Note in the following article that pigeon "losses" are expected and accepted as a normal part of the pigeon racing "hobby". If only a few percent are routinely sacrificed as claimed (a questionably low estimate) out of the thousands released every weekend, the toll of those cruelly abandoned adds up quickly into the thousands of feathered souls doomed to unimaginably suffer and die or be killed. -ed.

     OCTOBER 07, [1998] 18:00 EDT

Racing Pigeons Fly the Coup

Associated Press Writer
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 PHILADELPHIA (AP) Some 2,200 homing pigeons competing in two races along the East Coast never made it home, leaving their handlers wondering if somehow, some way, the birds' legendary instincts went south. 

"I've never seen anything like this,'' Earl Hottle, who has been racing pigeons for 37 years, told the Allentown Morning Call. "Nobody can explain it.'' 

About 1,600 pigeons vanished out of 1,800 competing in a 200-mile race from northern Virginia to Allentown on Monday. And 600 out of 700 birds were missing after a 150-mile race on the same day from western Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. 

Ordinarily, the swift birds should have been back in their lofts in a matter of hours. 

The mystery continued on Wednesday: Did the birds fall prey to a flock of hungry hawks? Did some strong wind sweep them away? 

"Apparently somewhere they got sidetracked,'' said Ron Lizcz, who lost 14 birds. 

These aren't the plump, city birds that most people think of when pigeons come to mind. Their coats are silkier, and their bodies bigger and sleeker, since they are trained for long-distance flight. 

Each weekend in the spring and fall, thousands are trucked up to 600 miles away and released. Relying on their homing instinct and incredible stamina, the pigeons fly directly to their lofts. The ones with the fastest times are the winners. 

A devoted group of 15,000 breeders across the country has kept alive a hobby that has been around for centuries. Some racing pigeons can cost up to $250,000. 

In any race, less than 5 percent of the birds do not return home but a 90 percent loss rate is unusual, said Gary Moore, a competition organizer. 

"Is it unusual? Yes. Is it unprecedented? No,'' said Rick Phalen, executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union in Oklahoma City. "But I don't have a recent recollection of this big a loss in the country.'' 

The National Weather Service all but ruled out weather. It said there was a drastic change in wind direction Monday at 3,000 feet, but racing pigeons usually don't climb higher than 250 feet, and fly low on windy days. 

Birds of prey? "The chances that 2,000 hawks would get 2,000 pigeons are pretty unlikely,'' racer Dennis Gaugler told the newspaper. "The birds would scatter when attacked.'' 

"The truth is that nobody knows what happened,'' racer Robert Costagliola told the Morning Call, "and probably never will.''

Copyright 1998 Associated Press.