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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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."

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