- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (AP) - These birds are not homeless. They are not at all like those downtown pigeons that run amok and leave their mark on your car windshield. These pigeons are civilized and well taken care of with loving attention and training.

Leon Freeman has been flying homing pigeons since 1978, and he loves his hobby, the North Platte Telegraph (https://bit.ly/25jDYZO ) reported. It is fun for him and, as most hobbies are, important therapy to help keep life on an even keel.

“When I was a kid, Ray Nelson had homing pigeons, and he had my brothers and I catch them and clean the pigeon loft,” Freeman said. “We got interested in it at that time when we were still in school.”

Freeman started with a small loft. In 1979, he and his wife, Carla, moved west of North Platte, where the hobby grew to include 75-80 birds and a palace disguised as a loft. Or perhaps, a loft disguised as a palace.

Homing pigeons are a variety of the domestic pigeon derived from the rock pigeon. The birds are selectively bred for their ability to find their way home over extremely long distances.

Freeman has a flock of “old” pigeons and a flock of “young” pigeons that are in training.

“I started training these young birds earlier in April,” Freeman said. “Their first competition will be in August.”

He starts by releasing the young birds from the loft. They usually just walk on the roof of the building. Each day they venture out a little farther until they begin to fly out and around the loft, which is separate from the house.

The old birds are well seasoned and have logged a lot of miles.

“I release the old birds and they fly around in circles for a half hour to an hour,” Freeman said. “I do that a few times a week so they stay in shape for the races.”

Freeman belongs to the North Platte Flyers, a local club with nine members. The races for the old birds run from the first of April through the end of June. The young birds then fly from Aug. 20 through Oct. 8.

The distances for the mature birds range from 100-600 miles. Everything is tracked electronically. Freeman has a computerized system in his loft that marks when the bird flies in through the entrance. The time is recorded and standings are determined in comparison with the other lofts. Since the distances are slightly different depending on where the loft is located, the average speed is calculated and broken down to yards per minute, which determines the winner.

“Our first race of the season we had 322 birds turned up that left at 8 a.m. from Kearney,” Freeman said. “The nine lofts in North Platte competed together in this race. At 10:20.41 is when my bird came in and I won that race.”

Freeman’s winning bird flew at a speed of 1,240.220 yards per minute. Bird speeds average 50-80 mph, depending on the weather. In 2006, Freeman had a bird that not only won a race, but set a significant record.

“My distance was 556 miles,” Freeman said. “It set a national speed record. The record the bird broke was 1,907 yards a minute. When my bird broke the record, it was at 1,976 yards a minute.”

The hobby is not for everyone, Freeman says. It takes time to train the birds, and feeding them can be expensive.

Freeman said there is no comparison between his homing pigeons and the downtown flock of wild birds.

“I take good care of my birds and they are healthy,” Freeman said. He feeds them a healthy blend of food that keeps their feathers shiny and brightly colored. He also protects them from parasites and other pests associated with wild pigeons.

He loves his hobby.

“I don’t golf,” Freeman said. When he needs some personal therapy, he takes his pigeons out for a fly.

“I load up the pigeons and my dog, head out 30, 40 or 50 miles, and sit out on some country road where I just pray to God,” Freeman said.

And the pigeons always find their way home.


Information from: The North Platte Telegraph, https://www.nptelegraph.com

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