Top Flight

Did you know racing pigeons can be trained to fly up to 90 miles per hour? Well, then you clearly don’t know Bubba Wilson

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THERE’S A SWEET, BREADY, DAMP smell that hits me like a punch in the nostrils. There is a burble, too—a low, soft cooing. I step on tufts of gray fluff and twigs, and avoid the two oblong blocks of mouse poison set on a plate and which look deceptively like tamales ready for eating. For a few seconds I stand in the space, taking in the silence. And then, from the man at my side, there comes a piercing, singsongy whistle that punches a hole in the silence. The man is tall and big with a long white beard that thins out into wiry strands colored by one or two brown strays. He’s clad in camo shorts and worn-out, dusty Crocs, which he taps on the wooden floorboards of the loft. His name is Bubba Wilson.

He’s the one I’ve come here to see, a retired Vietnam veteran slash every-sport-you-could-think-of coach slash caterer slash trucker (the man has held many jobs) living in the comfortable ordinariness of a home smack in the middle of rural Alma, Arkansas. More specifically, I’m here to see his loft. And his pigeons. But these birds are not your average public-square scavengers or pavement dwellers. And as much as I hate to admit it, they’re nothing like my childhood couch-lounging pet pigeon, either, (more on that later). These gray-feathered columbidae are homing pigeons—racing birds selectively bred and trained to fly up to 90 miles an hour over distances as far as 700 miles. And Bubba, the person behind the Arkansas River Racing Pigeon Club, Arkansas’ only such club and one of some 5,000 registered lofts spread across the country, whips them into shape, turns them into champions.

Bubba-Wilson_ArkLife_108“Hey, guys!” he says to his birds, as we make our way through the corridor and into the loft. “Y’all go back out now.” The five or so birds waddling around near the door take off. The loud, clapping noise of beating wings is disorienting in the not-so-well-lit space. I come close to one that’s managed to creep closer to the entrance, who’s staring at me like a child curious to see who’s come to visit past midnight. “Yeah, yeah, come on. Go on. You know you’re not supposed to be in here,” Bubba says, and it scurries off, head bobbing erratically.

It gets brighter as we walk farther into the loft—but also, hotter. There are 15 wooden compartments, each about the size of a modest bathroom, fully decked out with perches and platforms. And there are pigeons. Lots and lots of pigeons. Everywhere. Sitting and gazing at us with wary, beady eyes. These are the Young Birds, Bubba says, telling me there are actually two different seasons when it comes to pigeon racing. There’s Young Bird, which races less-experienced, typically under-a-year-olds—like these guys—over distances of, at most, 300 miles. There’s also Old Bird, which flies more seasoned, conditioned birds up to 600 miles.

The cocks and the hens are separated, Bubba adds. They’d be trying to raise babies if they weren’t, he puts it in a cutesy way. Every morning, he lets the males out to the aviary (a fenced-in, penlike area at the very edge of the loft), then the females, then the males, then the females. “It takes sometimes all morning just to let the two groups exercise. And then you do the same thing again until you get them into shape.”

He says this as if it were an easy, everyday-type thing. But Bubba has about 150 birds, and that’s not counting the champion birds housed in the nearby “breeders loft”—his studs, if you will. He compares it to the quality breeding of the finest thoroughbreds in horse racing, mentioning that some of his prize-winners are worth up to $5,000. He’s been cultivating his own line of birds for the past 15 years, too. The Bubba Janssen, as he calls it, a crossbreed from the famous Janssen strain—big, stout and broad-breasted—introduced in the 1870s by the legendary Belgian brothers: Louise, Charel, Arjaan and Sjef Janssen.

“Do you name them?” I ask, half-expecting him to say, Are you crazy? Who can remember 150-ish names?

“Yeah, there was one cock that I called Paris,” he says, nodding. “He beat 1,600 and some birds at 350 miles. And it was a race out of Paris, Texas, so I called him Paris. I’ve got Miss Bubba, Babette, Miss Babberie, Miss Barbie.” We pass by a particularly groggy-looking bird, who seems to eye us bitterly as if we’d woken her up from a siesta. “I’ve got 526 right here. That’s her band number.” Well, you can’t name ’em all.

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The heavy bands look so clunky around their legs. I imagine it’s the equivalent of sprinting with ankle weights for humans, but the bands are slipped onto their feet when they’re babies, Bubba explains. Maybe they don’t feel it at all, I think. But awkward or not, the bands carry their identity. The band tells you a pigeon’s bloodline, and with Bubba’s birds, you can trace them back five generations. Most importantly, it’s the band that, after crossing and triggering an electronic timing system, helps record the exact time a bird arrives to its home loft (or the finish line) during a race. The information is then downloaded and entered into a program that calculates yards per minute based on release and arrival coordinates. The fastest bird wins.

“I race them, but they are my kids. I treat these pigeons better than a lot of people treat their kids,” he says, sweat glistening just below the line of his red baseball cap. “I can come in by myself, and not all of them, but when I go feed, I’ve got two or three, they’ll be on my shoulder. I’ll give them a little bit to eat. You don’t want them real tame. You try to …” He pauses, distracted by the pigeon that rudely cooed her way into our conversation. “Whaaaat! I don’t think so!” he yells, then turns his head back toward me. “I had a cock. He was 14 years old. He raised his last group of babies and died before the next year. But every time I came into his section, wherever he was at, he’d start that hoo. He always talked to me.” Bubba breaks into a deep, throaty hoo-hoo-hoo of his own.

As we make our way outside the loft, he tells me about the process. When training the birds, he loads them into a crate, drives to a release spot and tosses them—first from 2 miles away, then 5, then 10 and farther out. More often than not, they find their way home, thanks in part to their remarkably powerful memories. On their flights, they recognize and remember landmarks—mountains, rivers, highways, even—developing an intricate cognitive “map” that they use to navigate. Eventually, with their keen sense of direction, they can fly from any distance to their nesting place.

Bubba-Wilson_ArkLife_115They’re reliable enough, he goes on to explain, that during World War II, noted psychologist and inventor B.F. Skinner thought it a good idea to use pigeons to guide missiles for bombing Nazi Germany. He called it “Project Pigeon,” building a glide bomb with a guidance section in the nose cone where one to three pigeons would sit and wait for their target to pop up in the center of a screen. They would be, of course, conditioned to recognize said target and peck at it, steering the device in the right direction. There was so much faith in the project that Skinner managed to snag $25,000 from the National Defense Research Committee to fund it; however, with the invention of electronic guidance systems, the system was rendered obsolete. On a more romantic (and less violent) note, carrier pigeons were used to transport messages—written on lightweight paper, rolled into a tiny tube and tied to their scaly little feet.

But Bubba’s interest in homers started out on a less ambitious note. He’s kind of always had them, he says. As a child, back when he lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina, he’d “hang out” at feed mills, where the pigeons gathered around grain spilled from 2-ton box trucks. When Bubba was 10 or 11 years old, a hen wandered into his house. It had a race band around its foot, which Bubba tracked and researched, and which ultimately led him to its owner—a man who lived about 100 miles away. The man told Bubba the pigeon was a Fabry of the Belgian Georges Fabry lineage—a racing dynasty well respected in pigeon circles, the creme de la creme of all fanciers throughout the early 20th century. Noticing Bubba’s interest, the man sent him a copy of the Pigeon Journal, a magazine that cataloged homing birds, their pedigree, strains and breeds. “I wore the pages out,” Bubba says. “Of course the pictures were a little small, but it would have pictures from Belgium or something like that. I always dreamed—of course, I was a poor kid—of what it would be like to have a bird like that.”

Sometime after that—after serving as a senior medic in Vietnam, getting a history degree from what used to be College of the Ozarks, working in the trucking business, catering and coaching, his dream came true. “When I retired, I had a lot of health problems and stuff,” he says after we’d walked out of the musty heat of the loft. “I went to the doctor, and he told me that if I didn’t, you know, get a hobby or something that I wouldn’t be around.”

Tomorrow morning, Bubba’s pigeons—the Young Birds, so to speak—will go on their first training session. “I’ll load them up, I’ve got a crate over there, and I’ll drive out there in the middle of that field and let them loose,” he says with an accent that can’t hide the South. “It’ll just get them used to being loaded and moved and then turned out. I’ll do that a couple of times. Next time I load them up, I’ll let them in the crate all night and turn them out the next morning. It don’t take more than four or five times of me loading them up, and they learn it. I tell them, We’re getting ready to go, guys! And by the time I get down there to where they’re going in, there are going to be four of five of them standing there already when I get there. Once you get into the routine, they know it.”

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He was itching to start today, but it’s too hot. There’s the occasional wind, which makes it tolerable, and even the slightest breeze forces the wind chimes to sing mild, telltale notes. We’re now sitting on his back porch that overlooks the white-and-red-paneled loft. From where I am, I can only see a dozen birds, max. They’re teetering around the aviary like uppity little girls, occasionally stopping to pluck something off the floor. “They are very intelligent. We just don’t give them enough credit, and they have personalities that are unbelievable,” he says.

“I know,” I tell him, to which he reacts with an “Oh?” “I had a pet pigeon growing up,” I say, explaining that I rescued the orphaned squab from being eaten by a cat or whatever stray animal wandered the streets of Cairo, Egypt, where I lived for 16 years of my life. I was 8 when I picked the pigeon up with one cupped hand, its plumage fluffed, one wing drooping, its tiny, pathetic body quivering. Veterinary help was out of the question. This is a country where a gently braised pigeon stuffed with cracked wheat is considered a national dish (also known as hamam mahshi). So I stroked its feathered head, took my new pet home and nursed it to health. For years, it would free-fly around my old apartment, out the window, into the city and then back home. So Bubba didn’t have to tell me—I know they’re intelligent. It’s the folks who call them “rats in the sky” who need some convincing.

So here he is, day after day, doing the same thing: feeding, training, cleaning. But in looking at where he is—the sprawl of the surrounding landscape in the company of these birds that can go anywhere, but choose to stay—I wouldn’t complain, either. He points out that kids these days don’t play outside anymore, and that back in his day, he’d wile away the hours scouring the outdoors. I want to chime in, to say that even now, retired yet so invested in this hobby that’s more like a full-time job, he’s out in nature, experiencing that sense of relaxation and camaraderie that participating in a racing club provides. This is why he does it.

“[Pigeon racing] is dying because it’s so demanding,” he says. “People nowadays have no patience. It’s 365 days a year. It’s like a child, except the only difference is that every year I’ve got another 80 to 100 children coming home.” And just like that, as if on cue, a dozen of them take off at once. It’s so beautiful that I gawk. When I glance over at Bubba, he doesn’t seem fazed. It’s a sight he’s used to—the birds flapping their wings, every twist and turn in perfect synchrony against an expansive backdrop of trees and hills and grassland. They disappear for a couple of seconds, and just when I wonder if they’ll come back home, I hear the whir, whir of feathers—a thumping sound of feathers drumming on the air.