Erio Álvarez, now 80, has been a racing pigeon fancier since he was a teenager. He and enthusiasts from surrounding counties compete with each other, releasing their birds from as far away as Georgia and timing how long it takes them to fly home to their various backyard lofts. It’s about 340 miles to Álvarez’ lofts. He is past president of the Greater Tampa Bay Racing Pigeon Concourse. His son, Eric Álvarez, who grew up loving the sport, is now president.
“I say jokingly that I carried him in the loft and he never came out. And he’s a phenomenal pigeon fancier.’’
The senior Álvarez, who owns about 150 pigeons, said a good racing bird can cost several hundred, but both racers and breeding birds, which produce the champions, can go for thousands. He paid $3,000 each for two of his breeders; one got out of the cage and flew off, perhaps to become the pricey meal of a hawk.
As his pigeons cooed in their lofts, a sound Álvarez finds soothing, he talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the sport.
Why do homing pigeons do what they do?
They’ve been bred for thousands of years to return to their home. … We just had a race from Louisville, Ga. We use GPS to get the measurements from the release point to the pigeon lofts in everybody’s back yard. … They’re phenomenal. They will give you everything they have to get home. … There are hundreds of families of pigeons. These are the only ones that race home. …
We know of the runner (from the ancient Battle of Marathon) who took the message 26 miles 385 yards and died. Pigeons also carried messages to their villages and towns and they lived. And they do it faster than the runner. But yet in the record, what we hear about is the runner. ...
In the early 1800s they were refined in Belgium, and the queen of England maintains a racing pigeon loft. The king of Belgium gave the king of England at that time pigeons, and that loft continues to this day. She’s got a loft manager, obviously. …
It’s obviously been refined today. The white pads (at the entrance to lofts) have scanners underneath them, say like at a supermarket. The race pigeons, in addition to the band that identifies who bred them... on the opposite leg they have an electronic chip. And when I take them to enter them in the race, they’re scanned at the All Tampa Racing Pigeon Club and put in my timer. My timer is connected to a power source and when the birds get back they… walk across the scanner, they push through and go in. ... You hear the beep. They have to be on the pad. Then they put their heads through and they’re in.
The varied lofts are at different distances. How do you determine the winner?
The bird that flew the fastest measured distance, not the first one that got home. … I still get a thrill when I see one peel out of the sky, do a circle, hit here and go in.
Do they stop or do they fly straight home?
Normally they fly nonstop. They have to be extremely healthy; they have to be bred to be able to do that. And they get all kinds of vitamins and minerals and all their needs. They have fats in their feeds and so forth for energy.
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We want them to come all the way through. But I’m standing here now perspiring and we’re in December. The birds dehydrate, and water is critical for them. So if they stop it’s to get a quick drink. Last weekend – and it wasn’t one of mine – but it landed, walked over to the pool, dropped into it at the stairs, sat there for a moment, drank, lifted up and kept right on going home. Just had to have water.
How fast can they fly?
They average around 50 miles an hour. And they’ll do that nonstop. … If they get a little bit of a tailwind and a cooler day, they’ll get up to 70 miles an hour, and if they get a headwind and humidity, they’ll slow down to 30, 35 miles an hour.
What can you spend on these birds?
One just sold in Belgium, a bird by the name of Armando, that sold for $1.2 million. I don’t have any Armandos around (laughs).
A good homing pigeon will normally sell for $300 to $500, in that range, sometimes a little less, and they can go as high as a person’s finances allow ....
This just happened last year and even the regular media covered it because it was such an enormous amount of money for a pigeon. He had a tremendous record at long-distance racing, 400, 500, 600 miles, and came from a family of those kinds of birds.
Some races offer cash prizes. How much can you win?
I would say in the $50,000 range. ... That’s done two or three times a year. The rest of the time we’re flying for trophies and… certificates.
Some birds don’t make it back. What happens to them?
They mostly get eaten. Having these lofts here is like having a McDonald’s sign. …
There are a couple of species (of hawks) that are here year-round, and they’ve done research, and over 80 percent of their diet was made up of pigeons and songbirds. ...
Picture the loft. They have to slow down to land here or they’d go crashing through. They have to walk through and in. They’re real vulnerable at this moment. So, what happens is the hawks know the routine, you have to see it to believe it. They will attack them. ...
They come from about this high (chest level) … and they’re right on them, the ones that get the timing right. I’ll have several (pigeons) killed here a year. …
I had one come from a 500-mile race. It hit it, took it across the fence, killed it, then picked up the carcass and took it off. The bird flew 500 miles to get home. That’s heartbreaking.
For more information, go to alvarezpigeons.com.