Zak and Skubal begin training their young birds in early spring, first letting them out to fly above their loft in scattered circles. “Everything’s something new for a pigeon. You have to teach them piece by piece,” says Skubal. After several outings, the birds naturally learn to coalesce into a tighter group and start exploring farther from the coop, finding their way back like boomerangs. About two months later, they travel so far that they disappear beyond the horizon, returning a few hours later. This is the moment that Zak and Skubal wait for; it’s a milestone signaling they can begin training in earnest. From this point on, the two men wake up five days a week to release the birds at 5 a.m. from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and then incrementally farther, until the pigeons can fly home from 50 miles away—any more might burn them out. It’s essential to preserve the birds’ strength for the races.
How exactly homing pigeons navigate remains something of a mystery. The general consensus is that they use two compass systems—the sun and, when the sun isn’t visible, magnetic fields. “Everybody by and large agrees on that,” says Charles Walcott, a professor emeritus at Cornell who’s been studying pigeons since the sixties. “But that’s about all they agree on.”
As for how the birds know where they are and in which direction to fly: “Italians think it could be due to odors,” Walcott says, referring to a theory that the birds navigate by using an olfactory map. In 2006, scientists in Italy severed the olfactory nerve in 24 birds, and only four made it home. “Some Germans think it’s largely the Earth’s magnetic field. A fellow in California thinks it could be low-frequency sounds.” (Pigeons can hear octaves below what we can.) “Maybe they can detect seismic movements of the Earth. What they’re doing with those noises, nobody has a clue.”
Then there are the small tricks racers use to encourage the birds to fly back more quickly. Before races, Zak and Skubal switch out the seed mix they usually give to the pigeons for a blend of two diet feeds from Belgium that keep the birds buoyant and a little hungry, making them all the more eager to get home. Sometimes, they put a live fly into a plastic egg and stick it under a pigeon. The rattling sound tricks the bird into thinking it has a chick ready to hatch. (Such motivational techniques don’t go over well with animal activists.)
But there’s a limit to what a racer can do. The birds are ultimately at the mercy of the elements, and a pigeon, even a great one, could take up with another flock for reasons that defy logic, or get waylaid by a storm. It could also be attacked by hawks, an animal whose importance looms so large in the minds of racers that they refer to them as simply “the hawk,” as if there’s a single, terrible falcon roaming the sky. One of Skubal and Zak’s best birds recently returned from a race with a gash on its side, taking it out of commission for weeks. “The hawk,” one racer tells me. “The hawk’s gotten out of hand.”
Ten hours before the birds are to be released in Pennsylvania, Zak is at the Viola club, registering his pigeons for the race. He hands them over one by one so that the small identifying chip around their legs can be scanned (the chip also clocks the time the birds return to their coop). Occasionally, Zak stops to inspect a bird’s wings, fanning out the feathers like a deck of cards. The wing tips, which can fall out if a bird is stressed, are key to how well they’re able to fly.
The next morning, Zak is sitting on the roof with Skubal, and sees one of his birds in the sky. It appears as if from nowhere, hurtling down the corridor of backyard behind the house. “It’s coming! It’s coming!” he shouts. Zak and Skubal whistle to help the bird locate the coop. The speck, now closer, spirals around the building, wings spread, before tucking its feet, leaning back, and landing. Zak and Skubal switch to other noises—a combination of “awoo, awoo” and what sounds like “hodge, hodge, hodge”—trying to coax the pigeon across the threshold of the loft, at which point its flying speed will finally be recorded (in this case, 44 miles per hour). For a moment, the bird sits motionless. Then, abruptly, it hops down to the coop’s bird-size entrance and waddles inside.
Zak steps through the coop’s human-size entrance and scoops up the bird in his hand. It is one of his favorites. “My champion,” he calls it. He doesn’t know it now, but during a race the following Saturday, it would have trouble returning, and Zak would field phone calls from other guys. “Anything yet? No?” he’d ask them. “Where is my champion?” he’d mutter to no one in particular. (The bird would find its way back, eventually.)
But for now, Zak peers down at the pigeon, which is all muscle and graceful lines. It’s done well, coming in first in his club and sixth overall. He holds it gently, smoothing its feathers. Then, as abruptly as he’s picked it up, he lets it go. The bird flutters to the ground and Zak goes back to the bench to watch the sky, noting a street bird, a flock of geese, a seagull, and finally, the next speck sloping down toward the roof.