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St. Louis Pigeon Racers Train ‘Athletes Of The Sky,’ Keeping Tradition Alive For A Century

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Charlie Klipsch, a third-generation pigeon racer, releases his birds on a training run in St. Clair, Missouri. Homing pigeons are known for their uncanny ability to travel hundreds of miles back home.

On a muggy August morning, Charlie Klipsch pulls his silver minivan into a gravel parking lot in St. Clair, Missouri, glances around and pops open his trunk.

From inside, 25 pairs of tiny eyes peer back at him.

“There’s not a cloud in the sky today, so the pigeons will be flying high,” said Klipsch, setting the cage of cooing birds on the ground. After a moment, he slides open the cage door, releasing the pigeons in a blur of wings.

Klipsch takes off his aviator sunglasses and watches the fast-moving flock recede until it’s just a cloud of black specks on the horizon.

The pigeons are on their way back to Klipsch’s house, about 40 miles northeast in Sunset Hills. If we want to beat them home, “we have to go like hell,” he said, hopping into his van and peeling out of the parking lot.

These aren’t your typical city birds; they’re homing pigeons, a species known for its uncanny ability to navigate hundreds of miles back home.

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
A flock of homing pigeons released in St. Clair, Missouri, flies home to Klipsch's backyard, about 40 miles away in Sunset Hills.

As a third-generation pigeon racer, Klipsch, 82, has spent decades training his birds to fly long distances. He’s part of a small community of enthusiasts known as the Mount Pleasant Homing Pigeon Club, a group that has raced pigeons in St. Louis since the 1920s. Though membership has dwindled in recent years, the club is trying its best to keep the sport alive and pass it along to the next generation.

Unlike their wild counterparts, homing pigeons are skilled navigators that have been used to carry messages for thousands of years — and bred into what Klipsch calls the “athletes of the sky.”

Just like any athlete, he said, a pigeon has to train.

“You can't condition a bird to fly three or four hours at a time, just by flying around the house for 10 minutes,” Klipsch said. “They have to train for the distance, get their respiratory system working, get their muscle system working.”

After his young pigeons have had a chance to explore the surrounding landscape on their own, he starts driving them a few miles away and releasing them at specific spots, avoiding “hawk-infested areas” and power lines.

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
A homing pigeon comes in for a landing in Klipsch's backyard. An antenna stationed at the doorway will scan a chip in its leg band, making note of its exact arrival time.

It’s rare that one of his birds doesn’t come home, he said, because he carefully checks each one beforehand — scanning its eyes, throat and feathers.

“The pigeons can't tell you how they're feeling,” said Klipsch, who estimates 98% of his birds make it home. “So you’ve got to use all your judgment and knowledge to determine whether or not that pigeon is good enough to fly.”

Back at the house, Klipsch and his daughter Jeannie Beck sit in plastic lawn chairs under trees humming with cicadas, as they wait for the pigeons from St. Clair to arrive.

“You can't talk about Charlie without talking about pigeons,” Beck said of her dad. “I mean, they're synonymous with each other.”

A ‘bird tornado’

Dedication to pigeons runs deep among the members of the Mount Pleasant Homing Pigeon Club.

Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Paintings of previous champion pigeons line the walls of the Mount Pleasant Homing Pigeon Club in St. Louis.

The group meets most weekends at its clubhouse — a small brick building in an alley at the edge of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in St. Louis. It’s easy to miss, were it not for the faded, hand-painted sign bolted to the garage door.

The building, which the club purchased for $4,500 in the mid-1980s, was once a streetcar turnaround. Today, its walls are covered in paintings of past champion pigeons, done by the members themselves.

On a recent Saturday night, a half-dozen members and 49 pigeons pack into the clubhouse to prep for the first race of the fall season. The members grab sodas from the mini fridge and pull their chairs into a circle, trading pigeon advice and gently ribbing each other ahead of the race.

“Like anything else, you’re going to get political differences,” said club member Kevin Sweeney, who lives in Ballwin. “And if you ask five different pigeon fliers an opinion about something, you’re going to get five answers. That’s just how it is.”

The pigeons rustle inside of their cages, as Klipsch lifts them out one by one to register them for the race. Each bird has a plastic band on its leg with a tiny chip inside, which Klipsch holds up to an electronic reader, like scanning a candy bar at the grocery store.

When a racing pigeon arrives at its home loft, an antenna automatically scans the microchip in its leg band and records its exact time of arrival.

Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Klipsch registers a homing pigeon for an upcoming race by scanning its leg band on an electronic reader.

The club members have just finished tucking them back into their cages when the birds' ride arrives.

For more than a decade, Jason Sadorf has ferried homing pigeons to race sites for the local Missouri clubs, including those in St. Charles and Potosi, and Belleville and Shipman, Illinois.

He helps load the pigeons into a trailer hitched to his truck, custom-made to hold individual steel cages outfitted with water and seed troughs. “I drive like I’ve got my kids in the truck,” said Sadorf, who works for an engineering firm.

The birds in this race are set to be released 160 miles away, in Lebanon, Missouri — about a three-hour flight, as the pigeon flies. The following morning at 7, Sadorf will pull a lever to open all of the cage doors simultaneously, releasing all of the pigeons in a “bird tornado.”

Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Kevin Sweeney helps register pigeons for an upcoming race at the Mount Pleasant Homing Pigeon Club in St. Louis.

“You can actually stand up to 10 feet away from the trailer and feel the wind from the birds flying out of the trailer,” he said. “I've had upwards of 600 to 700 birds in this trailer and when you let them all go, it's almost like a helicopter taking off.”

Keeping the tradition alive

For many of the club members, registering pigeons for weekend races has been a Saturday night tradition since they were kids.

Klipsch, whose grandfather started keeping pigeons in 1894 shortly after immigrating to St. Louis from Germany, remembers bringing cages of racing pigeons down to the train station with his dad.

“We would call the station master and say, ‘We got four crates coming down,’” he said. “And we’d put an envelope on top of one of those crates with a $10 bill in it. The next morning, the station master would take the money and turn the birds loose.”

Charlie Klipsch
Charles Klipsch Sr. releases a group of pigeons from the roof of his car. The Klipsch family has been keeping pigeons in St. Louis since the 1890s.

The club has shrunk to about a dozen members in recent years, though, and those left behind say they’re concerned that someday soon, it might disappear altogether. Still, a group of newcomers may breathe life into the club and keep the sport alive in St. Louis.

Yivan Amistad started keeping pigeons shortly after he was in a serious motorcycle accident in 2017.

“It helps me find my purpose,” said Amistad, whose left leg was paralyzed in the accident. “Back before I started walking again, I couldn’t do much besides having pigeons. It gives me something to do, trying to replace what I used to do.”

He and his cousin Jon Amistad, who moved to St. Louis from the Philippines, recently joined the Mount Pleasant Homing Pigeon Club to learn more about training their birds.

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Klipsch keeps his pigeons — about 80 in total — in a converted garden shed behind his house, outfitted with a large landing board in front and handmade perches inside. “The pigeons can't tell you how they're feeling, so you’ve got to use all your judgment and knowledge to determine whether or not that pigeon is good enough to fly," Klipsch said.

Another new member, Roy Wolfe, has bred Dutch rabbits for the past 45 years, but he said he’s always wanted to have pigeons.

For him, there’s something alluring about the idea of turning a bird loose and having it come home to you.

The retired commercial concrete worker is building his own pigeon loft in a converted single-wide trailer — and his grandkids, he added, have already started asking if they can start raising pigeons with him.

“It's silly to let a club like this go downhill because everybody's getting older,” Wolfe said. “Young people just don’t know about it. The more they see it, the more they’ll have an interest in it.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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