- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Bud Baldwin spends a lot of time looking up to the sky.

When his homing pigeons are airborne, he waits for them to circle the trees above his Long Leaf Hills backyard. The 70-year-old has kept the birds since he was a boy.

“I still get a kick out of seeing them come home,” he said.

He keeps a wary eye out for their biggest problem - hawks.

Hawks perch on tree limbs overlooking the pigeon loft. Earlier this year, Baldwin lost a pigeon four straight days in a row.

“It was almost like they were waiting for me to let ‘em out,” he lamented.

Baldwin is one of the only - if not the only - Wilmington residents who fly homing pigeons, also known as racing or carrier pigeons. He is a member of a group of homing pigeon fanciers in Southeastern North Carolina named Flying For Fun. Baldwin’s pigeons compete in races each year.

Homing pigeons have cooed in the background of Baldwin’s life since he was about 10.

His father, the late Willard Baldwin Sr., served in the Army Signal Corp’s pigeon service during World War II.

After moving to Wilmington, Baldwin Sr. and his pigeons entertained crowds at community events. He noted the serial number of a $20 bill, strapped it to a pigeon and turned the bird loose. After the pigeon reached their house, Mrs. Baldwin collected the $20 bill and returned it to the group.

“I can trace our family birds back to the 50s,” Baldwin said, his hands wrapped around a spotted gray pigeon tucked to his chest. “My dad was really big on making pedigrees.”

His 9-year-old granddaughter Ella Baldwin, who is continuing the family tradition, brings a new approach - she likes to name the birds.

He points to a grandfather pigeon and Ella points to the grandson.

“That’s panther,” she said.

Before the birds are ready to race, Baldwin trains them to find home.

He starts by releasing them about 15 miles away in northern Brunswick County. The distance is gradually increased - to Bolton, then Lake Waccamaw and finally Whiteville.

Baldwin typically flies birds five to six years, though one bird flew 10 years in 60 races spanning 10,000 miles.

Baldwin’s pigeons have competed in 16 races this year, flying home from cities across the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama.

Because the pigeons are flying to various destinations, they compete based on yards-per-minute. Their legs are banded with electronic chips used to record their landing time.

“It’s pretty high-tech stuff,” Baldwin said, holding a detailed computer print-out full of figures. Years ago, he would pull a rubber band off the bird’s leg and drop it into a clock to stamp the time.

His birds competed in a race from Livingston, Ala. - 606 air miles away from Wilmington. Five of his pigeons were back home by the second day. Of 225 pigeons, Baldwin had the fifth overall bird in that race - though he said he doesn’t care if he wins.

Standing close by, Ella matter-of-factly interjects, “He’s got a trophy in there,” and nods toward the house.

Baldwin bursts into a laugh.

“Thanks Ella,” he said, nudging her with his elbow.

You would not know Baldwin kept pigeons passing by on the street. The pigeon loft is nestled in the backyard, where it has weathered decades of storms.

Over time, some of the pigeons become fairly tame. Once, his nephew was waiting outside for a pigeon arrival.

“This bird came and landed on his head,” Baldwin said.

Their food varies based on the time of year: corn - barley, flaxseed and peas. Peanuts are a treat. Some will land on Ella’s wrist and peck food out of her scooped hand.

“They poop constantly,” Ella said.

One of Baldwin’s daily tasks is to clean the loft’s plywood floor with an ice scraper. He puts it in the trash or buries it in the yard.

“We didn’t have any grass at all when we moved here,” Baldwin said chuckling, surrounded by tufts of green grass.

The inner sanctum of the loft is occasionally disturbed. A hawk snuck in and killed two birds. Snakes have claimed eggs or babies. Baldwin once discovered a trespassing possum in the cage jutting out of the loft.

He grinned.

“Is there anything any uglier than a possum?”

Hawks and snakes are not the only threat to the pigeons.

Their way of life has been under ongoing scrutiny by the city of Wilmington since 2012, when Baldwin’s pigeons came to the attention of a code enforcement officer.

Pigeons are not expressly allowed under the city’s rules, so the code enforcement officer said Baldwin’s birds had to go.

Though Baldwin said he could give the pigeons away, “They’re going to come right back.”

In the 1950s, Baldwin’s father moved 32 birds from New Jersey to Wilmington. Some time after, his grandmother in New Jersey called her son to report some of those birds were back by the old coop.

Earlier this year, city staff prepared a draft policy establishing a permitting process for homing pigeons. In October, some city council members said they were concerned about the impact of pigeons in an urban area. Councilwoman Laura Padgett cast it as a health and safety issue because she said bird droppings can cause illnesses.

“If that were the case everybody at city hall would be dying,” Councilman Charlie Rivenbark quipped, referring to the resident pigeons over the front entrance.

Ultimately, the council directed staff to return with a zoning amendment prohibiting homing pigeons inside the city limits. The process would allow existing pigeons to be grandfathered.

Baldwin hopes to see the matter settled.

“I’m too old to move,” he said.

And he likes being next-door to Ella. It can be hard to interest young people in flying pigeons.

Not Ella. When the birds are babies, covered in soft yellow fuzz, she cradles them in her hands.

One day she, too, will stand in her own backyard, eyes to the sky, waiting for the gray wings to circle overhead.

___

Information from: The StarNews, http://starnewsonline.com

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