There’s no place like home, pigeons show their human families

  • Zackery Zawalski, 13, of Belchertown, tends to his family's homing pigeons corn at the backyard loft. He is president of the Northwest Junior Flyers Club of Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zackery Zawalski, 13, of Belchertown, feeds his family's homing pigeons corn at the backyard loft. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zackery Zawalski, 13, of Belchertown, tries feeding corn to one of his family's unnamed homing pigeons. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • JenaRose Zawalski, 9, of Belchertown, holds "Buddy," one of her family's homing pigeons, while interacting with others in their backyard loft. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zackery Zawalski shows the wing on one of his family's fastest racing pigeons. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kaitlyn Park, left, watches her twin sister, Skyler Park, puts one of their homing pigeons in its loft for the night at their home in Belchertown. Heather Truelove, the girls’ mother, is in the background. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • JenaRose Zawalski, 9, tries feeding corn to Buddy, one of 20 pigeons her family owns. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • JenaRose Zawalski demonstrates the proper way to hold a homing pigeon. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kaitlyn Park, 11, of Belchertown, puts one of her family's homing pigeons in its loft for the night. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zackery Zawalski shows one of the notes his family's homing pigeons carries on its journeys. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chocolate, left, and Clover, are two of the 11 pigeons Kaitlyn and Skyler Park are training at their home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2017 4:29:43 PM

Throughout history, pigeons, bred by humans to live on rooftops or backyard lofts, have flown hundreds of miles to find their way home.

People have raised pigeons to race them, like thoroughbreds, paying thousands of dollars for a bird. Some say these creatures are able to use the Earth’s gravitational pull to find their way back to where they belong. Others say they use the direction of the sun or the smell of the air to navigate.

Whatever the reason for their keen sense of direction, pigeons have formed a strong bond with the humans who keep them, and in some cases have become part of the family.

“They are actually very loving,” says Heather Truelove, who lives in Belchertown with her twin 11-year-old daughters and their 11 pigeons.

“You think of pigeons as being sky rats in cities, but they are very responsive and they seem to enjoy being touched and talked to.”

As she talks she is cradling one of her birds, who lives in a 7-foot high by 3-foot wide loft in the backyard. The pigeon looks as if it is roosting on her stomach as she leans back, relaxing on her back porch, stroking the bird’s back feathers. If properly cared for, this pigeon will live well into its teen years. 

One of her daughters, Skylar Park, is curled up next to her in a hammock chair with the hood of her sweater pulled over her head. A pigeon is inside snuggled next to her cheek. A third bird is loitering on her sister Kaitlyn Park’s shoulder.

 “They are soft and cuddly,” Skylar says.

The Park girls are part of group of area kids who have taken an interest in raising pigeons, a hobby that has largely gone out of fashion in recent decades. They are spurred on by a dedicated group of pigeon lovers who remember raising homing pigeons during their childhoods more than 50 years ago. In 2002, Tim Tessier of Chesterfield, a retired teacher who raised pigeons when he was a boy in Leeds, launched the Northwest Junior Flyers Club of Massachusetts to pass the practice on to the next generation.

Every kid had a pigeon

During Tessier’s childhood, he says, every kid on his block seemed to have pigeons. He fondly remembers the neighborhood boys riding their bikes to the Leeds reservoir to release them.

He still keeps 50 to 60 pigeons outside his home in Chesterfield.

After passing his passion for pigeons on to his two grandsons, Chris Browsky, 25, and Andy Browsky, 21, he decided to try to expand the interest to other children. “It’s great bonding when you do something like that with the kids,” he says.

To encourage the hobby, he gives away birds he breeds to children like the Parks and, through the club, can also provide free loaner lofts to go with them. (See sidebar below.)

 “Just seeing how excited the kids get — that is why we do it,” he says.

The Park sisters became interested when they saw a few homing pigeons at a local 4-H Club, an organization that promotes agricultural education. 

“We loved the pigeons so much that we wanted our own,” Kaitlyn says.

Each of their 11 birds has a name: Chocolate and Cuddles are two of them. Even though most of the pigeons look alike, Skylar and Kaitlyn easily are able to distinguish between them. The most surprising things about raising pigeons, so far, their mother says, is their individuality and their loving natures. 

Testing the waters

After just two months, Heather Truelove and her daughters are still getting used to their birds.

“Right now we are just testing it out, seeing if the girls can keep them alive,” Truelove says.

So far, it’s been working out well. The care is easy: The girls feed them and refresh their water once a day and clean their loft as needed.

The loft is tucked behind their home next to the screened-in porch. On the outside, there is a small landing plank. The walls inside have perches where as many as 15 pigeons can hang out. The floor is covered in pine shavings that absorb moisture and manure

Skylar and Kaitlyn are still working on training the birds to know their home so that when they are released, they will return to it. That training is also fairly simple and takes just a few months: Each morning at feeding time the family puts the birds in a small carrier while they pour food into the loft. Then, they open the carrier and hold it near the loft’s entrance, which is sort of like a trap door with bars. The birds can easily press up against it to go inside, but can’t get back out. This, they say, teaches the birds that the loft is a safe, reliable food source.

All that’s left to do is give them “a little bit of lovin,” Skylar says.

The race to get home

Truelove and her girls aren’t quite ready yet to join the group of about 30 families in Tessier’s Northwest Junior Flyers Club who race their pigeons. The club members typically bring their birds to area fairs, like the Cummington Fair and the Belchertown Fair, to show them and fly them.

They also ship them to other parts of the country, like Utah and Ohio, hiring a driver to release them all at once. Each pigeon is identified by a tracking number, which is printed on a band worn on one leg; a software program calculates their speed by using the GPS coordinates of each home and their arrival time. Whichever pigeon flies back to its home loft the fastest wins the race. 

The fun, says Tessier, is just waiting for the pigeons to arrive. Some never return, getting injured or poached by hawks or other predators, but most make it back.

“You sit home and wait and when you see them dive down —  they are like bullets — you’ve never seen something move so fast,” he says. They go right for their loft, where their food is.

Another family just down the road from the Trueloves, Jen and Jeff Zawalski and their children, Zackery, 13, and JenaRose, 9, are members of the Northwest Junior Flyers Club. In fact, Zackery is the president.

They let a few of their 20 birds go at the end of their driveway about once a week. The pigeons shoot up to their house’s roof before returning to the loft. How quickly they return often depends on how hungry they are, says Jen Zawalski. Sometimes it takes only about 45 minutes for them to return. Sometimes they will spend a night hanging out on the roof.

The Zawalski family became aware of the flyers club in 2014 at a local fair when they saw some of the members with their birds. They knew they wanted to bring some home.

“I think they are an excellent way to teach kids responsibility,” Jen Zawalski says. “They have a bond, a friendship with these birds, but they also need to be taken care of.”

Throughout the summer months, Zackery and JenaRose meet with other pigeon racers to let their birds take off. Sometimes they will gather at a gas station in the Hilltowns, other times they go to upstate New York and release the birds there. So far, all the pigeons have made it home in less than two hours. In fact, the birds usually beat the Zawalskis back to their house, says Jen Zawalski.

“You watch a group of them get released and they fly along the Mass Pike until they break off and go to the towns they live in,” Jen says.

If they are trained properly, Zackery Zawalski says, they can fly home from up to 1,000 miles away.

One of the Zawalskis’ pigeons, Utah, got his name after he was able to make it home from that state in a national race. After getting injured on a power line, he arrived in Belchertown with a cut along his chest, but he still managed to get 17th place out of a few hundred birds, Zackery says. 

“They have a built in compass,” he says. They come home because they want to come home, he adds.

“It’s a love of home,” his father, Jeff, agrees. “It’s a love of family.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com.

Northwest Junior Flyers

In addition to free pigeons, the Northwest Junior Flyers Club of Massachusetts can provide new members with a free loaner loft — a shed-like structure — to house them in. This Loaner Loft Program was started in 2006 for children who either can’t afford to buy a loft, or don’t have the skills to build a coop on their own, says club founder Tim Tessier. Parents and grandparents associated with the club help build the lofts. Money for the program is raised through an auction of prized pigeons.

“People from all over New England come and bid,” Tessier says. “We raise $6,000 every year and that is what funds the whole program.”

Dues for club members are $5 per year.

For more information about the club and a listing of events, visit https://www.nwjuniorflyersma.com/services.




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