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The Birds
CHRIS BALLARD
January 28, 2008
And they're off, hundreds of pigeons, in a race across the desert, back to captivity. With pride and big money riding on the result, it's a tale of beer and homing in Las Vegas
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January 28, 2008

The Birds

And they're off, hundreds of pigeons, in a race across the desert, back to captivity. With pride and big money riding on the result, it's a tale of beer and homing in Las Vegas

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A FEW HOURS later I do more or less the same thing. Back in Vegas, I meet up with a dozen fliers at a casino bar. The Bud Lights flow and, soon enough, so do all things heartfelt and candid.

"The most amazing feeling is when that bird comes in and it drops its wings like an F-16. Look, I'm getting goose bumps right now."

"Steroids are a problem, especially in Europe. Juice up a bird or hit it with cortisone, and that thing will fly through a frickin' wall."

"You can't buy a win. Not like horse racing, where the A-rabs can buy up the best horses."

I also hear tales, some taller than others. Of races in Japan and Taiwan in which the wealthy are pigeon-crazy and winners can earn $3 million. Of South Africa, land of liberal quarantine laws and host of the Million Dollar Race, which attracts upward of 5,000 entries. Of how the sport has declined from 40,000 racers in the U.S. after World War II to only 15,000. (Blame Super Mario and his ilk.) Of the time when Mike Tyson, the most famous fancier of all, showed up to oppose restrictions on pigeon ownership at a Phoenix city council meeting, protesting shrilly, "I don't know why you're picking on pigeons."

Eventually, feeling the buzz of camaraderie (or at least the beer), we disperse into the night, propelled by much back-slapping. Alas, the good vibes will not last.

MONDAY

And they're off! Or so those of us at Sittner's compound are told. In the least dramatic race launch imaginable, Cecil and Dave call in to report an 8:30 a.m. release. Someday, Utah racer Ray Jones tells me, the pigeons will be outfitted with GPS chips that feed their positions back in real time, to be displayed on a giant monitor, and won't that be exciting!

As it is, the day unfolds languorously. Smoked pork is served, hangovers nursed, rivals eyed warily and, most fervently, pool bets made. Powers has described the pools to me as "just like fantasy football," but they turn out to be nothing like fantasy football. For starters, you can only bet on your own birds (at least legally, wink, wink). Then you choose from a medley of options, including pools from $5 to $1,000 an entry. A devoted gambler can easily wager $10,000 and win four or five times that.

Furthermore, and this can get quite confusing, the birds don't return one at a time. Instead, they arrive in "drops," clusters of a dozen or so that are enticed to the lofts by a specially trained pigeon. All the birds in the first drop get a winner's share. Adding excitement, the first bird to make it all the way to one of the loft's openings earns another $25,000, which leads to searing drama as a handful of tired, hungry pigeons methodically nose their way toward a fat payout.

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