Lord of the Wings 

Pigeon racing is more than just a sport—or a cheap punch line. For a Montana fancier, it's a way of life.

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"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."

click to enlarge Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, a lifelong fancier, launched a new reality television show last month about pigeon racing. His mentor on the series, renowned breeder Vinnie Torre, right, agreed to do the show to help attract new fans to the sport. “Today, there’s too much,” Torre says. “The kids, they don’t go outside. They don’t do things. They don’t care about some birds.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIMAL PLANET
  • photo courtesy of Animal Planet
  • Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, a lifelong fancier, launched a new reality television show last month about pigeon racing. His mentor on the series, renowned breeder Vinnie Torre, right, agreed to do the show to help attract new fans to the sport. “Today, there’s too much,” Torre says. “The kids, they don’t go outside. They don’t do things. They don’t care about some birds.”

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.

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