Gentlemen, Start Your Pigeons | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Gentlemen, Start Your Pigeons 

The Care and Breeding fo Thoroughbred Racers

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Don Candos drives a tow truck for the state: he speaks with a gruff, aggressive, almost cocky Chicago accent, and he moves with a swing of his shoulders and a look in his eye that tells you he's comfortable on the streets. Candos is also the breeder, trainer, and owner of some of the finest thoroughbreds in the state--thoroughbreds that can complete a 500-mile race at an average speed of almost 40 miles an hour. What's more, he does all this behind his small house in southwest Chicago, in a coop above a garage. His thoroughbreds, of course, are pigeons, but not just any pigeons; they have about the same relationship to the street pigeons that litter Chicago parks as Secretariat has to a zebra--they're related, but hardly similar.

The Candos bungalow is indistinguishable at first from many others--neat, small, well ordered. But out back is the coop where Candos has bred and trained over a hundred of these racers.

Candos's loft is built over what was intended to be a small garage. But the first floor contains bags of grain and powder and other basic pigeon necessities. Before going up to the loft Candos puts on a surgical mask ("I'm allergic to some of the dust"), and before entering the pens, he scrapes the floor clear of pigeon droppings to prevent walking on them. The loft is divided into four sections, each with nesting boxes and a trap, where the pigeons enter the loft, near the ceiling. The place is unbelievably clean and the pigeons themselves are spotless.

The birds are of different shapes and colors, but their breeding is apparent even to the untrained eye. Their carriage is upright and their feathers have more sheen than their wild cousins, throwing back reflections of purple and blue. They coo, strut, and flutter about the cage as pigeons will, but when they land, they fix visitors with a stare that shows a curiosity and intelligence you don't expect from birds. Mixed among the thoroughbreds are a few small big-beaked pigeons with feathers over their feet. "Those are chicos," Don explains. "You throw them out and they circle a few times and come in. Helps get the birds into the loft quicker."

While he shows me through the loft his son is busy bringing up feed and doing small chores. At one point his son says, "Look at that one up there, now that's a beautiful bird," obviously meaning one he's picked out. His father is less enthusiastic, "Get out of here! That runt." But then he tells a story about his son bringing home a bird from an auction that Candos was certain was not worth the feed. He got rid of it, but not before it bred a few chicks, one of which turned out a winner in a citywide race. "How do you explain it?" he says shrugging his shoulders, but his pride is apparent.

He has a story to tell about almost every bird. He refers to them by number, not by name; these are not pets. "This one over here is a Wolfmeier-Jansen. The big red checker." He points it out. "Paid $200 for that bird. I got the pedigree from Wolfmeier and everything. I won a lot with that one."

He points to another. "This is my best breeder. I gave my buddy 300 bucks. He's going to the auction in Elgin. I tell him to pick me up a couple pairs of birds. He comes back with the one bird and he gives me $60 in change. And I say, 'What happened to the rest of the birds, they get out of the basket? You paid $240 for a single bird? What are you crazy?' Turned out to be a bargain. What a breeder."

Pigeons mate for life--"if you let them," he says. "I always keep together the couples that give me winners, but some guys try to mate them off to a lot of different couples. That way they get the good blood in more birds. That makes sense too."

There are almost 200 pigeons in the loft, but not only can Candos tell them apart, he can rattle off what couple produced what bird, and what relation each winner has to the young birds or breeders. His eye settles on a single nesting female and he says, "My famous Wonder Woman. . . . This bird in her prime won seven firsts. No bird in Chicago ever got seven firsts." He walks up to the nesting box and sticks his hand up close to her. She lifts up a wing and flips it with a snap against his hand, once, then again and again. "One time she would keep that up for hours." He stands back and admires her for a moment. She sits nobly on her nest and eyes him warily. "That," he says, "is one homing pigeon."

The raising of pigeons goes back at least 4,000 years in Egypt, and most of the fancy show breeds were already around during the time of the Roman Empire. It's hard to say when the first pigeon races were held, but it has been a traditional sport in Belgium for at least several hundred years. All of the best breeds of homing pigeons come originally from Belgian stock. "Everyone talks about the Jansens as the best flyers. That's the loft in Belgium they were raised in," Candos explains. "Then you got the Wolfmeier-Jansens that come from birds raised by Wolfmeier here in the States, but come originally from the Jansen loft. It's like racehorses." And just like racehorses, the better the stock, the higher the price. Recently a British breeder paid $60,000 for a single pigeon--that comes to ten times its weight in gold.

"Lofts," or private pigeon coops where racing pigeons are raised, vary greatly in size and sophistication, running from brick structures to wire and wood crates. How an owner manages his loft is an important part of successful pigeon racing. "I could give another guy all my pigeons, tell him the feed to give them, and they wouldn't win a thing," Candos says. "It's all in how you handle them." It's not simply a matter of size either; my father, who raced pigeons in Arizona, once won a race flying pigeons out of a converted doghouse. But having enough room to separate the breeders from the flyers and the young birds from the old ones helps.

The Greater Chicago Combine, under whose auspices the races are held, consists of five major clubs located in different parts of the city, as well as smaller "garage" clubs, which are run out of people's homes. Races are citywide, but smaller competitions and pools are run out of each club. All races are held on Sundays except in inclement weather. Each pigeon owner, or "flyer," must own his own "clock," a timer that records his birds' flying times. On the Friday before a race, each flyer brings his clock into his club to be officially set and sealed. On Saturday, the birds are brought to the club to have numbered bands placed on their legs, then a truck from the Greater Chicago Combine circulates among all the clubs, picking up all the birds that will race. Sunday morning, the driver takes them to a predetermined "drop point" and releases them, recording the exact time and weather conditions.

The drop points remain the same every year, but change for every race during the season. They move farther away from the city as the season progresses and range from about 100 to 500 miles away. In order to be eligible to race, each loft must be "airlined," that is, its geographical location is plotted in relation to the drop points and all the other registered lofts. When they're released, the birds head for home. Each flyer waits at his loft, and when a bird appears he must coax it as quickly as possible into the loft. Once the bird is within reach, the flyer removes the band from the pigeon's leg, inserts it into a slot in his clock, and stamps it with the time. To determine a winner, the distance of the individual loft from the drop point is divided by the time it took the bird to fly it. The bird with the highest speed, expressed in yards per minute, is the winner.

Pigeon flyers talk a lot about airlining and invariably will maintain that their particular position puts them at a disadvantage (everyone I talked to at the South Side Concourse, the club Don Candos races out of, is convinced that the lofts on the north side of the city always have an advantage). Airlining is intended to even out the lofts so that everyone has an equal chance, but since pigeons often flock together, the advantage or disadvantage of a position depends largely on the direction of the wind and winning is often a matter of seconds even in a 500-mile race.

There are two racing seasons in Chicago. The "old birds" are raced in the spring, and in the fall, the young birds, those that are born and banded the same year the races are held. Only pigeons that bear an officially registered band are allowed to race. The bands, which are purchased from the local club, are placed on the leg of the bird when it is between 4 and 11 days old. When the pigeon's foot grows, the band becomes a permanent fixture. When flyers are talking about their birds they rattle off their birds' numbers as easily as most people can rattle off their children's names. The band number consists of initials identifying the club followed by a four-digit number. Since the numbers are Chicago-wide, and since pigeon flyers are no less superstitious than anyone else, the number-one band is rotated between clubs every year. "Guys like the number-one band," says Candos, "because they figure, 'What the heck, I get the number-one band, maybe I got the number-one bird in the city'; but it don't really mean nothing."

Having a successful loft is not simply a matter of buying good birds and keeping a neat loft. Pigeon flyers almost inevitably resort to a kind of mysticism to explain their success--that is, they can describe what they do only up to a point, and then won't or can't say what's beyond that.

One of the keys to being successful is trapping the birds quickly when they arrive. Candos explains, "Guys are always saying, 'Yeah, my birds arrived 10 minutes before anyone, but they were up on the roof 20 minutes,' and I say, 'Well that's too bad.' It's what's in the clock that counts." There are ways to entice the birds into the traps: "If you got a female in there with squabs she'll bust her neck getting in. But mostly it's how you handle them and how you train them. If they know that they're going to get food, or if they're thirsty. It's lots of things. You just got to know your birds."

One way to learn to know your pigeons is to utilize the experience of the older flyers. "The older guys that been around, they can tell you what it takes," Candos says. It seems to be a sore spot. "We got this new guy that comes in, wants to race. He goes out and spends three, four hundred dollars on birds and I tell him, 'Hey look, on my day off I'll come over and take a look.' I might give him some birds, you know, help him get started. So on my day off he don't call. That's two, three months ago, he don't call. He ain't going to win shit. You don't just put birds in the basket and think they'll come home."

When his advice is solicited, Candos is more than willing to talk. "[I'm] talking to this guy, he's been flying for a couple of years and he says, I keep losing birds on my first training flight, and I ask him how far he takes them out and he says a mile. I say, a mile? You let them out of the loft before that [to exercise] and they go 30, 40 minutes, and you don't think they can come home from a mile?" He shakes his head in incredulity. "You see you got these birds and it's the first time they've ever been in a basket. They're all excited and they come busting out and they fly right over the loft and just keep going, out over the lake, into Michigan, they're gone. But he's a new guy, what does he know? Got to have someone tell you these things." Candos's concern for the new generation of pigeon flyers comes up often: "Not a lot of young guys coming in anymore. Everybody in the club's getting older." It can be expensive to start out. "A new clock can run a lot," Candos says, "but there's always someone that has a clock to sell. We get a new guy in and I tell him about a clock that he can buy from one of the old guys. Turns out the guy wants $300 for it. I tell him, hey, 20 years ago you bought it for maybe $20 and you got all that use out of it, give a guy a break. I mean, how's a new guy going to get started?"

Perhaps the most basic question about the entire sport is the most difficult to answer--how do pigeons find their way home from distances up to 600 miles away? Scientists have discovered that homing pigeons, just like other migratory birds, have particles of iron in the brain, which, they theorize, enable pigeons to read the magnetic field of the earth. This explains why homing pigeons always make at least one circle before heading back home. However, it is unlikely that even this method would be accurate enough to find lofts that are often no bigger than six feet across. The second element in finding the loft is probably the birds' eyesight. The Navy has demonstrated in tests that pigeons are capable of spotting orange markers in the water from as far as 60 miles.

There is an entire school of fanciers who depend on reading what are called "eye signs" to determine which birds are the best homers. The eye sign, or "cere," is a small muscle in the eyeball itself that can be seen as a white line around the pupil. How to read it is considered an art in itself, and at most pigeon auctions you'll find people holding birds up to the light to check it out before investing their money. Candos says, "Yeah, I got a whole book on it, but I only read ten pages."

The first race of the young bird season was on August 2, and on August 1 the members of Candos's club, the South Side Concourse, gather to send off their birds. The South Side Concourse is located at 47th and Washtenaw in a neighborhood that could hardly be described as upscale. Along the street are small dusty businesses, a hotel with a sign in the front window that reads, "Sleeping Rooms for Men Only: To rent see Al," and several small supermarkets. Clothes are draped on clotheslines at the backs of apartment buildings and everyone seems to speak with some sort of accent. The club building fits into the neighborhood well with its stone front and a long wooden addition leading away from the street. There is an open door at the side and people drive up, remove pigeon baskets from the trunks of their cars, and disappear into the building.

Inside there are two main divisions of the clubhouse. The back part is a long rectangle, with a concrete floor and no air conditioning. It is over 90 degrees on race day and at least 10 degrees hotter inside. There are several long tables lined up against the west wall, and people are busy putting small rubber bands on the pigeons' legs and crating the pigeons in large aluminum baskets behind the table. The second part of the clubhouse is a bar, which is air conditioned and into which everyone ducks as soon as their pigeons are banded. The walls of the bar are covered with pictures of old flyers and certificates of achievement, the most impressive of which is one in the name of W. Kaczmarek for a national speed record in a 300-mile race. Richard Frencl, the president of the South Side Concourse, is behind the bar serving drinks. Candos walks over and taps a plaque, saying, "Recognize that name, buddy?" It reads "South Side Concourse, Lucky Seven Loft [Candos's loft], Best OB Flyer, 1st Pl. 5 times." This means Candos had the amazing record one season of having one bird place first five times in the old bird races.

Candos is wearing shorts and his usual butcher-boy cap and holding a clipboard. He's busy collecting bets for a bar pool and exchanging digs with the other flyers. "You got them hot for the pot?" he says to one.

"I got them two German birds," the old man insists, "and four from Poland."

"Poland?" Candos yells. "My God, we're in trouble now."

When someone else can't remember the band number of the bird he wants to bet and starts describing it, Candos says, "Don't give me the color, sex, or how long they been sitting on eggs, just the money."

There is money to be won in the races, but almost everyone who is successful agrees that the investment in supplies and birds just offsets a winning season. "We just about break even," Candos admits. There is prize money for every race, taken from the entry fees each flyer pays. There are also auction races, in which racers are auctioned off before the race, and the money from the auction is used for prize money, split between the breeder of the bird and the person that bought it at auction. If you feel confident about your bird, you can buy it yourself and if you win, get both shares of the pot, a practice that Candos often subscribes to. There are also special bands you can buy that allow you to be considered in a separate competition where the prize money comes from the purchase of those bands. And then there are the bar pools at each of the clubs, where only the birds entered are eligible for the prize money. The system is almost as complex as pari-mutuel betting and the competition is fierce enough to make winning anything at all during your first seasons of racing almost impossible, but there is a certain thrill in betting on an animal you have bred and raised that can hardly be gained anywhere else, at least for those who can't afford to buy a stable.

It's Candos's turn to help with putting on the racing bands, called counter marks. Birds are given the counter marks by three people, to guarantee that it is done fairly and accurately. The pigeons, which are brought to the club in small square baskets made of canvas, are taken out of the baskets by one of the handlers, who reads off the number of the permanent band. The second person is holding an entry form on which the flyer has already written out the band numbers of the birds he is flying and a brief description of the birds' markings. A third person removes the counter mark, a small rubber band, from a large box. In the center of this band is a small piece of paper with the number of the band. The paper is given to the person with the entry form and he marks down the number of the counter mark next to the permanent band number. The person with the counter mark slips the band over a small metallic machine that spreads the band. The pigeon's foot is placed in the center of this and the little device snaps the counter mark in place. The person who is holding the pigeon then pushes it into one of the racing crates.

The racing baskets themselves are made of aluminum and the pigeons are divided by sex. This is because the male pigeons will fight with the females during transportation to the drop site. For this race each of the baskets is filled with 28 birds. When the basket is filled, the doors are sealed.

As Candos helps with the banding, people straggle in, carrying pigeons and stopping to fill out the entry form. The average age of the flyers must be close to 60. A few are younger, but not many. One old man walks out of the bar shaking his head and saying to himself, "What a hobby. I used to fish, but who has time?" Standing just outside the door is a young red-headed flyer talking about feed with one of the older members. Paul Cwizk, one of the youngest members, flies with his father-in-law out of a loft called the Inlaw Loft. When asked why so few young people fly pigeons, he replies, "I guess the main reason is that it takes a lot of work, particularly if you want to win. Somebody comes in and starts flying for a season or two and he doesn't win anything and he gets discouraged and quits. You've got to keep at it. I've been racing since '72 and we're just starting to win some now." Cwizk started racing with his father, who no longer flies, and later joined his father-in-law, who had a loft called the Outlaw Loft. When Cwizk married his daughter, the name was changed to Inlaw Loft. If Cwizk's marriage is as successful as his venture with his father-in-law, it should last forever. In the spring races for old birds just completed, a bird from the Inlaw Loft had the fastest average speed for the season.

Cwizk's father-in-law, Stanley Krol ("Krol, it's short," he says in a thick eastern European accent, but doesn't say short for what) joins us. What is their secret for success? Eye sign? Cwizk answers, "Naw, some people go by that, but that's not the only thing. It's the shape of the body and the head, and just getting to know your birds. I mean you can't really explain it, after a while you just know it."

Is it the bloodline? This time Krol jumps in. "Same like horse," he says. "Father winner, mother winner, grandfather was winner. It's all in the pedigree, the bloodline. Same like horse."

"And just knowing your birds," Cwizk adds.

"Sure, sure," Krol agrees, "that's the big thing." Like all flyers Cwizk and Krol will tell you everything you want to know about pigeons, except what you want to know most, how to pick a winner.

Candos has finished his shift putting on counter marks and is standing by the door leading to the bar, clipboard in hand, signing up more flyers for the bar pool. Behind him is a bulletin board filled with snapshots of past members holding up prize birds or simply standing in front of their lofts. Candos recites the names of members like obituaries. "This guy here, he's pushing 80, the Dago [Candos is of Italian extraction himself]. This one, well he's dead. This one, he's dead too, cancer I think. These two here, they went down to Florida. And this one," his finger stops at the picture for a moment. "This is my Doreen [one of his six children], only there's about a hundred pounds more of her now. . . . Used to manage my loft. She took a first and a third that year."

Next to the picture of Doreen is a picture of Candos releasing pigeons from a small white trailer. On one side of the trailer are the words, "Pigeon Racing What A Sport" and on the front, a warning to the pigeons, "Fly or Fry." Don explains that the trailer was used for practice flights. For a fee he would pick up the members' birds and take them, along with his own, out 50 miles and release them to give them practice over the course they'd be flying during the season.

Candos introduces a tall, ramrod-straight gentleman: "This is my friend Sergeant Pazak, and friends like him I don't need. He milked the city as a police officer for 30 years, and now he's milking the retirement fund until it goes broke." Sergeant Pazak shakes his head and notices the photo of the trailer.

"Take my advice," Pazak says. "Don't ever drive with this guy."

Candos laughs loudly and explains, "Pazak went out with me one time on a training run. We're coming home and I'm busting ass, doing 70, 80 miles an hour, and Pazak says, "What's your hurry?' I tell him I want to get home before the birds. He says, 'You're going to get a ticket.' So I tell him if they pull up alongside he should just flash his badge and we'll keep going. I say, 'What the hell you think I brought you along for?'"

Pazak laughs and says, "You deserved a ticket."

We wander to a small room at the back of the club where the timing clocks are lined up on shelves. Candos explains that each racer owns his own clock. Most of the clocks have wood cases with a clock face on one side. On the top of the clock is a small hole where the band is inserted when the pigeon returns, and a large hole where a small handle is inserted to punch in the time. Inside the clock is a roll of paper on which the clock face is printed when the handle is turned. Before each season the clocks are all brought into the club and remain there for three weeks where they are run to make sure they are accurate. On the Friday of a race week all the clocks are set and then sealed. After the race all of the clocks are brought back to the clubhouse; two people check to make sure the seal is intact and then open the clocks and remove the paper, which has recorded the time. They check the band that has been trapped inside, to make sure the bird is registered, and finally check the inside band number to verify that no cheating has taken place.

The entire process of registering the birds and double-checking each phase guarantees against cheating. Candos explains, "Back in '77 we had a big race and I come out with the first bird and I think, 'Hey, maybe the kid got lucky.' Then some guy comes in and says that another guy beat me out by 12 minutes with three birds. Twelve minutes? Three birds? I say, 'Hey, there ain't no way somebody going to beat me by 12 minutes, what's going on here?' Byczek comes up and says, 'Take it easy, calm down, and I'll get in touch with you in a couple of days.'"

The club secretary Byczek figured out the crime. For three days he simply sat and looked at the clock of the supposed winner. He'd already noticed that there were small scratch marks on the face of the clock, but the seal was intact and the clocks are designed so that the glass in front of the clock face can't be removed without the clock being opened, thus breaking the seal. The glass was no different than the glass on any clock and he decided that it probably was not removed. He continued to look at the clock, trying to figure out what made this clock different from any other clock. And finally it dawned on him. On the bottoms of the clocks some flyers place little rubber bumpers so that it doesn't sit flat in the loft and pick up pigeon droppings, four little rubber nubs at the corners of the clock. This clock, however, had six, one directly beneath the clock face. When he began fiddling with the rubber nub in question, it fell off, revealing a hole. When he cleaned out the pigeon droppings in the hole, he discovered that it'd been drilled all the way up into the clock face.

The culprit had gotten hold of some small jeweler's tools; he would insert one and move the clock hand back, punch the bird in, and then move the time back to what it was supposed to be. Before returning the clock, he would replace the rubber nub and no one was the wiser. That is until he ran into Byczek, who revealed his plot to the club. The culprit was disqualified, and Don Candos was announced the winner.

The birds have all been banded and crated, and Candos sits in the bar waiting for the truck to come pick up the birds for the race. "When they release the birds they all come busting out of the cage, 2,000 birds. Now only about a thousand of those know what they're doing, 'cause with the other thousand the guys didn't get off their ass to train them. They're all going to come home, the key is to get them to bust their back to get home.

"Now I got this hen and she's sitting on eggs. I send her out for a while, and when she's gone, I put one of the chicos' squabs in her nest, take out her eggs and put these plastic shells in there so she thinks they just hatched. When she gets back in she looks at them like this." He does an amazingly accurate imitation of a quizzical-looking pigeon. "She's going, 'Whoa, those weren't there before.' She drops the plastic shells over the side and she figures that's that. Then I see the cock sitting on the squabs later, and when I pick him up he's sweating up a storm because he's got all worked up about the new babies. I wasn't even going to race him, but I figure if he's worked up that much why not give it a shot."

There are two flyers sitting at a table in the middle of the room; Candos leans across the table and whispers, "See this guy over here?" He motions with his thumb toward the two flyers. "That's my good buddy Stan Zdziarski. I call him Master Breeder. You want to talk to someone that knows pigeons you talk to Stan. . . . If that guy tells you a bird's going to be a winner, you can bank on it."

"I can just look at a bird and I can tell," says Zdziarski. Is it eye sign? He shrugs. Body type? Finally he says, "I don't really want to say." The smile has returned. Personality of the bird? "I guess something like that," he says. "It's something you can't just say and someone else will know it, but I can look at a bird and I know. There's just something about them that tells me."

The truck from the Greater Chicago Combine finally arrives, and Candos and Christopher Buzajski begin to load the crates on. The trailer is 30 feet long, at least 12 feet high, and carries 160 crates. At the back of the truck are two big levers that are connected to bars running along the sides of the truck. When the driver reaches the release point, he snips off all the seals on the crates one-by-one, connects the bars to O-rings on the crates, and then pulls the two big levers at the same time, releasing up to 3,000 pigeons at once. As soon as the release is completed, he calls the secretaries at all the clubs, reporting the time the birds were released and the wind and weather at the time of the release. The secretary then calls all the flyers in his club and passes the information on, so everyone will know approximately when the birds will be arriving back at the loft.

By 8 o'clock the morning of the race, Candos has already been out to drop some of his birds for a training run. "It's a good thing you're early because they released the birds at 6:30 instead of 7:30." Why? "Ah, the driver probably got there early and decided he wanted to get home. Birds should get here in the next half hour or so."

The forecast predicted 97 degrees, and it's warming quickly. Ominous clouds hang low on the western horizon, but the sun is up and very bright. It's too early on a Sunday for many people to be awake in the southwest side neighborhood, and in the quiet, noises travel a good distance. There is the sound of an occasional jet landing at Midway, the chirping of sparrows, and somewhere in the distance the soft cooing of a mourning dove. The only other sound is the chortle of pigeons in the loft over the garage.

Candos's daughter Doreen arrives with her daughter, Heather. "This is the one you saw the picture of last night," Don says. She is certainly not a hundred pounds heavier.

She introduces herself as, "The fabulous loft manager from '77." When Candos makes a face she insists, "I brought you luck." She's driven in from the south and reports that she passed through some rain. "They might swing around to the north." This is not good news. It means the lofts in the north will have a large advantage, particularly with the wind coming out of the south. It is getting darker to the south and pigeons will not fly through a storm. If it's too large they'll find shelter on the ground and not start off again until the storm has passed. They'll fly around smaller storms, and Candos is convinced that's exactly what's happened when the birds don't arrive when they are supposed to. Since it's a 100-mile race, and they were released at 6:30, they should return by about 8:30, but that mark passes and there are no birds in sight.

We're sitting around a picnic table in the backyard scanning the skies and calling out when we spot anything. It's amazing how much detail you pick up looking for pigeons. You mark every sparrow and dove, and your pulse quickens until you determine that it's not a pigeon. Doreen is talking to her mother, and Candos's son Don sits holding a chico, waiting to throw it out at the first sign of a homer. I've been told that if the birds come in from the south I can pick them up by looking down the alley. All I can see are the approaching rain clouds.

Suddenly, just before 9 o'clock, a pigeon drops in out of nowhere to the top of the loft. Don Jr. throws up a chico, and Candos whistles softly to bring in the bird. It steps on the platform, looks around and ducks through the trap. Don Jr. calls, "Is that my splash? Which one is it?" From inside the loft we hear Candos swear. The bird turns out to be a late arrival from his morning training toss, and we sit down to wait some more. Doreen calls up to her father, "Don't worry Dad, it's only money." And then to her mother, "Glad I didn't bet on this race."

Candos comes down from the loft, his normal high spirits very low. "What a way to start the races," Candos mumbles, "with a bummer."

"Well," his wife observes rationally, "at least no one is calling, which means they haven't gotten any in either." It doesn't seem to cheer him up.

Doreen goes inside, and we hear a crash. When she comes back out she informs her mother that she just dropped a supposedly unbreakable dish and it broke into a million pieces. "That figures," Don grumbles.

What we don't know at the time is that the birds were not released at 6:30 that morning, but at 7:30, the time they were originally meant to be released. The driver intentionally gave out a false release time because when he went to pick up birds on the north side, late the night before, he'd left the truck in the alley where they had loaded it, and several teenagers had tried to break into the crates, breaking the plastic window on one. He didn't know if any birds had escaped, but if they had, they would wait for daylight, then head home. The false start time meant that if anyone got a bird back unreasonably early and tried to clock it as an early winner, he would clock an impossibly early time and the clubs would know to disallow it. No unusually early times were recorded, so it's likely that no birds escaped, but the driver reported the false time to be on the safe side.

Nine o'clock passes with no birds in sight. A family friend stops by to tell the Candoses about a mutual acquaintance who has died. Don Jr. has recently quit his job and tells Candos, "Now I can train birds for you."

His sister answers him, "Since when can you get up that early in the morning?"

"What do you know?" Don Jr. responds, and they spend the next 15 minutes arguing good-naturedly about who helped their father the most.

Suddenly, without warning, a tight flock of about ten birds races over the loft. As they head off, two birds peel away and swing toward the Lucky Seven loft. Wings slung back, they drop quickly, flutter for a moment, and settle on the roof. Candos is up the stairs and in the loft in no time, and Don Jr. tosses out the chico. The chico flops onto the board leading to the trap and the homers watch him enter. Candos is in the loft, whistling softly and rattling a feed can to get the birds in. The pigeons stare at the people waiting in the yard, and then without ceremony drop to the board and enter the loft. I can hear the flutter of wings as Candos grabs a bird to remove the counter mark. Three more birds suddenly drop to the loft and quickly enter the trap.

Doreen keeps calling up, "Which one is it?"

Candos finally yells down, "It's 3607, the blue cock." It's the bird Candos had told me about the night before, the one that had gotten so excited over the new babies. Candos's instincts had been right. Before he can clock all the birds, the phone is ringing and other flyers are informing him that they've clocked birds.

The results are not as bad as Candos had thought, nor as good as he'd hoped. In the citywide race the South Side Concourse doesn't place at all. Just as everyone had suspected, the winds and the rainstorm favored the north-side clubs. Candos's first two birds give him a third and a fourth in the club race. The first- and second-place birds are clocked by Candos's good friend and chief nemesis, the Master Breeder, Zdziarski.

We see more flocks coming in, but after he clocks the first five birds Candos lets the others enter without being disturbed, so that they won't become "trap shy."

Being the child of a man who raced pigeons I've been around flyers for a good part of my life, and it's always struck me that those who win most often are never able to explain exactly why, even if they're willing to try, and they seldom are. Flyers, as a group, are fanatics. They all study pigeon magazines and read books and constantly seek that little edge that will give them a winner. Yet certain flyers, like Candos's friend the Master Breeder, can pick out winners as easily as most people can pick out fresh fruit. It is an intuitive ability, something that verges on the mystical. But it can be lost; it's not unusual for a member of a club to have the Midas touch for several years and then suddenly never win another race. If it were simply an eye for, for instance, a quirk in the carriage of the bird or a certain deviation in the eye sign, those winners would never go bad, and yet they do. Don Candos talked about only one bird before the race, a bird he held in his hand and felt certain had a chance, and that bird was his first finisher. The week following, that same bird took first place in a citywide race.

One image of Don Candos, from the day I met him, sticks out in my mind. We'd come out of the loft and turned to watch some birds settle on the roof. Somewhere along the line Candos had picked up a magazine that listed the citywide winners from the year before. He flipped through it, talking about some of the flyers listed. "This guy here, a young guy, he really works at it. He's going to have a lot of winners if he doesn't burn out." I could hear the cooing of the pigeons behind us and the sound of Don Jr. scraping the floor. We looked down at the pictures of the winning flyers, each person smiling at the camera, alone in the spotlight, some holding their pigeons up proudly--their moment of glory tied to a small bird. Finally we came to a picture that in many ways was the same as the others--the same moment of glory, the same pride--but in one way was vastly different. It wasn't the picture of a single winner, but of Don Candos and his son sharing the victory. It was a picture that said less about personal glory than about generations and heritage, two subjects Don Candos seems to think as much of as pigeon racing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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