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Musick: After long winter, it’s almost time to fly

Published: Sunday, April 6, 2014 7:49 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 1:30 p.m. CDT

I am a pigeon.

You are a pigeon.

We all are pigeons.

We’ve been waiting for the arrival of spring so we can go outside and flap our wings, so to speak. We’ve been cooped up for far too long, staying inside because we don’t want our faces to resemble chicken patties with freezer burn.

Well, the same goes for pigeons. I’m talking about fine racing pigeons, not the ugly common pigeons that loiter near the train tracks. These racing pigeons, which are trained athletes born and bred to compete, have yet to leave Ron Navlyt’s loft near Woodstock because hungry hawks quickly would target them for a snack.

Typically, hawks would leave the pigeons alone. Typically, hawks would prefer to dine on robins and red wing blackbirds and the like. But those birds have not returned yet – you’d extend your southern vacation, too, if you had the option – which means the hawks are grumpy, which means the pigeons have to be careful.

“It’s been miserable this winter,” said Navlyt, 67, who has lived on Greenwood Road with his family and his pigeons since 1965. “It’s been a real slow start.

“I’ve got a bunch of babies going right now, and they’re about ready to be let out. We’re just waiting.”

All of us are waiting.

Some of us are waiting to grill burgers on the deck. Some of us are waiting to yank the tarp off of the pool. Some of us are waiting to loft beanbags toward the hole.

Meanwhile, Navlyt’s pigeons are waiting to fly. And Navlyt, along with every other member of Woodstock’s 20th Century Racing Pigeon Club, is waiting to race them.

Maybe you’ve heard of pigeon racing. Maybe you haven’t. It probably depends on your age and where you grew up, and whether you had relatives who raced birds.

If you did, then you probably know what Bruce Vogrinc knows, which is that pigeon racing is unlike any other hobby. Vogrinc, 56, is the president of the 20th Century racing club and is eager for the season to start sometime after Easter. The old birds’ racing season starts first, followed by the young birds’ season in early August.

The races across the Midwest skies can range from 100 miles to 500 miles or more, and the pigeons can fly up to 70 mph with a tailwind. The birds wear a chip that records their official race time when they reach the landing on their home turf.

“There’s not many people who do race birds,” said Vogrinc, who lives in Woodstock. “One-hundred, 200 years ago, everybody knew about it. Because pigeons were probably more popular than chickens. But it’s kind of waned.”

Part of the reason for the decline of pigeon racing likely is because of the fact that it’s hard work, and it requires a lot of patience. Playing a video game delivers instant gratification, whereas raising a pigeon means buying gas for road trips and corn for meals and everything else that comes with developing a strong bird.

Put in the work, though, and you’ll be rewarded with personal satisfaction at the least and towering trophies at the best. Vogrinc paired his pigeons for mating this winter, and he is eager to see what his newest group of young birds can do.

“Out of all your birds, you’re lucky if you get a couple of really good racers,” Vogrinc said. “Because some are homers, but a couple are just born racers. That’s what every pigeon guy hopes for – to have really good, stud racers that come home fast.”

Like a racehorse that runs for the roses, a racing pigeon embraces its job.

“To tell you the truth, a pigeon is born to fly,” Navlyt said. “They love flying. When you’ve got them healthy and everything, they’ll take off in your loft and they’ll be gone for an hour or two, sometimes three hours.”

And they strive to come home, always.

Navlyt has had birds arrive home walking because they were shot in flight, mistaken for doves by reckless hunters. It’s heartbreaking, Navlyt said, because you develop relationships with the birds just as you would with any beloved pet.

“They come back to the place where they were born,” Navlyt said. “Scientists don’t even know how they do it yet. Some of them think it’s the magnetic pull, but nobody knows for sure.”

Here’s one thing I know for sure.

Stay patient, fellow pigeons. Our time to fly is coming.

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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