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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Pigeons have fascinated man for centuries. Charles Darwin, Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney all kept the birds. Today, thousands of people are flocking to the sport of pigeon racing.

Patrick Skahill of member station WNPR has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FLOCK OF BIRDS AND WHISTLING)

PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: That whistling, it's not a pigeon. It's Bill Desmaris. I'm with him in his backyard in Massachusetts, where he's welcoming home birds from a race that started 250 miles away in Verona, New York.

BILL DESMARIS: Come on. Come on.

SKAHILL: Desmaris acts a lot like a pigeon. He's hyper and he constantly watches the sky. Each weekend, he ships his birds off on a truck and somehow they find their way home. Bill isn't sure how the birds navigate, but he thinks it's something like the radar in a submarine.

DESMARIS: Beep. Beep. There's like, there must be something that tells them: Beep. Beep. Through taking off beep...

(SOUNDBITE OF AN FLYING EFFECT)

DESMARIS: ...and they go home.

SKAHILL: Now, racing pigeons aren't like the pigeons you see in a park. They're stronger, bred for their endurance and brains. Some are worth thousands of dollars

(SOUNDBITE OF LOADING)

SKAHILL: At a club in Connecticut, another race is about to start. Pigeons are loaded onto a truck bound for Toledo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on you knuckleheads.

SKAHILL: While the racers engage in some pre-game festivities.

PETE AVALLONE: Oh. Look at this guy.

TONY WIADRSKI: Harold, how about shot and beer? How about shot and beer? You never drink water. You'll get sick.

SKAHILL: Tony Wiadrski used to play soccer in Poland, but for 33 years he's raced pigeons in America. His house is right next door to the club.

So did you build the coop yourself?

WIADRSKI: Yeah.

SKAHILL: Yeah. How long did it take to build?

WIADRSKI: The coop was building two, three months before the house.

SKAHILL: What did your wife think of that?

WIADRSKI: Oh, she don't complain because she know I like it. They know the pigeons is my life.

SKAHILL: Tony sometimes bets on races, but other pigeon flyers like Wayne and Tina Spakowski say the sport is about other things, like caring for your birds. Pigeon racing isn't without risk - hawks, power lines, and surprise weather can all keep the birds from coming home. So the Spakowskis are careful not to get too attached.

WAYNE SPAKOWSKI: Once you name them it seems something happens to them.

TINA SPAKOWSKI: Yeah, we had...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPAKOWSKI: Always had one that would always chase my feet, so we called her Feet for the longest time. And of course, you know, one race and she never came home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPAKOWSKI: Aw, Feet (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPAKOWSKI: Feet. We lost Feet.

SKAHILL: Still, each bird represents an investment of time, money and love. So pigeon racers won't just hand their birds off to anyone. They look for experienced truck drivers, like Ralph DuPree who has driven pigeons for nearly a decade. DuPree will drive all night, releasing dozens of birds the following morning.

He says he'll find a nice spot, a place with good visibility and no power lines. And then, it's just a matter of getting out of the way.

RALPH DUPREE: Sometimes...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DUPREE: ...you get crapped on.

SKAHILL: And for the Spakowskis, the race results weren't great either. But with competition nearly every weekend, they'll have plenty of opportunities. And when winter comes they'll begin mating their best pigeons, continuing on the never-ending quest to breed the perfect, as they call it, thoroughbred of the sky.

For NPR news, I'm Patrick Skahill.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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