With a flurry of wings and feathers, the pigeons shot out of their second-story coop.
About 30 birds flew in sweeping circles around a Rockville home.
“They’re my athletes,” said Amor Malong, who raises, trains and races homing pigeons at his house. “They race from one point going home. Who is going to fly home first?”
Malong has raised homing pigeons in a light-filled coop in his garage on the corner of Crabb Avenue and Burgundy Drive since 2008. He started racing the birds last year, entering a sport that was introduced to the United States in the 19th century.
Homing pigeons can find their way home from more than 300 miles away and at speeds of 60 miles per hour, said Mindy Rosewitz, curator at the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Museum in Fort Monmouth, N.J., which closed to the public May 30. Magnetic fluid behind their ears and noses guides the birds based on the magnetic poles. Sometimes storms will throw them off track, or radio waves in cable towers confuse their sense of direction. But generally, the pigeons find their way home.
Malong is a member of the American Racing Pigeon Union, a group founded in 1910 that boasts nearly 10,000 members. Of those, between 100 and 150 live in the Washington area, said Karen Clifton, executive director of the organization.
“It appeals to people from every walk of life,” Clifton said. “We have janitors, we have judges. We have teachers, we have bus drivers. We have mechanics, we have surgeons.”
Malong, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1987, raised pigeons back in the island nation.
“I figured I wanted to start again,” Malong said. “I’m hooked. I love them.”
As a teenager in the Philippines, Malong said he purchased colorful parakeets for his mother. The birds reproduced, until the squawking grew too loud for his mother to bear. While Malong was off at school, his mother released the birds, expecting them to return home after a few hours of peace and quiet. But they didn’t.
“Maybe I should get something that will come back home,” Malong said to his mother.
And so he purchased pigeons.
“I saw the birds, the pigeons, as a symbol of love,” he said. “Watching them fly and knowing they’re coming back to you. It gives me a little happiness that they come back. They love me. They love the house.”
One of his winged athletes finished 27th place out of 287 birds, he said, in a contest in the United States — the best that one of his birds has done.
Training pigeons takes time; they first need to learn where their food comes from. Released around the house first, the pigeons will come home to roost, Malong said. Then, after about three weeks, he takes them a few miles away, to Montgomery College’s Rockville campus, and watches them find their way home. Now, he takes some birds as far as West Virginia and sends them home — a distance of about 70 miles.
“When they beat me home, when I get here and they’re already here, I say, ‘OK, time for you to go farther,’” Malong said.
The coop above Malong’s garage is clean. Pigeons coo, nest and bob about their quarters.
Divided in two by a wall and screen door, the coop houses old pigeons — those born any year before this year — in the front portion, and young pigeons —pigeons born this year — in the back. About 80 birds call this home, Malong said.
Each bird receives a yearly vaccination, he said. Malong and most other racers maintain thorough records of the lineage of birds. If birds have winning blood in them, Malong said, they might cost more.
Some birds sell for more than $2,500, Clifton said. But oftentimes, racers give birds to other racers.
Malong purchased six birds for breeding at prices between $50 and $80 each.
He said he spends about $80 per year on respiratory medication and $160 per year on electrolytes and vitamins for the birds. Seeds to feed the birds cost $25 and last about 16 days. A one-time vaccination for 100 birds costs $78.
The coop is full, but not crowded, with varieties of pigeons, including Red, Blue and Silver checks.
Neighborhood Services Officer Patrick Collburn of the Rockville City Police department was impressed when he visited Malong’s pigeon coops after neighbors alerted the animal control department.
“He is probably one of the most dedicated individuals to the sport I’ve ever seen,” Collburn said, and said the coop is clean and the birds are in good health.
Some neighbors expressed concern the pigeons might produce waste in the area, but Collburn said he found no such evidence. Malong is not in violation of city codes.
“They are very clean birds,” Collburn said. “And they’re dedicated to him as well. The bond is amazing. We were impressed. As far as we’re concerned, he’s top-notch. I’m still amazed.”
The night before a big race, club members under the American Racing Pigeon Union umbrella come together with the birds they want to fly. The birds are packed in their crates and driven to the release point.
Just after sunrise the following morning, the pigeons are released to begin their flight home.
Members belong to about 550 clubs that participate in two races per year; the spring race features birds more than 1 year old. The fall race features birds younger than 1.
The six- to eight-week racing season includes a series of graduated distances, Clifton said. Many clubs release the birds at a point 100 miles from their homes, then 150 miles, then 200, and so on. The longest race usually caps off at 600 miles.
Malong’s birds race in a group within a 50-mile radius of the Washington Monument in the District. The pigeons fly 100 or so miles home from Moorefield, W.Va.
An owner may fly the same bird for all legs of the race if the pigeon is healthy, or switch the birds.
“The last thing they want to do is tire the birds, fatigue, stress them,” Clifton said.
Racers use either manual or electronic timers attached to a pigeon’s leg to track the yards per minute the bird travels. A manual timer requires the owner’s presence when the pigeons land. A crank dial stamps the date and time a pigeon arrives. The electronic model contains a chip that scans at a pad located in the pigeon coop.
“You don’t even have to be there,” Clifton said. “Though the beauty of it is to see them coming in.”
The timers clock yards per minute, a calculation that determines the winner of a race.
The American Racing Pigeon Union, headquartered in Oklahoma City, supplies diplomas.
In 1946, union records show a race that was between 1,350 and 1,400 miles. Races of that length are defunct, Clifton said, because of the economic strain of traveling to release the birds.
And in 1967, the union recorded that a pigeon traveled 75 miles at 2,350 yards per minute — the fastest in their records.
According to union records, this is the fastest a bird has flown. But some records were lost when a tornado destroyed the Oklahoma City building where such papers were kept.
The use of homing pigeons to send messages dates to biblical times, Rosewitz said. One story is that Noah let a pigeon loose, and the bird picked up a piece of green branch, showing that the ark was near land.
Ancient Romans, too, made use of the birds, she said.
But homing pigeons also saved lives. Until 1957, when electronic communication came into play, soldiers used the animals to send vital messages to other troops hundreds of miles away. In World War I and World War II, the one-way fliers would head into the field with troops, Rosewitz said, and carry notes in capsules around their legs back home or to other troops.
In one case, a pigeon prevented friendly fire.
“The bird got there just in time to tell [the soldiers] to please stop the fire, because the enemy had already left,” Rosewitz said.
Because homing pigeons are untrackable, she said, they made excellent messengers.
As Malong’s pigeons swooped around the house, he chuckled at a sparrow that attempted to join the ranks of the larger birds.
“The wild birds flying with them makes me laugh,” he said.
The well-trained pigeons stood out from other birds. They dip with grace, always together.
“When you see them swoop like that, you know they’re happy,” Malong said.
About five minutes later, as the wide circles shrank, the pigeons began landing on the roof of the garage. They shuffled, one by one, into the coop on their own accord.
“They’re my athletes,” Malong said again.