September 23, 2012 in Features

Pigeon racer spends most of his time as a chaperone

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Jerry Michielli holds one of his racing birds to display its unique coloration in his Spokane Valley loft earlier this month.
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• Meet Jerry Michielli’s racing doves at Valley Fest today at Mirabeau Point Park, 13500 E. Mirabeau Parkway in Spokane Valley. Pick a dove and watch it being released – then check its arrival at Michielli’s loft via a webcam. The doves will begin flying at 10 a.m. and will fly throughout the day.

Jerry Michielli worries a lot about birth control.

He doesn’t want things to get out of hand and that’s the main reason he keeps the boys and the girls separated.

Michielli keeps homing pigeons.

“Doves. You really should call them racing doves. There’s a stigma attached to pigeon. People think pigeons are dirty,” he said. Michielli owns Silver Wings Racing, which is home to more than 100 carefully selected and bred doves. They coo and fluff their feathers as he moves carefully between nesting boxes, checking for eggs, looking for newly hatched chicks, making sure everyone is OK.

Every night, he grabs “a beverage” and goes to check on the doves.

The doves act like they expect him. They don’t panic when he walks by. They’re simply perched in their little nesting boxes or walking around on the floor, cooing. And cooing.

A hen flaps her wings and pecks at his hand when he reaches for her chick, but it looks more like she’s flirting than seriously protecting her offspring.

“When the mama gets protective, that’s good, you want to see that,” said Michielli, gently cupping the chick in his hand.

At just a few days old the mostly naked chick feels warm to the touch, like a baby’s bald head. It has a profile only a mother can love: with its big honking beak and a long skinny neck it looks like a tiny vulture.

“It takes 17 days for the eggs to hatch and then about four weeks before the chicks are ready to be weaned, and they should be out flying at six weeks,” said Michielli, carefully fishing another chick out of a nest. “In the wild a pigeon lives to be 4 or 5. In the breeding loft they live into their teens.” The hens usually lay two eggs at a time, and Michielli sometimes replaces the real eggs with fakes.

“That’s another kind of birth control,” he said. “She won’t notice until they are ready to hatch. If they don’t, she’ll lay new ones.”

He had one dove – The Queen – who lived to be 21. She was an outstanding racer who won several 600-mile races.

His loft is a converted trailer that’s been hauled over from the West Side where a pigeon racing club used it. On its side is a painted commemoration of Geronimo – a famous World War II carrier pigeon who carried 81 messages on 30 combat missions – perhaps giving Michielli’s pigeons something to live up to.

“Homing pigeons were used in the war, before radio communications got real good,” Michielli said. “And not just any old dove can do what these guys do. They are bred to come home.”

So how exactly do they find their way home? Michielli said some believe the pigeons can smell their way, or that they use magnetic lines in the earth for navigation.

“None of it is proven,” Michielli said. “I think they have photographic memories. I think they see something they recognize and that’s the way they go.”

But think about this: For the longest races, 600 miles, the doves – all from different lofts – spend the night before in a truck being driven to a location such as, say, northern Oregon. They may never have been there before. The next morning, the doves will be released together, then circle in big, beautiful swoops, wings flapping, as they gain height. First they fly together and then, suddenly, they begin to split off in smaller groups headed home to their individual lofts. They have a day to complete the race.

“Their instinct is to stay together but they also want to go home,” Michielli said, “and at some point they have to make that decision and break off from the large group or they won’t make it home.” Doves don’t fly at night so they are on a tight deadline.

While the doves are released, Michielli is waiting at home. There’s no GPS tracking involved, just patience and scanning the sky.

“I’m always waiting for them to come home,” said Michielli, automatically looking up, although his birds are at home on this night.

During races the doves wear a pea-sized electronic race band around one leg, and once home they must cross an electronic bar that registers their return on a clock. It’s the same technology as at the Bloomsday finish line, just much smaller.

It’s been a good season for Silver Wings Racing, Michielli said.

Last weekend, when smoke and dust clouded the air, Michielli worried that his young birds were in over their heads, but everyone returned safely.

“They came in smokin’,” he said.

It’s normal to lose a bird or two – or more – during a race. Sometimes they get lost. Sometimes they get eaten by a hawk. Sometimes they return to the wrong loft with another group of doves.

The longest time one of his birds was gone was one year.

“I have no idea where it was, but suddenly it came home,” Michielli said.

And what happens to the slow doves?

“We don’t eat them, I know some people do but we don’t,” Michielli said. “We don’t breed them; we just keep them around and let them retire.”

As he moves through the loft he whistles brightly, a few clear notes, like he’s calling a dog, at the same time as he pours grain into the feeders.

“The theory goes that I can go outside and whistle and they hear me and go into the loft,” said Michielli. “If they come home from a race, but sit up on the roof – that just drives you crazy. All you can do is wait for them to come down.”

On a perfect race day with no wind, the pigeons average 48 mph but they still have to “clock in” when they return. Every minute spent on the roof is a minute lost in the race.

On the day before a race, Michielli keeps his birds inside and feeds them lots of carbohydrates.

“They are vegetarians – they only eat grain and seeds,” said Michielli.

He got started racing pigeons when he was a teenager in 4-H, then said he got out of it in high school, “when I was more interested in girls and cars.” He returned to the hobby after he married and settled down.

His current favorite is the hen Red Pepper. She’s white with a dusting of reddish spots and freckles, almost like an appaloosa horse.

“The ones who have done special things for you and have a special coloration, those you don’t want to lose,” Michielli said, holding Red Pepper, who’s safely retired to the breeding loft.

Michielli said doves will pair for life if you let them.

“And that’s the best motivation for coming home,” he said, smiling. “If she has a boyfriend she really wants to come home to, or a nest to protect, then she’ll do anything to make it.”

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