Rooftop lofts full of cooing pigeons may make you think of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, but today in Brooklyn, Queens and all around the New York metropolis, pigeon racers are training their birds to fly with laserlike precision straight home to their coops. Month after month racers spend up to 30 hours a week getting ready for the big-money events of an upcoming season. Writer Andrew D. Blechman gets to know champion pigeon racer Orlando Martinez over the course of a year, tagging along as he examines young birds up for sale at auction (individual birds can command prices up to $100,000), scours the city for the perfect location for training his homers, drives long hours to ever more remote locations to "toss" his birds, and finally, waits in breathless (but not speechless) anticipation for his birds to fly home to their coop during October's Main Event, where the winners get $15,000 and "a year's worth of bragging rights."
Homing pigeons are born with an innate ability to home, and that ability has been cultivated since at least the 12th century. The birds use the position of the sun, visual landmarks and, it is believed, the earth's magnetic field to orient themselves and locate their homes. The night before a race, birds are crated and then trucked to a distant location, often as far as 500 miles away. They quickly settle on a direction and fly straight home, at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, without stopping for food, water or rest.
Martinez describes the prerace regimen he adheres to for his birds: "For tough race days, I load them up like marathoners on fats, proteins and carbs. Picture a boxing trainer. That's what I am. You can't just race pigeons. If I win, it's not luck. I'm training them four times a day. What's lucky about that?"