Roller pigeons attract devoted following
Rich Hayes, left, and Rick Schoening watch their Birmingham roller pigeons fly near Pablo. Dave Reese photo
By DAVID REESE, Montana Living
Rick Schoening and Rich Hayes stood on frozen ground in the rolling hills near Pablo, watching pigeons circling overhead.
The birds flew in tight formations, 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 closely they could get to the ground before regaining flight.
These curious 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, with a velocity of eight to 12 revolutions per second. Schoening and Hayes are devoted pigeon fanciers who live near each other in rolling farmland just south of Polson.
As Schoening opened the door on his small loft of Birmingham pigeons, the birds, which hadn’t been 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 again and took flight.
Schoening and Hayes, two birds of a feather themselves, watched the sky-bound 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 in world competitions, were able to see the traits of certain birds that might catch a judge’s fancy.
“That lavender one balls up nice,” Schoening said, watching the sky.
“Yeah, he’s really coming along,” Hayes added.
(One of Schoening’s cronies found a better way to watch the birds. Instead of the dizzying round and round while standing up, Schoening’s friend took a rotating 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 struggles 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 said.
A LONG ROW of low-slung sheds forms the eastern border of Rich Hayes’ back yard near Polson.
From inside the sheds comes the sound of dozens of pigeons cooing and murmuring.
On a cold Wednesday morning, Hayes walked over the crunchy snow on a well-worn trail between his house and sheds. He flipped open a wooden door on the shed and stood back, as his Birmingham roller pigeons took flight into the cold, marble-grey sky.
Within seconds, the birds were grouped in flight, making tight laps around Hayes’ yard about 100 feet off the ground.
Sometimes the birds don’t calculate their distance from the ground when they begin their namesake trait. 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 join the other birds in flight.
While Hayes is strictly a fancier of Birmingham Roller pigeons, Schoening keeps two roosts, or “kits,” of pigeons; in one kit is 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.
“The whole thing … the breeding, the flying, the comraderie, is just a very unique hobby.” — Rick Schoening, Polson
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. I missed my birds too much,” Schoening said.
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. Yes, compete. In fact, Schoening was ready to board the Amtrak train in Whitefish 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 are hatched, usually a pair, the male will take over incubation duties during the day, while the hens keep 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 is good, “I’ll just leave them married,” he said.
The pigeons can be targets of prey from larger raptors.
In Schoening’s back yard, a large rough-legged hawk stood watch from a barren cottonwood tree near the pigeon lofts. The large raptors will sometimes attack a pigeon out of the air, although they generally opt for easier meals on the ground, like 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. In fact, 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 ex-wife, 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 comraderie, is just a very unique hobby.”