Flight Maps

Published in The New Orleans Advocate

Wednesday, March  9, 2016

Gray, white and red feathers fly out the back of a red pickup truck onto the following car’s windshield. As the sun rises, Larry Decareaux, a member of the Delta Pigeon Racing Club, drives crates of pigeons from New Orleans, Metairie, Slidell and the West Bank across the Louisiana state line.

Decareaux slows near Meridian, Mississippi, the starting point of the race. Quicker than most men his age could move, he flies out of his truck and releases hundreds of birds into the sky, flashes of colored wings slashing the light. Overhead, a long, waving chevron of birds forms and circles against the sky, seeking in some mysterious way the most direct route home.

Vick Corso, Ronnie Schwehm and Joe Graffia, members of the Slidell Pigeon Racing Club, are back at their lofts, awaiting their pigeons. They are participating in an old sport played around the world: pigeon racing.

“I started racing in 1961 when my cousin brought a hurt pigeon to my house. It was just a street pigeon, but I took care of it,” Schwehm said. “Later, a homing pigeon got lost and came to my house. It had a bracelet around its leg, and that’s how I contacted the club. I started meeting people who raced and bred pigeons, and 55 years later, I’m still here.”

The Slidell Pigeon Racing Club is part of a larger combine, or group of clubs, composed of the Dixie Pigeon Racing Club, the Delta Pigeon Racing Club and the Metairie Pigeon Racing Club. These clubs are a throwback from another time, a way for men to gather, compete and socialize.

Schwehm said several hundred were competing when he first began racing in 1961. Today, membership is dwindling, perhaps as few as 30 in the Greater New Orleans area. “We used to have to wait for the birds to bang into the loft. Now, with technology, you don’t need to be there. It broke up the camaraderie.”

Pigeon-racing clubs today are mostly made up of older men, who are still racing, still betting and still waiting for their birds to come home.

Pigeons have an Odyssean ability to find their way home, navigating many fluctuating forces — wind, stars and magnetic poles — to return to their lofts. High above the city, these pigeons create a map of flight routes directly to their homes.

No one has conclusively proven how homing pigeons find their way. Recently, in the Journal of Experimental Biology, geophysicist Jon Hagstrum proposed that pigeons use infrasound, an ultralow frequency of sounds, to navigate. Most vibrations from audible sounds diminish quickly, but infrasound vibrations have long wavelengths and can travel far, sometimes even crossing oceans. The durability of sound vibration may allow pigeons to map terrain from high heights. “They’re using sound to image the terrain surrounding their loft,” Hagstrum told National Geographic Magazine.

Though it has not been proven, Hagstrum’s theory suggests that the relative speed of the bird in flight also would change the perceived frequency of the sound, as if a certain song might lead the bird home.

Henry Neinaber, a member of the Metairie Pigeon Racing Club, owns a large loft made up of a series of clean, open wooden hutches. “I don’t have many birds right now— 30 old birds, 50 new birds, about 80 right now,” he said.

High ceilings and perfectly placed cubbies house the gray, white and red pigeons. One bird has a luminescent streak of green.

Neinaber, like many pigeon racers, breeds his own birds. Young ones will bond to a loft when they are born. Though pigeons have an innate ability to find their way home, racers still need to train their pigeons to find their way back.

On the first day, they release a young bird a mile away from the loft. The next day, they are released 5 miles away, then 10, until finally they can go 50, 100, 500 miles away and still find their way back. “They go north, they go south, they go east, they go west. And they learn how to come home,” Henry said.

On the arrival of the first bird back to the loft in a race, a timer clicks, measuring the speed of the bird from start to finish. That time is divided by how many miles the bird has flown. This takes into account the fact that the birds fly to different lofts of unequal distances during the race. The winning bird isn’t the one that gets back home first but rather the one that travels at the fastest average speed.

In Neinaber’s backyard, the pigeons finally return home. The tenacity of the birds to always come home is perhaps what inspires the men to devote time and care. The birds overcome land and weather to come back, following their mysterious flight maps home.

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