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York’s racing pigeons: ‘This is like the Kentucky Derby’

Lewis Burns is seen with some of his birds in one coup among 12 filled with racing pigeons on property in the east end of York. Background posts: Birds gone, rehabbed steeple stands and Marine and his military dog meet 60 years later

Pigeons have long flown across the pages of York County’s history books.
Passenger pigeons formerly populated what are called the Pigeon Hills – or is it Pigeon or Pidgeon Hills?
York County homing pigeons aided the Allies during World War II… .

Lewis Burns, a top breeder of racing pigeons, shows a tracer band on a 12-day-old racing pigeon.

These homing pigeons are still popular in parts of York County, where some of the nation’s top breeders live.
A York Daily Record/Sunday News story (1/20/08) updates the York County/pigeon linkage:

Growing up in the back country of Virginia and West Virginia, Lewis Burns wanted homing pigeons.
He can’t remember why or who put the idea in his head, just that he did. His grandmother told the boy it was a bad idea, because he would never spend any time with them.
Burns told the story as he looked around the 12-room pigeon loft he built behind his home in the east end of York, a home he bought in 1992 for the yard, not the house.
“Well, I did spend some time with them,” Burns said. “About 50 years.”
In the past decade, Burns and his friend Warren Smith have partnered to become two of the best breeders and trainers of racing homing pigeons in the country.
Their birds have won the 350-mile race the last two years at the Flamingo International Challenge in Florida, one of the biggest stakes races in the country. Last year’s winner flew at anaverage speed of almost a mile a minute. It won by 30 seconds.
“These are the best guys in the country if not the world, guys that have been into pigeons their entire lives,” Burns said. “This is like the Kentucky Derby. These are the players there.”
This wasn’t what Burns had planned when he got back into pigeon racing. At the time, he intended to raise the birds and compete in a few regional races.
What you do is keep the bird in the loft until it’s about 30 days old, Burns said. Then you teach the birds to eat on the loft platform, where they return from a race, so they associate that spot with food.
At about 40 days, Burns lets his birds explore his backyard, just outside the loft, until they come back for breakfast. Eventually, they will fly around for about an hour in the morning, mapping the area. Finally, Burns drives the birds out to a release point and lets them find their way home.
Once they are stretched out to about 60 miles, they should be able to compete in a 100-mile race.
Burns helped Smith get into pigeon racing in 2002, after Smith’s wife told him he needed a hobby. Before long, Smith imported birds from Holland, where pigeon racing dates back to the 1800s, and housed them in his two-room loft in Fireside.
“It’s just the fascination at being able to take a bird 100, 200, 300 miles away — to a place it’s never been before — and that bird can fly back to the house faster than I can drive to the house,” Smith said.
Before long, Smith started looking beyond the regional races.
“Warren, he likes to expand out a little bit,” Burns said. “He said, ‘These are good birds.’ I said, ‘These are just regular birds.’ He said, ‘No, these are good birds,’ so we sent them down to Florida.”
For races like the Flamingo International, breeders ship 30-day-old birds to the competition loft, where they are raised with that loft as their home. Once their birds began having success, people from across the country started calling Burns and Smith looking for tips, or young racers.
“I raised the bird here, it didn’t cost me a nickel,” Burns said. “But it’s like a race horse. Once they start winning, they become valuable . . . You’ll get one pigeon like Secretariat, and that pigeon’s worth its weight in gold.”
Smith and Burns each have birds in their loft that can never get outside again. If they did, they would try to return to Florida, which they know as their home.
They said they didn’t get into the pigeon racing looking to become bird merchants. But they can trace their breeding line back 15 generations, and they should only be getting better.
“It’s animal genetics and if you spend 50 years practicing you should get some results,” Burns said. “I’ve been practicing up for 50 years.”

Story by Jeff Frantz