Pigeon racers hope immigrants can be 'salvation' for 200-year-old sport
Luis Calle still remembers the excitement of his first pigeon.
He was seven years old, living in Matanzas, Cuba, a city where thousands of racing pigeons fly through the sky. "So beautiful," Calle remembers. He had to save up until he had the three pesos he needed to buy a bird.
It was a transformational moment.
"This is my life," he recalls thinking. "This is my passion — my bird."
Now 56, Calle is one of the youngest members of Ottawa's pigeon racing community. His birds compete internationally, winning him thousands. He holds up a diagram of his finest avian athlete, Victory Andy.
"This is my champion," he said.
For Louis Santoro, head of the Ottawa Capital Pigeon Club, newcomers like Calle represent the best hope for reviving the Ottawa Valley's dying pigeon racing scene.
"I think the only salvation for the sport is the new Canadians that move to Canada. They seem to have a lot of interest in the sport," said Santoro.
He remembers the glory days of Ottawa Valley racing, decades ago, when a half-dozen clubs competed together. They could attract 86 competitors.
Those days are long gone. Only two clubs remain and just a handful of veteran racers compete in his Ottawa Capital Pigeon Club. New members are hard to come by. Santoro has welcomed girl guide and boy scout troops to his lofts, and presented to classes on field trips.
Alas, not a single youngster has joined his club. He thinks few have the patience required to feed and care for the birds. It takes commitment.
"It's got to be in your blood," said Santoro, a former teacher who some neighbours in Osgoode just call "the birdman."
Santoro, 77, has cared for pigeons since he was three while growing up in Italy. He's been racing since 1958 and he still finds it an exhilarating experience.
He sits down, drinks a cup of tea and waits for the moment his birds return. A race of 800 kilometres is not unusual, so he sometimes stays out until after nightfall.
"It's the thrill of watching that bird come out of the sky and just dive in like a rocket into the loft," he said.
Racers call pigeons 'a marvel' of nature
Pigeon racing was born in Belgium about 200 years ago. Specially bred homing pigeons have an uncanny ability to find their way back to their home loft. Competitors bring the birds to a central spot and release them. The birds fan out to make the journey back.
Scanners clock in their return. Then it's a simple calculation of distance over time. The fastest bird wins.
"It's a marvel, it really is, because we don't know how they are able to come home," said Santoro.
He has a deep affection for his birds. An oil painting of one of his most memorable pigeons hangs in his home. It shows pigeon number 3346, also known as Nikon, and finally just "old man." He died in retirement at age 21, living out his last days inside Santoro's house.
"Somebody once said that the problem with me is I run a hotel for retired pigeons," he said.
It's not just the birds, or the thrill of the race. For Santoro, it's also the sense of community.
"It's one of the only sports in the world where you can take a directory and knock at someone's door and he or she will welcome you with open arms," said Santoro.
Calle has found that, too. Whether in Cuba, or as a newcomer to Florida and then to Ottawa, he's always found others who share his passion.
"They want to win," he said. "They want sport. This is their life. This is emotion."
'There's a lot of politics'
Terrence Gill is part of the Ottawa area's other club, the Golden Triangle Racing Pigeon Club. The third race of the season was this month. About 250 to 300 birds competed.
"That was [an] amazing turnout," he said. "If they asked me that question back in 2008, I would say that was a horrible turnout."
Back then, he could expect as many as 2,000 birds.
WATCH: How Pigeon racing works:
In Gill's view, the slow decline of pigeon racing in the Ottawa Valley stems from an aging membership and a series of nasty disputes that turned some racers off the sport.
"There's a lot of politics," he said. "A lot of infighting and cheating allegations."
Successful racers were once accused of "tampering with the clocks" to gain an advantage. Others alleged opponents had bribed a driver to ensure their birds were the first released from the trailer.
"Stuff like that forced members out and divided friends," he explained.
Santoro firmly disputed that account, saying personal conflicts are unavoidable in any club. In his views, such controversies have played an insignificant role in the troubles now facing pigeon racing.
'The meaning of freedom'
Both men agree immigration could give pigeon racing wings. Gill noted many veteran racers were also immigrants or children of immigrants, such as Santoro. Most traced their roots to European countries that were then at the forefront of pigeon racing. Today, Asian countries are taking the lead.
"The sport will always be around," Santoro explained. "It's not going to be the same in some of the countries that originally were dominant."
Those global trends are making themselves felt locally. A directory of pigeon fanciers includes immigrants to Ottawa from Bangladesh, Lebanon and Iran.
But they aren't all racers. Abraham Moloudi's birds aren't bred to fly fast. They're called Iranian high flyers, and they're bred to soar.
"They go sky high," he said.
Moloudi is also Iranian. He's been around pigeons since he was six. "We always had pigeons at home," he remembered. He learned from his brother, as they stayed up late together waiting for one final pigeon to return.
"For me, pigeons, it's the meaning of freedom," he said.
He said the pigeon sport is different in Iran. It isn't a question of the fastest bird, but the one that flies the highest and stays up the longest.
Moloudi came to Canada about 36 years ago, but it took years to rediscover the magic of pigeons. He said raising the birds is one of the best ways to cope with anxiety. He decided to take up the hobby again after the death of his mother.
"I was not doing well, so the only thing that calmed me down was this," he said.
"I went back to my childhood," he added. "My energy boosts up and it gives me something that I want to do."
WATCH: Breeding pigeons reminds Iranian man of home:
Looking for new blood
For Calle, pigeon racing is also a family tradition. His daughter helps him with the birds. He remembers when they learned his champion bird placed a full two minutes ahead of its closest opponent in a roughly 650-kilometre race.
"When my friends called me and said you won it, me and my daughter were jumping together," he said.
Calle doubts his daughter will carry on the tradition. But his son, who still lives in Cuba, keeps his own pigeon loft.
Santoro is trying to bring him to Canada, and at the same time introduce him as the youngest member his club has seen in ages.
"That would be like winning the Lotto 6/49, because the club needs new blood, needs young people to survive," he said.
"That's one of our motivations: to help the sport survive. We don't want to see it die."