Young pigeons sit in the coop owned by Jon Bernhard of Westbrook. Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK  — Raising and racing homing pigeons can be a fun labor of love, say two local enthusiasts who want more folks to flock to the hobby.

Local Jon Bernhard holds one of his newer pigeons. Newer pigeons are a risk to let out, he said, as they are easier prey for birds like hawks. Chance Viles / American Journal

“Pigeons are just so cool,” said Jon Bernhard, an occupational therapist living in Westbrook. Bernard owns 16 pigeons. “They are incredibly smart and resourceful.”

No one knows exactly how homing pigeons can make their way home after traveling what often are great distances, although there have been extensive studies, said pigeon expert Leonard Longo of Sebago.

They know it has a lot to do with magnetic fields of earth, the sun, eyesight, but you can take a bird hundreds of miles away from where it has never been and it finds its way home,” said Longo, who owns around 40 birds. “There a sixth sense in there.”

Pigeon races, once popular, are now “a dying sport everywhere, and that’s sad,” Longo said.

Bernhard, 46, became interested in homing pigeons in middle school. An animal lover, he was pulled in by their history of delivering messages, even on battlefields like in World War I.

“I took a lot of time off and am just now getting back into it and have been doing it solidly for a year or two,” Bernhard said.

Most of his pigeons are racing pigeons and regular homing pigeons, which are not necessarily trained for speed. They live in coops Bernhard built. One coop is large enough for a few humans to fit inside, and a smaller coop is dedicated to younger birds.

Jon Bernhard said he has a good relationship with his pigeons, who trust him enough to eat out of his hand. Their food is a mix of grit and different seeds and grains. Chance Viles / American Journal

Racing pigeons are bred to travel with speed, but smaller varieties like tumblers or rollers, named for their flashy aerial stunts, are more popular for shows and productions.

Longo used to contract out his white show birds to Disney theme parks as stand-ins for doves, which were used during parades and in its Pocahontas shows.

“They’d fly out and do some laps around the crowd before going to their coop behind the scenes,” Longo said.

Longo, 58, has been raising homing pigeons for almost 50 years, starting out in the Tampa area of Florida, a hot spot for old-time pigeon racers, he said. A retired police officer, Longo said his pigeons now are just a hobby for him, but in the past he bred, sold and raced them. He has also judged show and race competitions.

The winner of a pigeon race is determined by average speed, Bernhard said.

“Basically, the pigeons are released from one point and fly home, and they win based on the average speed when they arrive back,” he said. “If they all leave from Florida but one pigeon lives in Maine and another in Texas, it isn’t really fair to base it on who arrives back first.”

Pigeons have an incredible sense of smell and sight but cannot fly at night. During long races, the pigeons will roost overnight on their flight homeward.

Races are regulated by groups like the American Pigeon Racing Association, American Racing Pigeon Union, National Pigeon Association or the International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers.

Birds in races wear identification bands around their feet, and registered birds are always banded in case they get lost. Though infrequent, a homing pigeon may not actually make it home if it gets pushed off course by weather or a bird of prey, or if it is hurt.

“People can call the federation who will then identify the bird and get it back to you,” Bernhard said.

Jon Bernhard returns a pigeon to its coop. The hole traps allow free pigeons to enter their coop upon returning from a flight, but they are unable to fly out. Chance Viles / American Journal

While a hobby for both Bernhard and Longo, homing pigeons can be lucrative. The winnings for the largest competitions can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“In many cases, the breeder of the bird will win 60 percent of the winnings, with the flyer 40 percent,” Longo said.

Last November, a Belgian-bred racing pigeon sold at auction for a record-breaking $1.9 million. Longo, however, often gives away his birds to other enthusiasts.

“If someone is into pigeons and I know them, I often give them away because I know they are going to be treated right,” he said.

Both Longo and Bernhard said that many of the old-time pigeon enthusiasts have passed on and there hasn’t been a lot of new interest. There are some pigeon owners in Maine, but their numbers are dwindling, they said. They hope exposure can attract more youth, and both have been working on getting younger family members interested.

After the pandemic, Bernhard hopes use his homing pigeons in his occupational therapy practice to entertain his patients, help them relax and connect them to nature. He also would like to back into pigeon racing.

In the meantime, he said, his pigeons offer valuable lessons for his two sons.

“Trust is important to pigeons, and if you treat them right they remain loyal to you,” Bernhard said. “Pigeons mate for life and in a lot of ways are similar to us, with their own personalities. My boys have learned about life and the miracle of birth, but also death.”

He has lost some pigeons to birds of prey, he said, which he used as lessons for his sons.

Last Friday, while Bernhard spoke with an American Journal reporter near his pigeon coop, a hawk came after two of his most seasoned pigeons after their free flight.

“I am a little worried about them,” Bernhard said. “I trust them though. They’ve spent nights away and have come back.”

The birds, as expected, arrived home the next morning, harm free.

“I think there is a lot to learn from pigeons. I want to see it stay alive, more of the youth get into it,” Bernhard said.

Mates Duster and Compass during a free-flight over Westbrook. Chance Viles / American Journal

Homing pigeons Compass, left, and Duster are mates for life. Shortly after this photo was taken, they fled from the roof of their coop, pursued by a hawk. Both returned safely the next morning. Chance Viles / American Journal

John Bernhard cleans his pigeon coop. He feeds his birds and cleans the coop daily. “One of my biggest tips for a newcomer is to not overfeed your pigeons. They become lazy,” he said. Chance Viles / American Journal

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