When Harry Alexander began collecting pigeons as a youth two decades ago, he kept his hobby a secret, fearful that his classmates would make fun of him.
"I couldn't take any chances," explained Alexander, now considered a master breeder. "After all, I was in student government."
No such bashfulness was in evidence this week at the annual Pageant of Pigeons, which runs through Sunday at the County Fairgrounds in Pomona. About 4,200 show- and performing-birds, valued at anywhere from $20 to $500, paced about their cages, while one escapee loomed dangerously in the building's rafters.
Clearly, the pigeon people were in their own element. Only an outsider could be stumped by a banner that said, "Pouter Fever--Catch It!", a breeder's smock that proclaimed, "Baldhead Tumbler," or a competition for "Best Old Blonde."
"To me, these are the most beautiful things in the world," said breeder Frank Mosca of Montclair as he watched judge Dick Hamer whoop and make faces at some brown-and-white Voorburg shield croppers.
Of the sound effects, Mosca explained: "That's to make them strut and to puff out. He (Hamer) whoops. Personally, I coo."
To demonstrate, he took off his mask (he has asthma) and unleashed some gurgling coos, bobbing his head up and down as one of the birds might.
Mosca, first vice president of the Los Angeles Pigeon Club, admitted that non-collectors don't all share his love for pigeons. "Rats with wings," some critics call them.
"I get tired of all the jokes," he said, "like, 'The pigeon pageant's at Pomona, so keep your top down while you drive through.' People have been breeding pigeons for thousands of years, longer almost than any animal on earth."
Unfortunately, the bird has also been derided at least as far back as the time of Shakespeare, who described one weak character as "pigeon-livered."
More recently, San Jose has tried poisoning pigeons with peanut butter-flavored pesticides, San Diego put them on The Pill (corn laced with a birth-control agent) and deputized hunters in Brawley once blazed away at them with shotguns.
But the point of the pageant, Mosca said, is that "there are other types besides the park birds." The familiar, wild gray and white birds actually are descendants of European show pigeons that escaped at a time when cages were not used in competitions.
Indeed, the pageant showed off dozens of
varieties that have probably never prowled through the parking lot of a fast-food stand. They ranged from fan-tails and frill-backs to trumpet-sounding Bokharas and the gymnast-like parlor rollers, which tuck in their heads and roll across the ground for distances of up to 100 feet.
"Great fun," Alexander, who lives in Santa Monica, said of the latter. "I showed off one at a party once and a girl screamed and got sick. She thought it had pulled its head off."
Another performer present was the Birmingham roller, which dives toward the ground, turning somersaults.
"Once in a while one comes all the way down and crashes because of some defect," Seattle breeder Byron Gable said sadly. "Then we call them 'suicide rollers.' "
At the pageants, analogous to dog and cat shows, the judges consider such criteria as strutting, playfulness, puffing, markings and conformation.
The competition occasionally turns vicious.
"To some people, it's win at any cost," Mosca said. "People have been known to try to smooth the curls on frill-backs belonging to someone else."
Not all the competition is among humans, either.
"The Jacobin red I was gonna show got in a fight a couple of weeks ago," Alexander said. "He lost to one I wasn't gonna show. Pulled one of his feathers out."
Fortunately, Alexander had a healthy crew in the category in which he is a master breeder--Jacobin almond, a brown-and-white bird with a prominent mane.
Pigeon thefts are also a problem.
Security was upgraded after two birds were stolen at last year's pageant. "Seems like it happens almost every year," Alexander said. "I remember one time when a guy tried to snatch a couple, but the owner saw him. And the owner had been a track star in college. Ran the guy right down and trashed him."
But Mosca, who keeps about 100 pigeons, says most owners are united by a love for the under-appreciated bird.
"I've known people who've gotten out of collecting," he said. "And in a few weeks, they're going to a park to watch the wild ones."