anchor link to jump to start of content

The Seattle Times Company NWclassifieds NWsource Home delivery Contact us Search archives
Your account  Today's news index  Weather  Traffic  Movies  Restaurants  Today's events

Wednesday, April 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

For pigeon fanciers, it's love at first coo

By Therese Littleton
Special to The Seattle Times

Des Moines pigeon breeder Byron Gable raises roller pigeons to perform aerial somersaults in competitions. Behind him a pigeon exercises in an enclosed fly pen.
E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article
Print Search archive

Many people think of pigeons as an unavoidable part of the urban landscape, like cars. But the species — Columba livia — has been around several million years and likely preceded the chicken as the first bird to be domesticated by humans.

But if some people loathe pigeons, and some try to ignore them, very few admire them. One of those die-hard few is Des Moines retiree Byron Gable, 58, who raises performing roller pigeons in cozy, well-built coops in his back yard.

Gable has raised the birds all his life. "I've been doing it since I was 9," he says. "Some guy had them in an alley. I told my mom I really wanted to have them, and she said no. But I came back the next year when I was about 10 and got a couple and took them home."

In the Seattle area, there are several clubs for pigeon breeders, each of which has a half-dozen or more active members. Byron Gable belongs to the Seattle Flying Roller Club, and there are other clubs, such as the Greater Seattle Racing Pigeon Club, for fanciers of different breeds.

Homers, tipplers, rollers

Pigeon bits

Hippocrates suggested that a poultice of cumin, pigeon excrement, horseradish and beet root would cure baldness.

Why do rollers roll? In the early '70s, researchers found that the birds' behavior was genetic, a neurological defect that looks pleasing to people.

Charles Darwin studied pigeons to figure out how traits were passed from one generation to the next. He said, "Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons."

54,000 pigeons served in the United States military during World Wars I and II, carrying messages between battlefield units. One Army bird, Cher Ami, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for bravery.

Pigeons were sent to Iraq last year to warn troops of the presence of poison gas.

Amateur pigeon-watchers can help ornithologists at Cornell University track pigeon flocks by joining Operation Pigeon Watch (

With pigeons seemingly everywhere, why breed them? Turns out humans have bred pigeons into hundreds of specialized types suited to different tasks. Among the most popular are the three sporting breeds, which are Gable's passion.

"There are the racing breeds, like the flying homer," Gable says. "There are the tipplers, that compete by staying in the air for extended flights — I believe the record is 22 hours, 18 minutes. And the third sporting breed is the performing roller, a bird that does acrobatic somersaults in the air."

That's right: somersaults. Gable says performing rollers like his birds are graded in competitions on the tightness and speed of their flips, like feathered Mary Lou Rettons. More points are awarded if several pigeons in a group, or "kit," roll all at once. Roller pigeon competitions take place all over the world, and Gable has met breeders from every U.S. state, Canada, Australia, Europe and Africa.

The Seattle Flying Roller Club holds several local competitions annually to prepare for regional and World Cup events. Every other November (the last one was last year), dozens of local pigeon fanciers show off birds of all breeds at the Northwest Pigeon Classic at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. Breeders carry their birds to competitions in wicker or aluminum baskets, or ship them in specially made crates.

Sporting pigeons and other domestic breeds, which generally live to 10-12 years old, are pampered with carefully balanced diets and vitamin and mineral supplements to keep them in top form. Gable's birds practically shop at Whole Foods, compared with the junk-food-snarfing pigeons in city parks.

Unlike less considerate neighborhood pigeon-keepers, Gable keeps careful watch on his birds to make sure they're not loafing on power lines, eating seed left for other birds, or leaving foul calling-cards on neighbors' cars. His neighbors, in fact, frequently ask him to fly his birds so they can watch the aerial show.

Rollers need exercise beyond their competition, so Gable flies his birds as often as possible. His pigeons return to their coops after 20 to 30 minutes of acrobatic flight.

Training roller pigeons is more a matter of selection than teaching. Since breeding is carefully controlled, the majority of roller offspring also fly in somersaults by nature. Gable chooses birds for competition that execute their tricks with just the right speed and style, then quickly return to their lofts.

Chicks ahoy

Spend enough time in Pioneer Square, and you may think to yourself, why haven't I ever seen a baby pigeon? Contrary to myth, they do exist. When asked for proof, Gable holds out a grotesque, yet somehow adorable, pigeon chick cradled in his hand. He says the chicks stay hidden until they are ready to leave the nest.

Some of Byron Gable's roller pigeons in their enclosed fly pen, which keeps them safe from predators, including peregrine falcons, several types of hawks and merlins.
Gable has about 50 adolescent and adult pigeons. Breeders are isolated from other birds while they literally "bill and coo," rubbing beaks and thrumming come-hither songs to one another before mating. Gable built a breeder loft with warm, quiet nooks and platforms where females are encouraged to nest and raise their chicks.

While he knows each of his pigeons by sight, Gable doesn't have names for them. To keep track of his birds — and to make sure the right female is paired up with the right male — he puts colored bands on their feet.

He's raised tumblers, homers and fancy pigeons, including fantails and trumpeters, but he takes special pride in his rollers. With rollers, he says, "You have to work at it. If it was easy, everybody would do it."

Danger from above

The biggest challenge Gable faces now, he says, is that he can't fly his birds every day. He loses too many pigeons to peregrine falcons that perch nearby, waiting for an easy lunch. Gable is angry about the falcons, and he blames protective wildlife regulations that have allowed raptors to flourish.

Jenny Valdivia, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department's Pacific Regional Office, says that peregrine falcons have been de-listed from endangered status but are still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to harm or kill peregrine falcons, which are currently being monitored to assure their populations don't fall to previous low levels.

"A lot of people in the city see peregrine falcons as their pride and joy," Valdivia says. She speculates that roller pigeons' odd behavior might make them more attractive to falcons and other predators.

"I do sympathize, because roller pigeons are valuable. They are neat birds."

Gable is discouraged by the return of the falcons. "I can't even let my birds go without losing one. They get up thirty feet and shhhk! Grab and go. At 50 to 100 dollars a bird. But forget the money. You've bred the bird, you want to see it develop."

There are plenty of other predators for Gable and other pigeon breeders to worry about. Gable ticks them off on his fingers: "Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, merlin, red-tailed hawk, goshawk."

He looks thoughtful, then smiles. "The only birds of prey that don't attack the pigeons are the bald eagles. I like those."

Therese Littleton:


Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

More living headlines

Today Archive

Advanced search

advertising home
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company


Back to topBack to top