Franklin Weaver didn’t know how his racing pigeons managed to find their way back to his coop from hundreds of miles away. Even science hasn’t sorted out the mysteries of their homing instinct — their uncanny ability to navigate using some combination of the earth’s magnetism, the movement of the sun and their own good senses.

For Mr. Weaver, a former milkman and one of the top pigeon racers in the Washington area, the fact that his birds wanted to come home was enough. He died Oct. 15 at age 86 at his home in Clinton of a blood-vessel disorder. For the past few years, said his son Harry Bates Weaver, he stayed alive to take care of his birds.

Pigeon-racing is a “dying sport” in the United States, said Charles Walcott, a former director of the ornithology lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The decline is unfortunate, he added, because it is a “good sport,” one founded on the pigeon’s bond with its caretaker.

That was certainly the case with Mr. Weaver, who had as many as 150 birds at the height of his racing career and is said to have known them all by name or band number.

Pigeons are often disdained, ridiculed — as in satirist Tom Lehrer’s ditty “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” — and shooed off from picnics, but enthusiasts know better. Over the centuries, pigeons have been used as postal carriers in peacetime and messengers during war. In recent years, English hospitals employed them to fly blood samples over the London traffic.

Franklin Weaver, a top pigeon racer in the Washington area, died Oct. 15 at his home in Clinton of giant cell arteritis, a blood vessel disorder. He was 86. (Family photo/FAMILY PHOTO)

For Mr. Weaver, the birds were athletes. Racing pigeons come from the same species as street pigeons, Walcott said. The difference is a matter of pedigree. A purebred Belgian racing pigeon with superior strength and navigation capabilities commands up to $30,000, although his son said Mr. Weaver never spent that kind of money for his birds.

There are about 60 pigeon lofts within a 40-mile radius of the Washington Monument, according to Sam Pixley, a vice president of the International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers. The racers trade and share their birds to keep the sport affordable.

Mr. Weaver was a founding member of the Hillside Racing Pigeon Club in Maryland and a lifetime member of the Capitol City Racing Pigeon Club.

Before the civil rights movement, when some clubs were segregated, he was among the white racers who supported integration. He “was in the group that said, ‘Hey, enough is enough. We need to come together, and we need to have one sport,’ ” said Pixley, 64, who is African American.

Mr. Weaver specialized in long-distance competitions, in which birds are released at dawn more than 500 miles away from their coops. The best pigeons make it back by nightfall. He left the lights on for them, his son said.

Mr. Weaver held two All-American titles and, in one year, won eight out of 10 races, he once told the Annapolis New Bay Times.

“Before I even ate, I’d go out and train the birds,” he said. “I’ll fly as long as I live.”

Franklin Harris Weaver was born in Washington on March 22, 1925. As a boy, he chased pigeons on the Mall and climbed church steeples to see where they lived. He took Ann Stephan, who later became his wife, on pigeon-chasing dates in the park.

After graduating in 1942 from the old Central High School in Washington, he joined the Army. He hoped for an assignment with carrier pigeons. Instead, his family said, Mr. Weaver ended up storming Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion.

When he came home from the war, he found jobs as a Coca-Cola delivery route driver and as a milkman before retiring in 1992 as a meat warehouse supervisor. The money he won from pigeon racing was enough to maintain his loft and buy Christmas presents for his family.

Besides his wife, of 65 years, survivors include five children, Harry Bates Weaver of Prince Frederick, Patricia Kay Weaver of Lusby and Becky Warring, Cheri Alderson and Steve Weaver, all of Mechanicsville, Md.; two sisters, Dolores Judd of Tappahannock, Va., and Gerri Rollins of King George County, Va.; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Pixley remembered one of Mr. Weaver’s star racers, which in three consecutive races had flown 500 miles in a day. Mr. Weaver entered the pigeon in another race and waited at the loft to celebrate its homecoming.

A day and then weeks went by with no pigeon. Mr. Weaver continued to believe that the bird would find its way home — and four months later, it did.

“You look for that bird and look for that bird,” Pixley said. “When you do get it home, it is a very joyful moment for you.”