Rusty and Ethel Williams of Sepulveda sat in their backyard, watching the sky intently. Pine and eucalyptus trees waved gently, clouds floated lazily westward, and the couple faced north, nervous and expectant. It was a nice morning for the opening pigeon race of the fall '85 season.
The race began at 8 that morning with the liberation of 15,000 pigeons at the Delano fairgrounds, 32 miles north of Bakersfield, and 114.096 air miles from the Williams loft.
In a dozen other yards around the Valley, fellow members of the Devonshire Pigeon Racing Club kept similar vigils, hoping their birds would be the first home.
Rusty, 43, and Ethel, 40, are among about 25,000 people who race pigeons in this country. It's a hobby with an image problem, though. And most people, according to Rusty, have the wrong idea.
"Unfortunately," he said, "the public conception of pigeons is that they're dirty. That's not true. They don't carry any diseases communicable to humans."
The Key's in the Eyes
Rusty, an administrative manager for a video rental chain, talked proudly of his clean loft, intelligent birds and the hundred strains of racing pigeons. A pigeon's eyes, he noted, are "a window of his soul."
Like many husbands and wives who race pigeons together, Rusty and Ethel are a true team, armed and ready for the climax of this race: On a clipboard, she will record the arrival times of the 61 pigeons flying out of the family loft. At Rusty's feet is a crate holding four "droppers," pigeons specially trained to fly a short distance up in the air and then directly to the landing board of the home loft to draw his racers out of the sky.
"If I'm going to get a good drop," Rusty said, "they should come right over the neighbor's tree, just to the left of the loft." He indicates a flight path due north. "If they come in over the freeway, that means they've followed someone else's, which, since they're babies, they usually do. And that will cost me the race."
The night before, 54 members of the Foothill Concourse, an organization of five Valley-area pigeon-racing clubs, gathered in a Sepulveda parking lot to register their birds for the next morning's race. Each bird was fitted with a numbered "countermark" to wear around its leg, along with its serial-numbered racing band, and loaded into the trailer.
"I'd like to think they are smart enough to come home," Rusty said, "to get out in front and race. Some birds are just dumb. When they're let out, they would just as soon turn around and land in a tree."
More than 1,000 pigeons rode the custom-made trailer to Delano. To prevent random breeding, the hens and cocks were separated. But the birds don't suffer from pre-performance jitters, and driver Russ Vadman said they always sleep well before the race.
After a quiet night, the birds were released. They hit the air at the same time and headed in the same direction: toward Angeles National Forest and south to their home lofts as fast as they could go.
A few years ago, when Rusty had only 30 or 40 pigeons in his loft, he could grab any one of them in the dark and tell you its band number just by feeling its body structure. Now he has about 200 racers and stock birds, too many to keep track of that closely, and he and Ethel recently bought a computer to keep track of breeding records.
Rusty's hobby dates back to his childhood. His dad raced pheasants, and one day a banded racing pigeon flew into the garage. Soon the boy had a small team of pigeons.
When he went into the service, he said, "I thought I got them out of my blood," But he was wrong. A track man in high school, Rusty needed an outlet for his competitive instincts, and, for 17 years now, he and Ethel have been flying pigeons.
In 1977, they auctioned off their team for $18,000 to help pay for a house. They had to start over, but Rusty was, in his words, "a pretty good judge of birds, so it wasn't hard to get back in." Indeed, for a family used to getting up with the birds every morning, it was impossible not to.
An Obsession for Many
Rusty calls racing pigeons "a hobby and a sport," but for many racers, it is also a business, and an obsession.
"You've got to have a screw loose" to enjoy flying pigeons, says 90-year-old Eddie Seldon of Sepulveda, who got his first homing pigeon in 1911.
"If you start up, I'll raise you some, no charge," offered Waldo Hotchkiss, 90, of Chatsworth, who once owned a 1,000 pairs of pigeons. "I started a lot of guys up. Rusty bought birds from me about 15 years ago. It takes your mind off your business. I can sit in my air-conditioned living room and watch my birds in the yard."
Some of his pigeon-fancying friends would disagree, but they all agree that breeding and racing pigeons is a lot of hard work.