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Spiraling birds set man's life straight

Bobby Wilson made some bad decisions and spent some time in jail. Passing along his roller pigeon hobby provides a road to redemption.

September 12, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

Bobby Wilson, a.k.a. Kill Kill, is a roller pigeon fancier -- has been since he was a little boy in the projects in Watts.

He was walking his dog down Holmes Avenue when he first spotted the birds flying above Eddie Scott's house. He watched in wonder as they whirled and somersaulted through the sky. Bobby was 9 years old and a serial collector of animals -- spiders, red ants, hamsters, lizards. But he'd never seen this.

"You better not come in my yard!" Mr. Scott barked. Someone had just stolen a few of his top rollers and he was not happy.

The year was 1981. Mr. Scott drove a city trash truck, owned one of the nicest houses in Watts and had no tolerance for wayward children. He'd raised pigeons since his own childhood in the early 1960s, and some of his rollers came right down the line from the world's great prophet of roller pigeoning, William H. Pensom, the late English master who lived over the hill in Canoga Park.

Bobby wasn't going into Mr. Scott's yard, but he sure as heck was coming back. Day after day he sat under the big shade tree across the street and watched those birds do their acrobatics, spiraling up and then wheeling down like falling angels.

"Come here," Mr. Scott finally said one day.

He took Bobby out back and showed him the cages -- all scabbed up with dried pigeon waste. If the boy would clean 'em out, he could have some baby squabs.

A couple of hours later Bobby rolled into his Jordan Downs housing project in Mr. Scott's pickup truck with a grin and 10 squeaking squabs in a wooden box.

He was a roller man now.

Backyard hobbyists in Southern California raise pigeons of every caste and character -- homers, tumblers, rollers, tipplers, parlors, fantails, Jacobins, muffs.

But in South Los Angeles, rollers rule the sky.

Birmingham roller pigeons came from coal country in England, bred for a genetic quirk that compels them to launch into a streak of backward somersaults as they soar through the air. For over a century in England, they were a working-class pigeon -- cheap and spectacular to watch.

When Pensom, the world's foremost authority on the birds, arrived in Southern California in 1950, people trekked out to his lofts in Canoga Park to buy his birds and seek his advice. The English fancy grew and roller clubs popped up all over town, holding auctions, lawn shows and contests. In flyoffs, judges traveled from house to house to watch competitors' birds roll, rating them on the distance of the tumble, the tightness of the spin and the number of pigeons tumbling at once. Winners usually got a trophy, and hoped ultimately to be deemed a "master flier."

Like ham radios or model ships, this was a man's hobby. Roller men often fiddled in their plywood lofts well past dusk, enduring spousal complaints, trying to breed a pigeon that would roll farther, faster and tighter.

Why roller pigeons roll is a mystery. The behavior has no known evolutionary advantage. Some breeders speculate that they are suffering seizures. But the birds appear to be under control -- as if they're simply overcome with the urge to do a few flying back flips.

There is no way to train a bird to do this right. It's all in the breeding. Once the pigeons burst into the air, they are on their own. Nowadays a good roller can fetch hundreds of dollars for its breeding potential.

Unfortunately, hawks and falcons see this cartwheeling flesh as a snack falling from the heavens. They can ruin months of work in an instant, and are the bane of roller men everywhere.

These are not ragged, bruising street pigeons. They have apple-shaped chests and a sheen to their plumage. A combination of a mother's warm care and a eugenicist's cold scheming go into their upbringing. And the best have a plucky, collected character.

It can take years of trial and error to get a good team, called a kit, bred and rolling well. Like an old-world apprenticeship, roller knowledge is hard-earned -- passed gradually, if at all, to the rare neighborhood kids who show a spark for the birds.

Bobby propped his baby pigeons on the roof outside his bedroom window, where no one could get them. He cleaned them, fed them and took comfort in their cooing in the middle of the night. He marveled at their colors and patterns -- blue grizzles, red checks, duns, black and whites.

He got so into the birds that he gave away all his other animals, even his dog.

He'd race out whenever Eddie Scott blew his horn. "Come on boy, I need my cages cleaned! I got three squabs for you."

Mr. Scott built him a loft -- wood frame, tin siding -- and set it up next to Bobby's front door. Bobby holed up in that little shed so much that people in Jordan Downs took to calling him Birdman.

"I was able to escape a lot of stuff inside my pigeon cage," he says.

But in one of the most violent projects in the city, Bobby didn't escape everything.

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