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Lord of the Wings

Pigeon racing is more than just a sport—or a cheap punch line. For a Montana fancier, it's a way of life.

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Jim Jenner prefaces the introduction with a disclaimer. "They're not exactly ready for prime time," he says on a windy March afternoon, adding something about the cold weather factoring in.

He's being modest. Think of Jenner as a master chef who serves up an immaculate meal and adds, "I hope it tastes all right," or "If you don't like it, I can make something different." It's an unnecessary—but telling—qualifier, an excuse just in case his guest isn't sufficiently impressed.

Jenner takes such pride in what he's about to reveal that he feels anything short of perfection would be a letdown. He's spent the afternoon—and, for that matter, a lifetime—championing an animal largely dismissed in contemporary culture: the pigeon. And while his birds may be elite specimens, bred from generation to generation to compete in aerial marathons that span as many as 700 miles, they're still, in the eyes of many, just pigeons.

"Does that look like a feathered rat to you?" asks Jenner after he opens the door to his Philipsburg coop and holds one of his two dozen racing pigeons to his chest.

He spreads out the bird's right wing, which looks much bigger, smoother and stronger than something pecking at breadcrumbs in an urban park. The bird's color also pops, a crisp, rich pewter with flecks of white. Jenner explains that this bird, known simply as "32" based on the unique alphanumeric tag on its ankle, eats only high-end safflower seeds. With a heart roughly twice the size of a common pigeon, he can fly, when properly conditioned, up to 60 miles per hour. You could drop 32 at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Nevada or a pasture in Utah and, through some unexplained miracle of mother nature, the bird would book it directly back to its coop in Jenner's backyard. No one would dare call 32 a rat with wings.

"You can't breed from the ones that don't make it back," says Jenner. "You're looking at the product of generations of birds that knew how to make it home, and knew how to make it home fast."

Pigeon racing takes advantage of the innate capabilities of homing pigeons, which for centuries have been used to deliver messages over hundreds of miles and through the harshest conditions. The sport originated in Belgium in the 18th century, and continues to count an eclectic group of celebrities, royalty, average Joes, inner city males, gamblers, animal lovers—you name it—among its devotees. Just last month, former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, a lifelong pigeon guy, debuted a new show on Animal Planet that pits his birds against those raised by some of the East Coast's most decorated fanciers (that being the term for someone who raises and races the birds).

Jenner may not be a celebrity, but he is a big name in the relatively small sport. Over the last 20 years, he's become an authority on pigeons, a source for national magazines like Sports Illustrated and an invited speaker on the topic at England's House of Commons. Stacks of pigeon books surround his office—The Pigeon in History, Basics of Breeding Racing Pigeons, etc.—as well as a few titles covering the pigeon's much more respected relative, the dove (A Dovecote Heritage, Superdove, etc.). Memorabilia is stashed in the corners of the room, including an old Sunkist sign for "Homer Brand" oranges with a pigeon crossing the horizon. Even Jenner's credit card has been personalized with a picture of one of his birds.

Indeed, his passion has become his livelihood. The former state representative and civic leader is something like the Ken Burns of pigeon racing. His small, Philipsburg-based production company has released 11 documentaries on the topic, including the five-part Secrets of Champions series, the three-disc Share the Blue Sky: Stories of the Birds of Peace, and what he calls his "great American novel on pigeon racing," Marathon in the Sky, a 60-minute film narrated by Michael Landon.

"The real money is in selling the birds," says Jenner. "That doesn't do it for me. I'm a storyteller."

And in all of his stories, Jenner always seems to come back to a certain theme: the inextricable connection between a pigeon racer and his flock. To understand this strange sport, its vast history, its quirky characters—including the few dedicated fanciers in Montana—Jenner says you have to first start with the bond between man and bird.

Jenner volunteers his free time at the Philipsburg school introducing students to pigeons. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM JENNER

"It's like a family," he says. "They become a part of you. I've dealt with teasing all of my life, heard every statue joke in 50 years, and you certainly take that...But you'll find pigeons are worth it."

•••

Pigeon racing is unlike any sport you've ever seen, partly because you can't actually see it. To compete, each fancier transports his pigeons to a central spot anywhere from 100 to 600 miles away from his coop. The birds are tagged, then all released at the same time. The winner doesn't depend on the first bird to return home—some coops, of course, are closer than others—but which bird records the fastest average speed. An electronic clock that reads the tag on each pigeon's ankle takes care of all the calculations.

"It's the race with a single starting gate and a thousand different finish lines," explains Jenner.

The size of the playing field puts fanciers in the uncomfortable position of setting their most prized possessions loose and hoping for the best. It also makes for a few nervous hours as they wait for their birds to return. The ending may sound a bit anticlimactic, or maybe lonely, but racers universally swear by the high of seeing a tiny dot in the sky and knowing it's their bird returning home.

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