Local enthusiasts fancy pigeons

Hobbyists enjoy unique birds, activities

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

When birds of a feather flock together, it can be quite the sight along Highway 20.
Some of Joe Barrigar’s 200-plus pigeons are often visible as they perch atop their loft, watching cars whiz by Barrigar’s residence near Pineway Golf Course.
Barrigar is one of only a few pigeon fanciers in Lebanon. The hobbyists keep the kits (a group of pigeons) for many reasons, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that they simply like the birds.
Barrigar makes it clear they’re not pets, but more of a hobby.
“I just enjoy watching ’em fly,” he said.
In the summer, he opens his loft doors to let the birds have free reign of the sky, knowing they will return home at night.
“The wife and I will sit out back underneath the canopy in the evening and just watch the birds fly,” he said.
Barrigar raises Birmingham Rollers, particularly bred for their ability to do backward somersaults while in flight.
Barrigar first took an interest in pigeons and showed them through 4-H when he was a kid, he said.
“I got stuck on the Rollers, though, because they’re fun to watch,” he said.
Barrigar gave up the birds when it was time for him to “start making a life” for himself, but he knew he’d get back into raising them someday when the time was right.
That happened about seven years ago, just after he moved to the Lebanon area. He started with 17 birds.
The pigeons mate with the same partner for life. They like to mate, and they have babies year-round, which is why Barrigar now has 200-plus, he said.
To thin them out, he often gives birds to 4-H kids in Eugene who learn how to breed them for desired qualities. Some also go to Field of Dreams Boarding & Kennel Training, where they can be used to train hunting dogs.
Paul and Kirsten Fulk place the pigeons in remote-controlled traps to teach dogs to locate the bird, but to not scare it away.
“For pointing dogs, we like to train the natural way,” Paul said. “All a point is is a pause, a stalking motion.”
When the dog smells the bird, it needs to learn to point without alarming it.
“With the use of my electronic remote-controlled traps, I can create that wild flush, so if the dog turns on scent and doesn’t stop their feet, I just fly the bird,” he said.
This teaches the dog to become more cautious, creating the point to be long and better, he said.
Another local pigeon breeder, Jerry James, got interested in the birds during his childhood. He would buy racing pigeons from a neighbor in Los Angeles for 25 cents apiece, and eventually added Rollers and “odds and ends of birds,” as well.
James estimates he has about 60 West of England Tumbler pigeons in his care, and breeds them as show birds in the West of England Tumbler Club. The birds are evaluated, in general, for a well-rounded body, even eye coloration, health, and feather coloration and markings.

Jerry James sits next to his loft of pigeons that he is breeding for “white self.”

He keeps one loft dedicated to breeding for “white self” pigeons, a bird that is all white with a strong head and yellow eyes.
“A lot of breeders will just breed for specific colors,” Barrigar said. “I like to let ’em go and see what they throw.”
But keeping pigeons isn’t just about competition for James. He simply thinks they are very pretty birds, and enjoys seeing what coloration comes from them.
Both Barrigar and James tend to not name their birds, but James does have one named Sticky and another named Marco.
Sticky, a blue bar bald head, earned his name for being coated with creosote. When the bird didn’t return home one night, he was found on a roof, unable to fly because he had, apparently, gotten into a chimney or some other source of the sticky residue.
Unlike doves, pigeons will always fly home, Barrigar noted. Most people are familiar with homing pigeons, which were used in the first two world wars to carry messages back home.
Today, homers are used for racing, and that’s what Gale Merrill took an interest in.
Merrill liked to try and catch barn pigeons while he was growing up in Hubbard.
“As kids, we used to sell them to the dog trainer for $1.25, which was a lot of money for a kid back in 1960,” he said. “That’s how I really got started in them.”
He also showed various breeds at the county and state fairs.
Merrill took up the hobby again in 1980 when his brother gave him a couple Rollers. He also acquired some racing pigeons and sort of fell into the sport of racing, he said.
Racing pigeons are trained to fly up to a thousand miles or more back home, though Merrill’s birds have only raced as far as 700 miles. It took two days for his bird to get home from Salt Lake City.
Though now retired from keeping pigeons, Merrill was part of a club out of Aumsville that raced the birds.
Before modern technology, the club used special rubber bands around the bird’s leg to track the bird’s flight time. Each bird was released some several hundred miles away and, as soon as the bird returned home, the owner placed the band in a sealed clock to stamp the time.
When all the times were returned, the club unsealed each clock and tallied the results.
“They would figure out how fast it flew from the time they released it ’til the time you clocked it, and the one that raced the fastest (in) yards per second would be the winner,” he said.
Within the last decade, tracking has become digitized, with a chip on a leg band, allowing for instant results on a computer. The flight paths can also be seen.
Merrill’s birds have won national honors when competing in the American Racing Pigeon Union.
Though Merrill has never met Barrigar, he has met some of Barrigar’s birds.
“I used to get one of his birds every once in awhile. My homer would bring him home,” Merrill said.

A KIT, OR GROUP, of pigeons take flight above Joe Barrigar’s shop off Santiam Highway. The birds can be seen flying or milling about the property during the summer months, and Barrigar likes to “push” them into flight when he hears the Excursion Train of tourists coming, to give the visitors a show.

Both breeders let their birds fly free during the day, and the groups would mix together, Merrill said. Sometimes the Rollers would fly back with the homers, kind of like a play date, but they always ended up flying back home at the end of the day.
Talk of pigeons might bring to mind the stereotypical image of a lady sitting in a park feeding birds which often perch on her head and shoulders.
When this was mentioned to James, he immediately broke into a “Mary Poppins” song: “Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul’s, the little old bird woman comes. In her own special way to the people she calls, ‘Come, buy my bags full of crumbs. Come feed the little birds, show them you care, and you’ll be glad if you do.’
Lebanon’s pigeon fanciers don’t have birds sitting on their shoulders, or even hopping on a finger. Though they can be trained to do so, these fanciers seem to prefer to just keep them a little more wild than domesticated.
“They’ve just always fascinated me,” Barrigar said. “I love all the different colors, and being able to let ’em out and let ‘em fly, and watch ’em fly when they come home.”