Flying the coop

June 16, 1997

Flying the coop

City policeman retires, pursues dream of racing homeing pigeons


Staff Writer

Dick Mumma left the Hagerstown Police Department at the end of last month, ready for retirement.

And he's been really busy ever since.

Mumma has worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. the last two weeks, cutting his grass, feeding his chickens, looking out for his turkey. Most of all, though, he has been busy raising homing pigeons.

"I think I'm working harder now than I was when I was working," he said.

Mumma, 51, is using retirement to concentrate on a sport that captivated him more than three decades ago. He had a friend who turned him onto raising pigeons as a teenager.


But he gave it up when he joined the Army, and when he returned to Hagerstown to work for Fairchild, he said he lived in developments where he could not have raised pigeons. After he got a job with the police, the hobby - but not the interest - became a distant memory.

"The desire is always there," he said.

So in February, he began taking steps to rejoin the hobby. He bought the shell of pigeon coop, which he has been working to modify ever since.

He has 12 pairs of breeders and 70 racing birds, which he bought at auctions and from other hobbyists.

Mumma said he has spent most of time since retirement working on his pigeon loft at his home off Mt. Tabor Road west of Hagerstown and raising his birds.

"I think my wife's told me she's going to paint feathers on me - or paint feathers on herself," he said.

All this work is aimed at racing. Homing pigeon enthusiasts race their pigeons 19 times a year at distances up to 600 miles. A truck carries the pigeons to a common destination. From there, the birds are launched and their owners wait back home.

Because homing pigeons have an uncanny ability to find their way home, they can usually make it back to Hagerstown from hundreds of miles away. A race this weekend began in Tennessee, for instance. In two weeks, the starting line will be Atlanta.

All of the birds have tiny identification bands on their legs, and during races, they also wear clocks. When the birds reach the coop, the owner pulls a rubber band, and the time is stamped on a piece of paper. After allowing for "overfly," the difference in distances from the start to individual coops, a winner is declared.

Pigeon owners must feed their birds and baby them, slowly building their strength and allowing them to become "lofted" in their coops. Dick Davis of Williamsport, president of the United Pigeon Combine, said most pigeons follow the pack. Since the bulk of club members live in the Baltimore area, that means the pigeons will fly almost in a big circle, heading northeast before turning to come home.

The trick is getting them to fly straight.

Mumma said he plans to enter races at the end of August, when the season for birds born in 1997 begins. He said he originally did not think he would be ready for competition until next summer, but he added that Davis has been a supreme motivator.

The biggest challenge is building the birds' strength, he said. He begins by letting them fly around the yard and will gradually increase the distances.

When it is time to race, he will cross his fingers. Many of them - about 30 percent, according to Davis - will not return. Some get lost. Some get attacked by hawks. Some are too weak.

"You never know with young birds," he said.

But with stagnating interest in the sport and an average of participants age near 50, Davis said the hobby can use all the Mummas they can get.

"I showed him all the mistakes that I made so he wouldn't make them," he said. "Dick's got his loft laid out the way I'd do it if I were to start all over."

It has been hard to attract new people to the sport since it has become so expensive, Davis said. He said a new pigeon enthusiast can easily shell out $5,000 in the first year, buying birds and constructing living quarters.

"He's really enthused about it - and I can't say I blame him. It's a great sport," he said.

Mumma said it is much different than he remembers it being 30 years ago.

"When I was a kid, you put them in boxes for a coop, and you could be competitive," he said.

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