Jim Jenner prefaces the introduction with a disclaimer. "They're not exactly ready for prime time," he says on a windy March afternoon, adding something about the cold weather factoring in.
He's being modest. Think of Jenner as a master chef who serves up an immaculate meal and adds, "I hope it tastes all right," or "If you don't like it, I can make something different." It's an unnecessary—but telling—qualifier, an excuse just in case his guest isn't sufficiently impressed.
Jenner takes such pride in what he's about to reveal that he feels anything short of perfection would be a letdown. He's spent the afternoon—and, for that matter, a lifetime—championing an animal largely dismissed in contemporary culture: the pigeon. And while his birds may be elite specimens, bred from generation to generation to compete in aerial marathons that span as many as 700 miles, they're still, in the eyes of many, just pigeons.
"Does that look like a feathered rat to you?" asks Jenner after he opens the door to his Philipsburg coop and holds one of his two dozen racing pigeons to his chest.
He spreads out the bird's right wing, which looks much bigger, smoother and stronger than something pecking at breadcrumbs in an urban park. The bird's color also pops, a crisp, rich pewter with flecks of white. Jenner explains that this bird, known simply as "32" based on the unique alphanumeric tag on its ankle, eats only high-end safflower seeds. With a heart roughly twice the size of a common pigeon, he can fly, when properly conditioned, up to 60 miles per hour. You could drop 32 at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Nevada or a pasture in Utah and, through some unexplained miracle of mother nature, the bird would book it directly back to its coop in Jenner's backyard. No one would dare call 32 a rat with wings.
"You can't breed from the ones that don't make it back," says Jenner. "You're looking at the product of generations of birds that knew how to make it home, and knew how to make it home fast."
Pigeon racing takes advantage of the innate capabilities of homing pigeons, which for centuries have been used to deliver messages over hundreds of miles and through the harshest conditions. The sport originated in Belgium in the 18th century, and continues to count an eclectic group of celebrities, royalty, average Joes, inner city males, gamblers, animal lovers—you name it—among its devotees. Just last month, former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, a lifelong pigeon guy, debuted a new show on Animal Planet that pits his birds against those raised by some of the East Coast's most decorated fanciers (that being the term for someone who raises and races the birds).
Jenner may not be a celebrity, but he is a big name in the relatively small sport. Over the last 20 years, he's become an authority on pigeons, a source for national magazines like Sports Illustrated and an invited speaker on the topic at England's House of Commons. Stacks of pigeon books surround his office—The Pigeon in History, Basics of Breeding Racing Pigeons, etc.—as well as a few titles covering the pigeon's much more respected relative, the dove (A Dovecote Heritage, Superdove, etc.). Memorabilia is stashed in the corners of the room, including an old Sunkist sign for "Homer Brand" oranges with a pigeon crossing the horizon. Even Jenner's credit card has been personalized with a picture of one of his birds.
Indeed, his passion has become his livelihood. The former state representative and civic leader is something like the Ken Burns of pigeon racing. His small, Philipsburg-based production company has released 11 documentaries on the topic, including the five-part Secrets of Champions series, the three-disc Share the Blue Sky: Stories of the Birds of Peace, and what he calls his "great American novel on pigeon racing," Marathon in the Sky, a 60-minute film narrated by Michael Landon.
"The real money is in selling the birds," says Jenner. "That doesn't do it for me. I'm a storyteller."
And in all of his stories, Jenner always seems to come back to a certain theme: the inextricable connection between a pigeon racer and his flock. To understand this strange sport, its vast history, its quirky characters—including the few dedicated fanciers in Montana—Jenner says you have to first start with the bond between man and bird.
"It's like a family," he says. "They become a part of you. I've dealt with teasing all of my life, heard every statue joke in 50 years, and you certainly take that...But you'll find pigeons are worth it."
Pigeon racing is unlike any sport you've ever seen, partly because you can't actually see it. To compete, each fancier transports his pigeons to a central spot anywhere from 100 to 600 miles away from his coop. The birds are tagged, then all released at the same time. The winner doesn't depend on the first bird to return home—some coops, of course, are closer than others—but which bird records the fastest average speed. An electronic clock that reads the tag on each pigeon's ankle takes care of all the calculations.
"It's the race with a single starting gate and a thousand different finish lines," explains Jenner.
The size of the playing field puts fanciers in the uncomfortable position of setting their most prized possessions loose and hoping for the best. It also makes for a few nervous hours as they wait for their birds to return. The ending may sound a bit anticlimactic, or maybe lonely, but racers universally swear by the high of seeing a tiny dot in the sky and knowing it's their bird returning home.
"There's nothing like it. Absolutely nothing. Everything that's important to him in the world is right here," says Jenner, pointing to 32's small cubby inside the loft. "He knows exactly where that is and he will fight to the death to get back here. And it was only because you created this right environment that he comes back. That's an incredible bond."
One of the more ornate—and odd—symbols of the bond between bird and man used to reside right in Missoula. Ed Sharp, the former owner of the historic Wilma Theatre, created the infamous Chapel of the Dove, which, over time, became a basement shrine to a common pigeon.
Sharp and his wife, Edna Wilma Simmons, originally built the chapel as an homage to the New York church where they were married. But when Simmons died in 1954, Sharp added to the basement rooms, most notably with an actual pigeon-in-residence.
He reportedly rescued an injured bird after it fell from its perch under the Higgins Avenue bridge, and took it under his wing. He named it Karo Hatto, and gave his new domesticated pigeon the run of the 105-seat chapel/ theater. Moviegoers told stories of the bird, perched on Sharp's shoulder, collecting their ticket money. Others remember the bird leaving droppings on the concession stand.
Sharp decorated the chapel with life-sized posters of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, old costumes, dozens of portraits of Karo Hatto and, after the bird died, the stuffed pigeon itself. The kitschy shrine was removed when Tracey Blakeslee bought the building in the mid-'90s, but remnants of it are still on display at Rockin Rudy's.
Karo Hatto wasn't a racing homer, but its relationship with Sharp represented a time before pigeons were labeled pests. In Jenner's stacks of reference books, he's kept old national magazine articles that describe the birds in reverential terms and show them as accepted pets. A 1926 National Geographic article on messenger pigeons includes an image of a woman happily engulfed by birds; only her hat and wide smile are visible. Another page shows First Lady Grace Coolidge releasing a homer next to her house.
Jenner hasn't let go of that golden era when the birds were venerated. As he shows off the pigeons in his backyard loft, dozens of them fluttering about in a swarm of feathers and flying straw, he talks about the individual personality of each bird. He knows which ones will cower and which ones will spread their wings. He picks out two that are together—pigeons mate for life—and can read their body language well enough to foretell a quick kiss.
"They'll show off for you," he says. "The thing with these birds, they're remarkably intelligent. You can see the wheels turning. Recent studies have shown they're basically as smart as a third-grader."
Jenner's just getting started. He goes on to explain how pigeons can also hear ultra-low frequencies—"a pigeon in Kansas can hear the wind going over the Rockies," he says. They see infrared light as well as natural light. Their sense of smell is also unnaturally keen; the University of Pisa in England released a study in 2006 that suggests the birds "read the landscape as a patchwork of odours" in order to navigate hundreds of miles home. If it's not smell that leads them back, then most scientists believe it's the birds' ability to detect the Earth's magnetic fields, as well as their "solar compass" that tracks the movement of the sun. All of which is to say that the birds are special, clever and personable, and give back in a relationship in much the same way as man's best friend. In fact, pigeons were domesticated around the same time as dogs.
"Certain people are attracted to competition of any kind. But there are also people who just get that emotional connection," says Jenner. "We understand the emotional satisfaction of having birds that you're close to. People are very evangelical about that."
Jenner found religion at age 10 in a story strikingly similar to how other fanciers fell in love with the sport. He was the new kid who had just moved from the sticks to a Seattle neighborhood, and he befriended a boy who brought some street pigeons to school one day. Curious, Jenner started to read up on the birds and was amazed at what he found. For example, he read about a homing pigeon named Cher Ami (Dear Friend) who served during World War I. In 1918, the bird successfully carried its 12th and final message roughly 25 miles to American troops in Verdun, France—despite having its leg shot off and taking a bullet to its breast during the flight. The note alerted U.S. forces of the location of the 77th Infantry's "Lost Battalion," and led to the rescue of more than 200 men. Cher Ami's preserved body—the bird died a year after its famous delivery—is now on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
"That was a creature that had no concept of bravery, but had a love of home that was so profound that it kept on going," says Jenner. "I wanted to learn more."
A year later, when he was 11, Jenner and his friend, David Lee, bought their first racing pigeons and started the J&L Loft. They're still in touch today.
"You're at an age where you want to explore, you want to have your own things to do," Jenner says. "Here's this hobby that allows you to do that, teaches you responsibility, and connects you with nature."
Bozeman-based wildlife photographer Dusan Smetana traces all his personal and professional accomplishments back to pigeon racing. He grew up racing birds in a small village of what was then Czechoslovakia, saying it was one of only three activities—soccer and hunting being the others—that kept kids out of trouble. When he was given his own birds at age 10, it taught him discipline and, in his words, "how to read animals." Smetana managed to leave his communist homeland and travel to the United States, initially working as a garbage man and maintaining the same work ethic he says raising pigeons first instilled in him. He eventually landed in Montana, where he has been able to transfer his connection with animals into an award-winning photography career. He now owns more than 130 racing pigeons and is the top-scoring fancier among the small but dedicated members of Montana's Bridger Mountain Pigeon Racing Club.
"It makes you keep your shit together!" Smetana says bluntly. "With pigeons, I think, you either like 'em or you hate 'em. If you like 'em, they are really a big part of your life. Every day, you are thinking about the pigeons."
Brian Perin, who started the Bridger Mountain club in 1994, has been thinking about pigeons for the better part of 37 years. His connection to the birds started at age 13 when old-school pigeon guys took him under their wing. He now breeds the "mountain birds" he inherited from a World War II-era fancier with birds Smetana had shipped from his home village. He's already looking forward to this year's racing season, which starts in a few weeks with the club's training runs.
"It's kept me out of trouble a little bit," says Perin. "There's something about taking care of these birds—you bathe them, feed them, train them, breed them, race them—that grounds you."
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson takes the connection to pigeons even further. One of the most feared boxers in history grew up in Brooklyn without a father. His mother died when he was 16. When he wasn't involved in neighborhood crime, Tyson says he turned to birds.
"The first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon," he said in a press conference announcing his new show. "I don't know why...I feel ridiculous trying to explain it. Pigeons are a part of my life. It's a constant with my sanity in a weird way; this is just what I do. If I'm lucky enough to die an old man, I'm going to have birds."
In fact, Tyson started fighting in part because of his love of pigeons. He purchased his first birds—more than $700 worth—at age 10 with money from a robbery. When neighborhood bullies learned of his new hobby, they attempted to pillage his coop. Tyson recalls screaming for his mother as one of the older boys literally ripped the head off of one of Tyson's pigeons and wiped the blood on Tyson's face.
"Some guy said, 'Fight him back.' So I started fighting," Tyson told The New Yorker, recalling the first punches he ever tossed. "I couldn't fight, but I was flailing away. I hit him more than he hit me. So I guess I won."
Tyson now runs lofts in New York, New Jersey and Nevada, and is considered the sport's biggest celebrity.
"Mike Tyson's experience was just like any of my friends'," says Jenner. "It's a moment a lot of young people understand—when you're looking for something to do, to explore...
"Well, at least with boomers, people my age," he adds. "Today, it's another story."
There's another common thread among fanciers besides the intense connection between them and their birds: The inability to impress that bond upon a new generation. Kids these days, for a multitude of reasons, don't seem to care about pigeons.
"They're just not interested," says Perin, who has conducted outreach programs with local 4-H groups through the Bridger Mountain club. "We try, but nothing seems to last. It's sad, really."
Jenner dedicated his latest film, Young Wings, to the issue. He attaches the disinterest in pigeon racing to the overall problem of children spending an alarming amount of time inside, a phenomenon known as Nature Deficit Disorder. It's why he volunteers his free time at the Philipsburg Elementary School, introducing pigeon racing to third, fourth and fifth graders. Over two years he says he's kept at least a dozen students engaged in the activity.
"What I'm trying to do, just a little bit, is to keep people aware that this species, these birds, it's a fascinating way to have nature in your life," he says.
But Jenner is the first to admit it's an uphill climb, especially in the United States. The American Racing Pigeon Union counts more than 10,000 registered members today, but the number of racers was up around 50,000 after World War II. A Belgium auction house set a new world record in January by selling 218 pigeons for $1.9 million during one auction, but the vast majority of buyers were from China–not the United States. Plus, it's telling that a cable reality show starring an aging boxer best known to younger generations for eating another man's ear (Evander Holyfield's) and singing a Phil Collins song (in The Hangover) signifies a monumental breakthrough for the sport.
"Let me tell you something; I get it. There's a lot at stake," says Vinnie Torre, the longtime New Jersey-based fancier responsible for mentoring Tyson on the new show. "The whole reason I got involved, the reason I agreed to this, it's because we were going to do it right, and respect the sport, and because we wanted more people to learn about what we're doing. Listen, pigeons are my life—my life—but not enough people do it anymore. I know that."
Even though Torre would appear to come from an entirely different pigeon racing culture—the East Coast clubs are notoriously cutthroat—he echoes the same talking points as fanciers in Montana. He learned the sport in the '50s under the tutelage of old-school pigeon guys, back when Hoboken boasted hundreds of rooftop lofts.
"I was known as 'Vinnie The Kid,'" he says in a phone interview, sounding exactly like a Vinnie Torre from Hoboken should sound. "I fetched coffee, I ran errands, I did whatever they needed. What I did most—I listened."
Torre loved the camaraderie, the attention to detail, the connection to the birds and the competition. He says the pigeons became family—"not like family, they are family." He adds that birthdays, anniversaries and vacations are all planned around the racing season schedule.
But as new development caused those rooftop lofts to disappear, and cities started to exterminate the overpopulated birds, Torre saw interest in the sport decline. Even his hometown Hudson County Pigeon Club closed in the mid-'90s.
"When I was a kid, I didn't have a television. I didn't have video games. I didn't have a computer, none of that stuff," he says. "Today, there's too much. The kids, they don't go outside. They don't do things. They don't care about some birds."
Despite the challenges, Torre sees reason for optimism. He spearheaded the reopening of the Hudson County Pigeon Club in 2008. Since "Taking on Tyson" debuted, he's received calls from around the world—the show has a strong European following, he says—from people either looking to reconnect or get introduced to the sport. He also thinks Tyson is in it for the long haul, and his celebrity will continue to bring new fans to the sport.
"Let me tell you something, Mike is the real thing," he says. "That guy is a pigeon guy. He loves his birds. When people see him they think differently about what we do. I don't know, maybe he's what we need to make this work."
Driving into historic Philipsburg, it's not unusual to see Jenner's birds darting through the sky. His house is located near downtown and he likes to let the birds out while he works in his office. There's not much to worry about—hawks are the only real threat—and it's not like his pigeons won't find their way home.
"They're part of the landscape," he says.
For the next hour or so, the flock circles the property, disappearing behind neighboring houses and over the horizon before circling back toward the loft. The birds aren't the smoothest fliers—there's a fitful motion as their oversized breast muscles propel their wings and jerk their bottom-heavy frame through the air—but they generate immense speed for such a little animal. Jenner explains they're so fast because of a hollow bone structure and highly oxygenated blood. Plus, they're tireless. Jenner's pigeons have been cooped up most of the winter and are out of racing shape, but you'd never know it from their early March blitzes.
"Look," he says, pointing to one bird perched on his house while the others continue zipping along. "That one there is out of breath. Can you see? He's laboring. Guy needs a rest, doesn't he? See that?"
No, actually. To the untrained eye it just looks like a pigeon on a roof. But that's the point—it takes time to appreciate these birds the same way as Jenner and his fellow fanciers do. Most people would prefer the damn things to simply disappear, while he's spent his entire life studying their subtle features and special skills. Jenner admits he's still learning new things from his flock every day, and he'd love the opportunity to pass those things along.
"When you're a child, it's like you're the mayor of your own town. You're in charge, in many ways, of what they do every day. You can be demanding and make them fly and get them into shape...It's fascinating to learn and observe behavior in another creature, and then use that to affect that behavior. That aspect never really goes away."
The thought launches Jenner into yet another story. A man named Elwin F. Anderson won last year's Puget Sound Futurity, a race featuring more than 230 birds from 28 different lofts. His winning pigeon flew 347 miles and averaged 1,621 yards per minute, or 55 miles per hour. Anderson, who served with the Signal Pigeon company during World War II, was 91 years old. He died five months later.
"It's a hobby that stays with you a lifetime," says Jenner. "You're always calculating, breeding, figuring things out. You're always hoping that you may have the next Secretariat, the next great champion."
He takes a second and looks at his pigeons as they bolt away toward town. Jenner shows no signs of slowing down. In many ways, he's as determined and single-minded as his birds when it comes to promoting the sport he loves. Who knows, maybe the next great champion is flying in Philipsburg.
"For me," he says, "there's always another spring."