Tom Jackson cradles a pigeon in his hand and releases it on the ground. But instead of blasting off into the sky, the bird rolls over backward, kicking up dust as it propels itself across the barn floor like an avian acrobat, using its wings as elbows instead of aerodynamic appendages.
To the uninformed, this bird needs a vet, and fast. But to Maryland farmer Jackson and his daughter, Melinda, this parlor roller pigeon is special. Maybe even special enough to compete in a fancy pigeon show and beat out all the other parlor rollers that have never flown a day in their highly bred lives.
“You strive for best in show, but if you do well in your breed,” says Melinda, a 40-year-old truck driver, “that’s a dream come true.” Adds Tom, “You can swell up your chest a little bit.” Just like, say, a puffed-up pouter pigeon?
The Jacksons are new to the world of pigeon breeding, a hobby stretching back thousands of years. Like all other types of pigeons, fancy pigeons, even the ones that appear to wear high Victorian collars and ruffled booties, derive from the rock, or common, pigeon. Its descendants are among the oldest domesticated animals. Pigeons figure in Egyptian hieroglyphics and graced supper tables during World War I. Homing pigeons carried critical messages during war, and the U.S. Army maintained a pigeon corps until the 1950s.
Eventually, however, the birds left the workforce for the sporting life and the beauty pageant stage. For folks accustomed to the city park variety (known colloquially as rats with wings), some fancy breeds may appear unnatural, a mad scientist experiment to create a flawless specimen. But breeders insist that pigeon husbandry is not a harmful activity. “The health and well-being of the pigeons is something the NPA stresses to our members on a regular basis,” says Tim Heidrich, secretary of the National Pigeon Association.
“You want a healthy bird,” adds Melinda. “But you also want to get that perfect standard. You want that perfect bird.”
Many of today’s fancy-pigeon fanciers grew up around racing pigeons, watching their fathers or older brothers liberate their pet birds, only to see them boomerang back home. (The avocation is overwhelmingly male, though women are making inroads.) Melinda, who previously raised chickens, doesn’t follow the traditional script. She stepped into the fancy-pigeon arena three years ago after buying a few rollers at a local auction. She has since “moved on to the pretty-to-look-at birds.” Her easy-on-the-eyes flock includes archangels, mookees, Hungarian giant house pigeons and South German whitetails.
Inspired by his daughter, the 62-year-old Jackson started procuring his own birds a year ago. The duo now owns more than 100 pigeons, including several that take a late January road trip — to the NPA’s Grand National Show in Myrtle Beach, S.C., “the Super Bowl of pigeon shows,” says Melinda.
Founded in 1920, the NPA moves its annual show around the country (last year was Amarillo, Tex.; next year is Fresno, Calif.). This year, more than 3,400 birds representing about 130 breeds are vying for top honors (which consist of bragging rights only, no giant checks involved). On the Breed Totals and Location sheet, you can see which pigeons are the most popular — Modenas lead with 354 entries — and which ones could use a publicist: The naked neck, the Syrian dewlap and the Serbian highflyer categories have only one representative each. Three South German whitetails show up, and Melinda owns them all. She wins and loses. “There was no competition,” she laments.
Melinda’s other breeds face a deeper bench. Her two mookees will go up against 74 nearly identical birds, and her seven archangels must outdazzle more than 40 others. And pity Tom’s Jacobins, which must impress Drew Lobenstein in a crowded field of 126. The veteran judge’s critiques are expansive and informative, and condemnatory when necessary. “The interior structure has been pulled, so it’s not in its natural condition,” he says during an inspection of adult males. “If it has a black feather, leave the damn tail feather in. Don’t trim, spike or pull it. It is an unfair advantage.” The spectators break out in applause.
Over at the Rare Breeds Pigeon Club table, Tom listens to a judge with mutton-chop sideburns evaluate the 13 Lucernes, including eight of his. One subject has a stance that is “erect, but not too erect” and a deep gold collar, but its meager mohawk foils its chances: “This peak kills it.” The bird earns a 93, a middling score. (No bird ever receives a perfect 100; most scores fall in the 92-to-96 range.) Tom snags two 95s, but best of breed goes to No. 745. The victor celebrates by eating some seed.
As the show’s first day comes to a close, Melinda has placed second in the mookee color class. But she’s still waiting to hear the archangels results. While she’s across the hall with the mookee club, her father delivers some astounding news: Two of Melinda’s archangels have won three awards — best of breed, champion and reserve champion — a full sweep.
“I never thought in a million years I would win,” she says, stunned by the decision. The top winner “was a last-minute addition. I call her my diamond in the rough.”
Melinda pulls out a black Sharpie and grabs the index card with the young hen’s information on the front and the judge’s comments on the back. She writes “Champion” between her name and the bird’s number and replaces the card in the cage, a blue ribbon by way of office-supply store.
The next day is the best-of-show competition. Melinda’s archangel falls to a Budapest short-face tumbler with Beanie Boo eyes. She collects her bird and places it in a plain metal box with air holes. Her bird is a champ, but it’s also still a pigeon.
Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post staff writer.