Pigeon-racing enthusiasts say it's a soar sport
By LOYD BRUMFIELD
Published: 28 January 2012 10:39 PM
Like racehorses bolting out of the starting gate, they rush out of Louie Cargiulo’s loft in Cedar Hill in a flurry of flapping wings — maybe 30 pigeons in all, circling his yard once or twice before soaring high into the sky.
They pass in front of a cellular phone tower, cast tiny shadows against the sun and then fly out of sight on this unseasonably warm January afternoon.
“The first time a bird comes home, you’re hooked,” said Cargiulo, a 57-year-old former employee of the U.S. Postal Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Six or seven minutes later, Cargiulo’s pigeons appear in the sky again, flying as a group. They circle high in the sky repeatedly and then swoop down low and round his backyard several times before one bird decides to take the lead and head home.
“Come on, come on, come on!” Cargiulo calls out, making his voice sound like a bird’s call. The rest of the birds follow the leader into the loft.
Cargiulo, who is retired, is one of hundreds of local residents — all men — who spend several weeks between March and May racing pigeons. They transport their birds to the race site, release them all at once, then wait for them to return to their lofts — sometimes from several hundred miles away.
Cargiulo has just started to train his racers for the upcoming season.
“If they can’t consistently finish in the top 10 percent, then they can’t race for me,” said Cargiulo, who typically races only three or four birds at an event while others might race as many as 25.
Dale Magee of Midlothian, a former Navy pilot, got out of racing for a while but is starting to get back into it.
“What I find amazing is that it brings people from different lifestyles together,” he said. “There’s this community to it. You’ll find lawyers and garbage truck drivers standing side by side and they are the best of friends.”
Cargiulo and Magee both race through Mansfield-based Rodeo City Racing Pigeon Club, which is governed by the American Racing Pigeon Union.
Explaining the rules of pigeon racing isn’t easy. The ARPU’s website, pigeon.org, lists rules that go on for page after page and read like a congressional bill.
“Pigeon training demands a lot of time,” Magee said. “They are athletes, and it takes a lot to train them.”
That’s one of the reasons why many racers are retired, including Cargiulo, Magee and Stan Bell of Wilmer, who estimates he has more than 100 pigeons in his loft.
“It just fascinated me that pigeons know how to fly out and come home on their own,” Bell said of how he got involved with racing.
Pigeons use a combination of senses to find their way home, including keen eyesight, a sharp sense of smell and extremely sensitive hearing.
Cargiulo owns dozens of DVDs about pigeons, and in one, narrator Jim Jenner says it is believed that pigeons can hear wind coming over mountains from thousands of miles away.
“I tell you one thing: World War I and World War II both would have lasted a lot longer if it hadn’t been for [carrier] pigeons,” Cargiulo said.
Cargiulo keeps about 40 birds in his loft, not all of them racers. One 5-day-old pigeon fits in the palm of a hand, but Cargiulo says it will double in size by the time it reaches its seventh day of life.
Prize money is involved in some races, but Cargiulo said he races mainly for trophies and awards. He has a notebook full of certificates and statistics of how his birds have fared. He was won several first places.
In probably the last race of the 2011 season, one of his birds won by two hours, flying back 457 airline miles from Brownsville to Cedar Hill. It was judged to have flown 1,358.656 yards per minute on its route.
On race day, Cargiulo will sit in his backyard and wait for his birds to return home. A 300-mile race could take six hours or so. Sometimes, it’s an overnight process.
“I used to be really, really nervous when I was younger, but I’ve calmed down a little bit,” he said.
Once he sees one of his pigeons, he has a whistle ready to signal it home, but he never uses it unless the bird starts circling.
“You want them to come straight in and not circle,” he said. “Because if they circle, they are costing you time.”
Races come in three types: short, middle and long distances. Pigeons are bred for different types of racing. Short-distance birds can’t do long distances, but long-distance pigeons can compete in any kind of race.
Pigeon ages: Young and old pigeons can race. Pigeons are considered old when they reach 1 year of age. Pigeons mature extremely quickly and can live as long as 20 years.
Endurance: Pigeons have been known to fly 15-16 hours nonstop. “There’s no going down for water or anything,” said Cedar Hill pigeon racer Louie Cargiulo.
Race day: Cargiulo transports his birds to the Rodeo City Racing Pigeon Club in Mansfield, where they are put in bins and taken to the race site. Once at the site, the pigeons are placed in a trailer on a truck, where the sides open up and the birds fly out all at once.
Judging results: Each pigeon carries a computer chip in a band around one of its feet. Once a bird arrives home, Cargiulo stands ready with a scanner – like a grocery store price-checker — which captures the data from the chip. Back at Rodeo City RPC, results are officially recorded.
Yards per minute: Because some lofts are closer to the race site than others, pigeons aren’t judged strictly on their finish times. Winners are determined by calculating how many yards per minute the bird flew from information recorded on the chip.
More information: Visit the Texas Center of Racing Pigeons at txcenter.org for a list of North Texas-based racing clubs. For in-depth racing rules, visit pigeon.org.