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Top flight: Premier pigeon race comes to Wise County

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, January 19, 2013

A pair of pigeons white as the light of the summer sun burst from a pair of hands.

They spin around like falling leaves in the cold winter air before settling down outside their elaborate loft.

The pigeons, which are a breed known as Casanovas, are brothers, and they will play a key role in this month’s Texas Shootout, a large, North Texas pigeon race being held for the first time in Wise County at the home of C.L. and Patti Gage.

MASTER DECOYS – Kenny Kelley releases a pair of Casanova pigeons on a cold, bright winter morning. The birds serve as decoys, drawing the attention of racing pigeons to the landing board of their home loft. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“We use them as decoys,” said Kenny Kelley, an event organizer. “You throw them out, and they’ll land on the landing board to guide in the others.”

The brothers direct the incoming horde of racing pigeons that approach the red landing pad outside the loft. The loft itself is larger than a mobile home.

Once the pigeons land, like an incoming squadron of feathered dive bombers, they plunge one by one through a chute and into the loft. After a bit of feed, they’ll maneuver through the spotless loft, around a grated cage and settle into their pigeonholes until it’s time to take to the skies again.

For years the Shootout was held in Parker County. But when the creator of it died several years ago, Gage and Kelley started working to resurrect it and bring it to Wise County.

“We brought it here because there’s not another one in this part of the country,” Gage said. “It’s just good for the sport.”

The Gages spared no expense in hosting the affair. It’s attracted pigeon racers from way across the pond.

FLIGHTS OF FANCY – Despite being released in the wild hundreds of miles from their home, pigeons have an uncanny knack of finding their way back time and time again. The reason why still perplexes scientists. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“The fancy they’ve got here is world class,” said Bob Smith, one of five gentlemen from England who have pigeons participating in the race. “We’ve had a wonderful time and great hospitality.”

Smith has been to pigeon races from Barcelona to San Diego, and he said the set-up in Wise County is the best he’s ever seen.

“You can go all around the world and not find a set-up like this.”

The Texas Shootout covers three weekends: a 150-mile race was Jan. 12, a 250-mile race is today and it concludes with a 325-mile race Jan. 26.

“We hope the next two races are a success because the effort C.L. put into this deserves success,” Smith added.

After the birds are released at a greater and greater distance, the birds’ owners watch the return results from the “Cantina” on the Gage property. It’s like a sports bar, but for pigeon racers. A flat screen is connected to cameras inside the loft. As the pigeons return to the loft, tiny microchips attached to their legs signal their return time. The birds’ owners see the results from the comfort of the Cantina as the times are recorded into a computer.

Owner of the fastest birds look forward to generous payouts.

SWEET RELEASE – C.L. Gage and Kenny Kelley entertain a group of gentlemen in town from England to enjoy a three-week series of pigeon races held for the first time in Wise County. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The race has been a success so far. Gage said once they announced it, they filled up in less than two months. The first week’s 150-mile race featured 724 pigeons, of which 720 made it back to the loft. Who knows what happened to the missing four. They might have fallen victim to hawks, high-lines or hunters.

And how the pigeons find their way home on these long-distance treks through the sky remains a mystery.

“It’s just instinct to come home,” Kelley said. “No one knows how. If we figured it out, it wouldn’t be any fun any more.”

“The best universities in the United States can’t figure it out,” Smith said. “Not even researchers at Harvard can.”

To build up the stamina and speed of the birds requires breeding and training. You begin with one-mile flights from home, and the flights grow longer with each release.

On a short flight from a high hill overlooking oaks and prairie, cattle and gas wells, a cage of pigeons is released. After swerving high into the sky, gliding and beating their wings back to the loft, they begin a series of synchronized arcs and circles in the crystal Texas sky, just enjoying the gift of flight, until they begin landing on the pad. Directed by the Casanova decoys, they’re drawn like sailors to sirens to the loft. Hypnotic and melodic coos issue from within.

“They are the supreme athletes of the sky,” Smith said.

Some pigeons participate in races more than 700 miles in length.

“It’s a great sport for the kids,” Gage said. “It’s habit forming. But like everything else it’s a dying sport.”

Kelley said there were once 200 members in their North TEXAS pigeon racing group. It’s dwindled to less than 20. Gage has brought out Boy Scout troops to interest younger people in pigeon racing.

Smith said the sport is still widely popular in Europe. It holds a special place in the hearts of the English who used pigeons widely in World War II. A basket of pigeons would fly out with English bombers going into Germany. If a plane went down, the pigeons were released, carrying notes back home to England that men in a downed plane were in need of rescue.

“They saved lives,” Smith said. “Nine pigeons earned what is equivalent to the Medal of Honor.”

The queen herself has a royal loft of pigeons. But he’s also seen the numbers continue to go down as less and less youth participate.

“There are kids that suffer from nature deficit disorder,” Smith said. “Having children learn to take care of animals like a hamster or a pigeon improves their minds. It’s been shown to reverse the effects of attention deficit disorder.”

Gage plans to grow the Texas Shootout even more in the coming years. And maybe, along the way, draw increased attention to the sport.

Learn more at www.texasshootout.net.

A BIRD IN HAND – C.L. Gage and fellow pigeon racer Kenny Kelly helped organize the Texas Shootout, a three-week long pigeon race featuring flights of 150, 250 and 325 miles. After being held for several years in Parker County, it’s been moved to Wise County to keep a major pigeon race alive in the region. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

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