Native West Ender Jack Hirschfield's mind has long gone to the birds. The now-retired roofer has been breeding and training racing pigeons in his backyard, also known as "Hilltop Lofts," for over 54 years. He is currently preparing his young birds for their racing season, which will start on Aug. 20.
What's the difference between your birds and the "winged rats" people see in the city?
Mine are racing pigeons; the other ones are bums! These birds don't look like the ones in the city. They're clean. Even their droppings are perfect. Wild pigeons don't have that good homing instinct. The difference is in their blood, just like with racehorses, but there's nobody riding their backs!
How did you get into this sport?
My dad flew pigeons back in 1919, and he got me into it in 1951. I have a twin brother and, just like any kid around 11 or 12, we were getting into too much mischief. So my dad said, "I'm going to get you a hobby, what I used to do." He built a coop, got a couple birds off the neighbors; I'd go around and clean the neighbors' coops and I'd get some of their birds. Back then, there were 200-some lofts in the area. Today no younger kids are doing this. Parents ought to get their kids interested; it would keep them off the corners. It did for me.
How does a race work?
Thousands of birds can be released at once, so you put these counter marks [colored identification bands] on your birds' legs. They're let go 300 miles away and have to fly back to my coop. When one gets back to the coop, I have to pull the counter mark off, stick it in a capsule, and drop it into the counting device that registers the time, day, number of seconds. Every second counts! All of the registered numbers are then put onto a computer, and the figures are averaged into yards per minute to figure out which birds are the fastest.
How long does it take them to come back?
The wind controls the race. Going 600 miles with a west wind, they'll be back in one day. A hundred miles will take them two hours to come home, depending on the wind.
But I have a bird that was in a race once and he came home three years later! He hurt his wing -- maybe a hawk hit him -- and he probably flew from house to house 140 miles until he got back.
What makes a good racing pigeon?
It's just chance ... like you have some kids in a family who are bright and some who are dummies. It's in the blood. But no matter what, you've got to keep your birds healthy, give them good feed, or you're not gonna be in with the big boys. I clean my coops three times a day, spread special powder on the floor to kill any bacteria.
Do you think pigeons' intellect is underrated?
I think they're the smartest birds in the world. When they fly their first race, they're only 12 weeks old! Parrots talk, but they won't come home if you let them out. In World War I, [pigeons] were trained to fly from squad to squad, carrying messages, and they'd fly through bullets in the air. They saved a lot of lives. There ain't nothing smarter than a pigeon.
What are the white birds for?
We use them for weddings and funerals. People call us up, and we'll put the birds in a nice basket for the bride and groom to open up. They'll come out and fly home. They usually get back before we do! The funerals are sad. We did one, it was a cloudy, raining, no sun. When the minister talked about doves, we let the birds go. Soon as they went up, the clouds opened and the sun came out! The birds flew right up into it. It put chills up my arm it was so spooky.
Do you have to worry about birds of prey eating your pigeons?
The hawks got one of mine already [this year]. The way I look at it, they gotta eat too.
My mom and dad used to make pigeon potpies! You don't get much meat off of them, just breast. It's delicious.