 World Cup finals. Instead of 68 people from around the globe lugging all their birds to one spot to compete, one person traveled to four continents to judge the finalists at 68 different locations.
Hayes doesn’t know if he’ll do it, though.
“Who’d take care of my pigeons while I was gone?” the bachelor says.
Hayes was about 12 years old and growing up in 1950s California when a pigeon fell out of a palm tree and landed near his feet.
“I took it home and asked if I could keep it,” he says. “I fed it bread I had mushed up and it perched on my shoulder all the time.”
Later, Hayes was riding his bicycle through Downey, Calif., when he spied a whole flock of Birmingham roller pigeons plummeting through the sky. He watched them return to their pens n rollers have some of the same instincts as a homing pigeon n sought out their owner, and started learning about the unusual birds.
“They have a muscle in their back that locks up and causes them to flip backwards and do somersaults,” Hayes says. “They know how they do it, but they don’t know why they do it.”
Some call it a genetic defect.
Others believe the pigeons developed it as an evasive maneuver to escape charging predators such as hawks.
Whatever it is, people started breeding the best of the rollers more than 200 years ago in England, and the hobby has developed into a sport as well.
Breeding is a key. Some pigeons are “shallow” rollers and some are “deep” rollers, but if you breed two deep rollers you’re likely to come up with a bird that somersaults all the way to earth and kills itself.
“If you don’t breed them right, the offspring will spin to their death,” Hayes says. “We call a deep roller ‘hot,’ and you don’t want to breed two hot rollers. You want to mate a hot one to a bird that’s more controlled.”
The sport even gets referenced in “Hannibal,” Thomas Harris’ follow-up to “Silence of the Lambs.” As he tries to mess with FBI agent Clarice Starling’s head, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter suggests to her that her parents were both “deep rollers,” leaving her with a predisposition to crash and die.
In competition, owners send out birds in teams, known as “kits,” of 15 to 20.
The goal is to have as many of the birds as possible flip backward and start somersaulting toward the ground at the same time n that’s called a “break” n and as often as possible over a 20- minute period.
“I think they get leaders, and certain birds will trigger the rest,” Hayes says. “It’s like good team chemistry. When you fly them and they all spin at the same time, it’s like Beijing fireworks.”
It takes a minimum of five birds breaking to score points.
In the World Cup, Hayes flew 19-bird kits, three times had all 19 break at the same time, and had many more scores in the 10-16 range.
If one bird in the kit returns to its pen, the scoring can continue, according to Hayes. Once a second bird flies back, the scoring is over no matter how long the rest of the birds remain in flight and keep on somersaulting.
The number of breaks, and the number of birds in each break, determines a raw score.
Hayes had 46 breaks in the World Cup.
The judge also determines the quality of each break n i.e., “how nice and compact they are,” according to Hayes n and the depth of each break.
Hayes had breaks that lasted as much as 60 feet before the pigeons pulled out of them.
The raw score is multiplied by the numbers awarded by the judge for the quality and depth of each break. Hayes’ birds scored a record 2,444 points in regional qualifying.
Their score in the World Cup of 1,950.72 didn’t approach that but was easily enough to beat second-place Riaan Kruger of South Africa, whose birds scored 1,571.4.
That man flying Birmingham rollers more than half a century ago that Hayes saw in the California sky?
He offered to give the young Hayes two birds. With his parents’ blessing, a lifelong hobby was born, and Hayes is so interested in introducing his sport to others, especially young people, he asked that his phone number (212-0167) be included in this story.
“It’s something to do besides sit inside and play video games,” he says. “Us older guys are starting to die off, and I want to see young people carry on something I have a real passion for.”
Passion? Hayes has a Birmingham roller tattooed on his forearm.
Today, on his semi-rural property, Hayes keeps approximately 150 birds, about 100 of them rollers.
Among his other birds are several white racing homers Hayes uses to raise the rollers.
“With the pigeons it takes 18 days to hatch and three weeks for them to fly,” he explains. “With the white racing homers raising them the rollers just make more eggs, and it saves about a month of time.”
A retired heavy equipment operator with one son and one granddaughter, Hayes keeps his birds in several pens and a little house given to him by another man who raised Birmingham rollers but moved away.
Hayes and friend Jerry Creager, who also raises birds, were busy putting a new roof on the birds’ new home last week.
“What Rich likes most about this sport,” Creager said from the roof, “is that you lay flat on your back.”
True enough, there’s a lawn chair in the yard, where Hayes takes his morning coffee every day after releasing the birds at about 6:30 a.m.
“They circle 200 or 300 feet above me and do their breaks,” Hayes says. “I just really enjoy watching them.”
Feed for that many birds costs him about $60 a month, and Hayes religiously changes the water in the several pens and the home two to three times a day.
He flies the birds early in the morning, before he feeds them, because “you’ve got to fly them hungry or you’ve got no control over them.”
The pigeons faithfully return to where they feel safe, and know there is food and water to be had, after they’ve gallivanted about in the sky for a half-hour or so.
He has until December to decide whether he’ll judge the 2009 World Cup Fly.
“I was in the service, so I’ve seen a lot of the world,” he says. “But I’ve never been to South Africa or Australia, and I wouldn’t mind doing that.”
If he turns it down, he says the names of 10 members of the National Birmingham Roller Club are drawn from a hat, and the membership votes on who will judge the next competition.
Meantime, while his victory didn’t come with a cash prize, it has been somewhat lucrative.
His huge scores this year have caught the eyes of many a breeder around the world.
“Six months ago I couldn’t give away a pigeon,” he says.
“Now my good ones go for $500 a pair.”
A sight to see
Want to see Birmingham rollers in action? Go to YouTube, search for “Birmingham rollers”
and click on the video from Father Lawrence called “Wholly Rollers are Birmingham Rollers.”
To learn more about the sport, visit the National Birmingham Roller Club Web site,