It’s almost time for John Celia’s birds to fly the coop.
The Silver Spring man houses, trains and races homing pigeons, which he keeps in two large lofts in the back yard of his one-acre property. Come late April, it will be time for the strongest 15 birds of the 50 or 60 he bred for the season to compete against other members of the Capital City Club and the Washington Metro Racing Pigeon Concourse.
Celia, 73, said he began racing pigeons when he was 16. He was living in Southeast D.C. and walking home from a library that was only a few blocks away. In an alley he walked through, he noticed 14 or 15 pigeons flying around. When he stopped to look, a man stepped outside his house, whistled and — within minutes — the birds gathered themselves into a little building.
Celia began talking to the man, who offered him a pigeon to take home. He persuaded his father to let him keep the bird, and his interest in racing homing pigeons took off.
“It’s kind of a family sport, if you like animals,” said Celia, a retired U.S. Navy petty officer whose kids have followed in his pigeon fancier footsteps.
Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the American Racing Pigeon Union in Oklahoma City, said pigeon racing began in the United States in the 1800s. The organization has close to 10,000 members throughout the country in 600 to 700 racing clubs. Pigeon fanciers — people who race pigeons — range in age, Roberts said.
“It is a sought-after outdoor hobby that the whole family can take part in,” Roberts said.
Roberts said there are more than 300 breeds of pigeons. Aside from the homing pigeon, which is used for racing, there are show breeds and performance breeds that can tumble in the air and on the floor.
All of Celia’s birds are registered through his club, which is a part of a larger concourse, or a collection of clubs. All of the concourses are registered under the American Racing Pigeon Union.
Celia has two lofts — one for his younger racing pigeons and another for pigeons that are retired and used for breeding. He said he has about 18 pairs of breeders, which have about three rounds of two babies per nest, yielding up to 60 birds.
He said he first teaches the birds to go from the landing board outside the loft to the section inside the loft, where they will live. He lets the birds sprawl and start flying around the yard to gain strength. When they are strong enough to stay in the air, Celia said, he lets them fly as a flock.
At about 6 to 8 weeks old, the birds are let out in the morning. When they build up muscles and can fly around the house well, he trains them to enter the loft after he calls them, which he said can take a few weeks.
“They are pretty intelligent and catch on pretty quickly,” Celia said.
Once the birds respond to his call, they are ready to start finding their way home. He then takes the birds in crates about a mile away and releases them.
“The first time, it takes a little while to come home,” Celia said. Later, it will take 15 to 20 minutes.
Week after week, he will go farther away, allowing them to eventually fly from 100 miles away, which takes about an hour. In training season, he works with the birds for about 2 1 / 2 hours each day.
“I’m not teaching them how to come home. That’s naturally born with the bird,” Celia said. “You can take them in any direction, and then they will always come home. A pigeon will always come to the original home it is born in.”
Racing homing pigeons has been a diversion for Celia, a retired master electrician. He said he would often come home frustrated after a day of work, finding solace in his birds.
“I find them just an individual, interesting species of nature,” Celia said, adding that his pigeons give him peace of mind. “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”