Let me start this story with a question to all….
Have you ever brought home a new pet for your kids such as a kitten, a puppy or a typical a gold fish? To see the joy on the kids’ faces is priceless right? For my kids instead I brought home pigeons!
This is a story about the life of two special pigeons my son named Lenny & Jenny.
The story begins in Waltham, Massachusetts, when Lillian and I, and five of the first of our ten children were living in a small apartment at 17 Greely’s court.
Lillian was a stay-at-home mom for which I’m very grateful. I was a plasterer and union worker for several companies. While working at a building on Trapelo Road in Waltham I met a plasterer named John Spuria. His father was a non-union plastering contractor. John asked me if I was interested in working for his father on Saturday. I knew this was forbidden and I could lose my union privileges.
John was planning to take over his aging father’s plastering business. I thought over the offer carefully, considering the increase in my income and working for one company, and decided to make the move.
John had two brothers, Joe and Guy, and a brother-in-law Billy. The father, Paul, took a liking to me and I was treated like a son. I liked him very much and worked for him till he died of old age.
The place of his business and home was in Belmont, MA. John and Guy built a house next door to each other in Lexington, Ma. Turned out their wives fought with each other to the point where both houses were sold and they all moved to new locations in Lexington.
There was a house lot next to John’s newly built house on Lincoln Street. John and his wife, Helen, had five children just like me and Lillian at the time. We liked each other very much. John was a good and compassionate man but if you stirred up the bear in him you better get out of sight. I was told by a lot of people who knew him they’d never seen him act like he does with me including his father.
I decided to build next to his lot, which I later learned the rain from the street would run right through my lot. Well in most cases that’s a hazard but in my case it was much worse and beyond. So I did I dug trenches and trucked in many tons of large pea gravel.
Then I poured the footing, laid a block foundation, and installed a septic system. At this point we were running short on cash so we let things stand still for a while. During the winter months we realized how much it would cost us to live in the expensive town of Lexington. We saw an ad in the Waltham newspaper about a six room house with a small barn on one half acre of land in Natick, MA, ten miles from Waltham.
We made an offer contingent on the sale of our lot and foundation with house plans then placed an ad in the Boston Globe.
Fortunately, that single ad brought a buyer who wanted to build in this location and gladly paid the asking price. We paid off all accumulated costs, which left us enough money to satisfy the owners in Natick.
I continued to work for the Spurias for many years till I started my own plastering business. Now, back to the pigeons.
Lillian’s sister married Gerald Champagne and when I first went to their house Jerry showed me his pigeon coop with at least 100 pigeons. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The pigeons all looked the same to me and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would house and feed pigeons when most people find them a nuisance.
Jerry said they were Bell Neck show pigeons. Their head feathers down to the shoulder area were silver and the rest were white. Most times when we came to visit, Jerry would be in the coop. I went with Jerry to a pigeon show once and learned that there were more people than I ever imagined raising pigeons.
When I was working on the house in Lexington I noticed John Spuria had a pigeon coop. John’s lot was backed up to a huge tomato field so his coop was not noticeable from the street. John was a long time friend with the tomato farmer who owned both John and my house lots. Guy bought a large old home across town in Lexington and built a coop in the barn that came with the property.
John raised pigeons called Tumblers or Rollers. Guy raised pigeons called Homing pigeons that race long distance, just like marathon runners, for various distances. John’s pigeons competed at performance events for tumbling and rolling. If you ever have a chance to see this type of pigeon perform it is a thing of beauty.
One good thing about raising pigeons is that caring for them teaches a young person responsibility by having daily chores seven days a week.
There are many kinds of pigeon fanciers. I’ll just say what I know from what I’ve seen. Jerry tends his pigeons by feeding, watering, cleaning and culling those with irregularities.
On competition days he had to choose ten pigeons out of his flock that were in the best condition and appearance to please the judges. John did the same only he trained every day after work, picked twenty out of his flock and let them fly away all at once.
They fly way up in the sky, sometimes out of sight. Then John would whistle or make a favorite noise and the pigeons would drop in unison, tumbling with the sunrays shining on their wings as they fly back from long distances. It’s amazing when they actually want return from freedom to a strange environment.
People pay a lot of money for the eggs of winning pigeons, which is the goal of their keepers.
Now Guy is strictly racing. He cares for his pigeons much the same way as John does but takes it one step further, training them to fly all the way home….first!
Homing pigeon owners have their own club with strict rules they have to follow, but they’ll do anything to win. If an owner has the best conditioned pigeon he doesn’t need to bend rules.
I’ll try to remember the best I can on how it’s done. When the chosen pigeon is from good stock and young it is registered at the clubhouse and banded on one leg. Each member who enters a race has a time clock that’s set at the clubhouse and locked so it cannot be changed.
Guy practiced with his pigeons any time he was free. He’d transport them in crates to various locations and release them and drive quickly back to the coop to see how many returned. Then he’d drive a few miles further and release them again. He drove them further and further away until he knew they were ready for the real race.
On race day all the pigeon crates would be gathered on different concourses. Guy’s crates were brought to Menden Valley in Mass.
A time and date would be set for, lets say, a 700-mile flight. A huge truck equipped with a special release door would release the pigeons all at once. They were banded at the clubhouse the night before, which tracked their flight for their particular race, from Worcester Mass. to Brockton Mass, for example.
All the owners knew when the pigeons were released so they would have an idea when to expect them home. In all the chaos from the massive simultaneous release, some pigeons would occasional die just getting out of the truck.
They would all go, let's say, east from Troy, NY towards Boston.
As Guy and others waited, the flock would often stay together instead of breaking away and dropping down to their respective home coops.
Lost time starts to add up, and the pigeons actually realize they have to correct their way to their coop. When they land on the entrance to gate of the coop they pass through this ‘flip grill’ into their coop and are locked in. These are the most critical minutes and sometimes seconds.
Guy would then grab each pigeon, remove the band and pass it through the time clock that has been set by a committee at the club. The flight distance to the various coops is prorated, and winners are determined by the committee and the clocks.
Sometimes a pigeon would land on the roof of the coop too exhausted to go in. If the owner couldn’t get the band off the pigeon’s leg, he might shoot it!
Let me mention some actions owners might do to increase chances to qualify.
The longest feather on the wing is called the flight feather. By clipping to shorten flight feathers the pigeon has to flap it’s wings up and down faster, making it travel farther and faster.
Pigeons are monogamous so another tactic is showing a racing male another male with his mate in a crate. That male will come home faster to get to that other male.
Another strategy is showing the pigeon their favorite food it can’t wait to eat again.
Now I had no interest in raising pigeons. Working with two pigeon owners, I heard all their daily conversations until I moved to my new home in Natick, Ma.
After living there a couple of years Guy asked me if I knew Mr. Hedrick. I said “yes, he lives four houses down from our house.” Guy asked if I would pick my neighbor’s brain a bit. I said “what for?” Guy said, “He won 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th places in the concourse. It’s never been done before or after.
See if he still has pigeons and look in on his set up and such.”
Mr. Hedrick had a large glass hothouse and he grew plants from seed and sold them. I was about to start a vegetable garden so I went to see if he had any tomato plants. When I met him he told me I had the best possible soil for a garden, and that he’d used some of this soil to start his greenhouse.
Back to pigeons. Years later my son asked me why we only had a two pigeons. Well his inquiry had more meaning than he knew. He hadn’t thought that a pigeon would fly away if not cooped up, so that means it would never be let out.
What is the point? Well Guy thought if I would train a few of his pigeons a few days before the next race, he would enter them into the competition. He said they would be clocked returning to my barn instead of his coop in Lexington, which would cut out 20 miles on competitors and make him a cheating winner.
Because of Hedrick’s big win history and no longer racing pigeons, it probably would work. It was just another one of his schemes and I didn’t want of any part of it.
So Guy told me to “do what you want with the pigeons.” It wasn’t long before they escaped and probably found another coop or became a street common pigeon.
When a pigeon owner needs to cull his flock because it’s gotten too big, some would take crates to the local China Town or community, where Chinese restaurant owners bid against each other for the pigeons.
Well, I am that odd person who went there and brought two pigeons home as pets for my kids. They became best friends and Lenny and Jenny lived happily ever after.
Hey Dad, I have the fondest memories of the day you brought the pigeons home when we were thinking you were bringing home a puppy or a kitten. We were all so excited to see pigeons but didn't have a clue what that meant for us. Like you said, it wasn't long before I named them Lenny and Jenny and they we such good friends I couldn't wait to get home from school to spend the rest of my day with them. Thanks so much for reminding me of this part of my childhood and for sharing the back story. I never knew until now that there was ever any property you owned before 70 Rockland St in Natick. Whew knew??