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Retiree takes pigeons under his wing

June 16, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

When Dick Mumma retired as a lieutenant from the Hagerstown Police Department on May 31, he decided to spread his wings and return to an old hobby.

"I think I'm working harder now than I was when I was working," said Mumma, 51, who in retirement has found a renewed interest in raising homing pigeons.

It has been more than three decades since a friend got Mumma, then a teenager, interested in raising pigeons.

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

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"The desire is always there," he said.

In February, he began taking steps to renew participation in the hobby. He bought the shell of a pigeon coop, which he has been modifying.

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 his time since retirement raising his birds and working on the pigeon loft at his home off Mount Tabor Road west of Hagerstown.

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

Mumma is working toward racing his birds. Homing pigeon enthusiasts race their pigeons 19 times a year at distances of up to 600 miles. A truck carries the pigeons to a common destination. From there, the birds are launched and their owners wait at home for them to return.

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 last weekend began in Tennessee. In two weeks, the starting line will be Atlanta.

All of the birds have tiny identification bands on their legs, and during races they 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 coddle them, slowly building their strength.

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, and since the birds always are released south of their coops, 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.

There are a lot of theories about how the pigeons are able to find their way home, but no one knows for sure what draws them back to their coops, Davis said.

Ready to compete

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

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

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

With interest in the sport stagnating and the average age of human participants at near 50, Davis said the hobby needs all the interested people it can get.

"I showed him all the mistakes that I made so he wouldn't make them," he said.

It has been hard to attract new people to the sport because it has become expensive, Davis said. A new pigeon enthusiast can easily shell out $5,000 in the first year to buy birds and build living quarters for them, 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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