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[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]Racing pigeons such as these in Pat Kness' loft have been called thoroughbreds of the skies.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 4, 2002
Nearly 150 pigeon-loving racers and their birds have migrated to a Pasco County subdivision cooped up near the Hernando line.
He owns 180. They reside in two trailer-size lofts worth about $40,000. The lofts are clean, ventilated and snake-proof. When Kness stands in his backyard, seven other lofts, belonging to pigeon fanciers just like him, are within shouting distance.
"Pigeon racing is a dying sport," he says. "But not around here."
Birds of a feather: Pat Kness holds one of his male racing pigeons. Kness, 66, is a retired school superintendent from Wisconsin.
In a 1-mile-square area, which includes dibs and dabs of Pasco and Hernando counties, dwell nearly 150 pigeon-loving racers and their birds. They started flocking here from outside the state about two decades ago for reasons that included pleasant weather and rigorous competition. The migration continues to this day.
"I tell people all over the country that if they want to race against the best in the country they have to move here," says Mike Rivera, who began promoting this neighborhood as pigeon-racing paradise in the early 1980s.
Rivera calls the area "Little Belgium." Belgium is known as the No. 1 pigeon-racing country on the planet. Little Belgium wants a place on the map, too.
The backyard lofts that house Pat Kness' racing pigeons are clean and well-ventilated.
Mike Rivera calls the area "Little Belgium." Belgium is the No. 1 pigeon-racing country.
Show up at Little Belgium early in the morning and you'll notice the skies seem a tad dark. That's because members of the Gulf Coast Homing Pigeon Club, one of the largest in the country, are exercising their birds. Somebody will trailer a bunch up the road a few miles and release them. The birds zoom like lightning back to their lofts.
Oh, it's for practice and fun during summer. But when the season starts in the fall, it will feel more like life and death. Nobody will say that, exactly, but in Little Belgium competitors take their sport seriously.
"In the summer, we're all pretty friendly," says Rivera, a retired New Jersey supermarket executive who began his pigeon passion nearly half a century ago. "But when the season starts in the fall, you have to be careful who you talk to. You don't want to accidentally say something that will give a competitor the edge."
In Florida, we know football. Just ask us about fly patterns and counter plays. We also enjoy our water skiing, fishing and golf. Pigeon racing? In Florida, most of us think of pigeons as winged rats that poop all over city rooftops.
But not here, not in Little Belgium.
"Our birds are pampered," Rivera says. "We take better care of our birds than we do ourselves."
They don't look like city pigeons. Racing pigeons are slim, muscular and rather wild. It would be hard to imagine them begging on the street like their urban cousins.
"Our birds are the thoroughbreds of the skies," Rivera goes on. "And here, at least during the racing season, it's like the Super Bowl every week. The best are going against the best."
Pigeon racing is an ancient sport dating to the Greeks and Romans. With their homing instinct, the birds for centuries also were used as couriers. Birdmen -- a female racer is more rare around here than a Democrat -- talk with reverence about GI Joe, the famous World War II pigeon that transported military messages.
Most people who race pigeons today belong to the older generation. Growing up, they usually knew somebody who raced birds. In some neighborhoods, a pigeon loft was more common than a swimming pool.
"For me, how it started was, I saw a movie," says Mike Rivera. "I think it was a Disney movie, black and white, about a boy and his pigeon. I fell in love with pigeons right then. But I lived in the inner-city and wasn't allowed to race them. But I still would lure them into my room. Years later, when I moved into the country, I started racing them."
When Rivera retired to Florida, he was able to find four or five other men in Pasco who raced pigeons. Soon he was promoting his area to the rest of the country as the pigeon racing capital. In 1985, when Tampa landed a national convention, he'd drive pigeon fanciers from other states through his Pasco neighborhood and brag.
The birdmen started moving down, a trickle at first, but then a flood. By the late 1990s, Rivera had little promoting to do.
Pat Kness holds a young racing pigeon that is about three weeks old.
Today, Little Belgium is on the map. Residents include a who's who in the sport. Randall Berky, 29 times national champion, has moved to west-central Florida. So has Tony Melucci, Ziggy Vanderwall and Art Hees -- all masters of the sport. The area boasts not one, but two different stores that specialize in pigeon feed, a combination of grains and corn. The club expects to break ground for its new clubhouse any day. Recently it gave $6,000 in scholarship money to graduating high school students from local schools.
The money was for academic scholarships. The students don't have to fly pigeons.
"No young people are coming into the sport," roars Pat Kness. At 66, he's a retired school superintendent from Wisconsin, once a pigeon racing hotbed.
"When I was a kid, hell, I got into trouble with the law by stealing bleacher seats to build a pigeon coop. Racing pigeons, it was popular with kids. In Florida, I've taken birds around to schools and shown them off. Kids seem interested, but, hell, they got other things to do."
In the computer age, in the television age, kids don't build radios, either, or model airplanes. They don't build scooters out of milk crates or play marbles.
"What the hell. Taking care of your birds is hard work," Kness says. "Most kids today don't want to work that hard."
Two trailer-size lofts worth about $40,000 are home to some 180 pigeons at Pat Kness' Spring Hill home.
In pigeon racing, the early bird catches the worm. Some fanciers are up before dawn, mixing medicines, putting out feed and plotting. They are plotting how to grow stronger birds. They are plotting how to win races. In Little Belgium, nobody takes winning a race for granted.
When Mike Rivera promotes the area, he is careful to warn would-be residents about the state of competition. Some don't want to believe it.
"Most of us were pretty good in our old states," Pat Kness says. "Hell, in Milwaukee I won 80 races. I've only won once in 10 years here. The competition is very good. I've lost a 500-mile race here by one second."
On race day, birds from every competitor are trucked from 100 to 500 miles away and released at the same moment. The birds head for home.
"Sometimes I'll take a female off eggs that are going to hatch in a couple of days," Ness says. "That will be her motivation to get home quick. Or I'll take a cock away from his hen. He'll want to come home fast."
Racing pigeons wear electronic chips on their legs that record flight time.
And they do. Years ago, a pretty good pigeon might fly 30 or 40 mph. Nowadays some hit 60. They eat better food and receive better medicine. Their owners are smarter, too. They read books and have access to a world of information on the Internet.
On race day, pigeon owners sit in their yards and study the sky. Usually, their birds show up like clockwork. An inexperienced bird -- they drive a fancier mad -- may circle the loft once or twice before landing and lose a race by a few seconds. A prized bird lands immediately. A computer chip on its leg records the flight time. Lofts closer to or farther from the release site are penalized or rewarded to make things equal.
They've fought wind and rain. They have avoided telephone lines, radio towers and hawks that enjoy a meal of squab. Sometimes a young bird fails to return, but older birds usually show up, worn out and hungry. After food and rest, they are ready to go again the next week.
Just like their competitive owners.
"Some guys hate to lose, but you have to get used to losing if you compete here," Kness says. "We had a guy, a champion in New Jersey, who left here after only two years. He couldn't take the competition."
Of course, when the club loses a member, it is usually for another reason. Most are older than 60.
"We always seem to be going to funerals," Kness says.
"Some of us," Mike Rivera says, "eventually get too old for all the work in pigeon racing. But we always keep a few birds around.
"It gets under your skin. No way are we not going to have birds."
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