ESCONDIDO — Bob Lent stood in the cool morning air outside his comfortable brick home and peered skyward. Overhead, a phalanx of pigeons wheeled and swooped in formation, wings seeming to beat in unison.
A slight, easy smile creased the 65-year-old man's face as he watched his prized charges demonstrate their aerial agility. After nearly an hour, it was time to call the birds back into their loft.
Lent placed his house keys into an empty tin coffee can and began to shake it. The racket quickly caught the attention of the flock. They dove toward the coop.
"This is when the neighbors call for the men in the white coats," Lent joked as he watched the birds flutter into the loft, "when there's a man outside shaking a can with rocks in it."
Bob Lent has a passion for pigeons.
Not just any pigeons, mind you, but pedigreed, highly trained racing birds. He is not alone. There are scores of pigeon racing enthusiasts and a half dozen clubs in San Diego County. Nationwide, more than 20,000 people are participating in racing the birds.
While it may lack the wide following of baseball or football, pigeon racing enthusiasts like Lent are serious about their sport. Breeding has been developed to an art. The training regimen is tough. And tactical moves on race day are every bit as intricate as an NFL playbook.
"In a lot of ways, they're a poor man's race horse," Lent said. "Just like horse racing, you're making conscious decisions on breeding, training."
And like those who play the ponies, competitors in pigeon racing traditionally place a few bets on which bird will win. Although Lent's association, the Palomar Racing Pigeon Club, isn't big on betting, he said some groups go hog wild, with pools ranging up to $100,000 on a single race.
But pigeon racing is not 90 seconds of excitement. Race lengths vary from a little more than 100 miles to up to 600 miles, distances that can require days to complete.
Before race day, each bird is given a numbered rubber leg band for the upcoming competition. The pigeons are loaded by their owners into separated cages aboard specially built trailers, up to 5,000 birds on a trailer. They're then hauled by a trucker to a distant drop-off point, as far away as Tempe, Ariz., or Redding, Calif., for the big races.
With the flick of a lever, each cage is opened and the birds ascend to the heavens. Typically, they gather in a flock, heading for home.
All pigeons have a homing instinct, but these expensive birds have been bred to bring out a particularly strong trait--a desire to quickly return to their nesting loft.
Just what guides them on the journey is not fully understood.
"It's still a big mystery," Lent said. "Scientists have studied it, but the best theory they've come up with is that somehow these birds have a connection with the earth's magnetic force."
Whether it's magnetics or road maps, the birds generally find their way home, traveling at speeds up to 50 m.p.h.
During the long hours of the race, most owners stay put at their houses. They typically don't head out to the pigeon loft until several hours have passed. The best racers can determine almost to the minute when a bird will arrive.
"We figure in the wind, the weather," said Tony Palecki, 75, a Vista resident who has raced pigeons since he was a boy. "We even figure the sunspots and all the TV and electronics up in the mountains. It affects the birds, kind of throws off their gyros."
"It's a waiting game," Lent said. "You get an easy chair and relax."
Indeed, a good racing enthusiast has done his work before the competition has begun. Breeding is a key factor, as is training, and preparations on the eve of the race also come into play.
Some owners think they can coax a championship effort from their birds by sequestering them from their mates. The couple is reunited for a few brief minutes before they are shipped off to race. The resultant ardor is enough, they say, to spur the bird home in a hurry.
Others take advantage of a bird's instinct to return to its young. They race only those birds that have eggs ready to hatch or young in the nest. Others create that situation artificially by placing a live bee in a hollow egg then gingerly laying it in the nest. Most birds can't tell the difference.
If all goes well, the pigeon eventually finds home. When it flutters into its loft at the end of the race, the owner quickly pulls the numbered leg band off the bird. The band is placed in a hollow metal capsule, which is then stuck in a specially built clock that is sealed from tampering.
A crank on the clock's lever and the capsule is locked into the device, which records the exact time and date. Later, the race committee checks each participant's clock to determine which bird won.
While races take several hours to complete, seconds sometimes separate the winner from the losers. Because of that, competitors take pains to develop a quick technique of collecting their birds in the loft and "punching the clock," Lent said.