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Martinsburg man loved waiting for his flock to fly home

June 19, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • From left, Bob Domenico, Rodney Pitsnogle, Caleb Harshman and Howard Chaney Jr. are members of the Cumberland Valley Racing Pigeon Club in Hagerstown.
By Richard F. Belisle/Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A recent photograph of Howard A. Chaney Sr., who died June 13 at the age of 69, shows him sitting in front of his pigeon loft waiting for his birds to come home.

“Dad raised racing pigeons for more than 40 years,” said Howard Chaney Jr., 49, of Falling Waters, W.Va. “Like all of us who race pigeons, some of Dad’s happiest moments were sitting near the loft waiting for the bell to ring.”  

When a racing pigeon gets home, a computer chip in a leg band passes an antenna as it enters the loft and trips a bell. The chip identifies each pigeon by its serial number and notes the exact time of its arrival.

“Dad really enjoyed breeding and racing pigeons. You could see how much he got from it,” Chaney Jr. said. “Joining him at the loft allowed me to spend a lot of time with Dad over the years.”

“Dad always said that if a pigeon didn’t come home, it wasn’t worth anything anyway,” said Chaney Sr.’s son Charles Chaney, 48, of Hagerstown.

The people who race pigeons will tell you that the hard work of breeding and training the slim, sleek birds, buying their expensive food and cleaning their pens pays off the second they see their birds zoom in, often after a day’s flight of 500 miles.

“It’s mystifying,” said Rick Harshman of Hagerstown, who flies racers with his son, Caleb, 11. “It gives me goose bumps every time.”

The men interviewed belong to the Cumberland Valley Racing Pigeon Club in Hagerstown. It was organized in 1958 and has 23 members who come from nearby counties in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. Their clubhouse is a garage on Sunrise Street in Hagerstown. The local club is one of eight making up the United Pigeon Combine in York, Pa.

The members race their birds for 19 weeks from late April to early October.

On race days, a pickup truck and trailer carrying specially designed cages leaves York, Pa., on Interstate 81 to pick up birds from clubs along the way as it heads south, often to Knoxville, Tenn., 500 miles away, or even Chattanooga, Tenn., which is 600 miles away.

“We’re the last stop on the way south,” Chaney Jr. said.

The rest of the drive is overnight so the pigeons can be released at first light.

“When the driver reaches his designation, he pulls a lever that opens all the cages at once, freeing as many as 1,000 pigeons. The sky darkens momentarily as they begin their race for home,” Chaney Jr. said.

Hawks and power lines are hazards for racing pigeons, which fly at night. Club members said windmills pose no danger.

A sleek racing pigeon has little in common with its barn and street relatives, with the possible exception that all pigeons have feathers, club members said.

“Barn pigeons are not very intelligent,” Chaney Jr. said.

“Our pigeons are bred like thoroughbred racehorses,” said Nelson Myers, 68, of Martinsburg. “They have pedigrees.”    

An example of a bird’s pedigree shows generations of ancestors, all identified by serial numbers. Owners rarely name their birds, even favorite ones.

Club members occasionally buy birds from a fellow breeder.

“A top racer with the right pedigree can sell for as much as $5,000,” said Bob Domenico, the local club’s president. Such pigeons are bought for breeding purposes only, he said.

Club members usually raise their own birds.

Pigeons normally hatch two eggs at a time, Domenico said. The young ones, called squabs, can fly just 28 days after they hatch.

All young birds hatched around the same time from the same loft become a new flock, Domenico said.

“They will always race together,” he said.

“At first they’ll just sit around on the roof,”  Domenico said. “Then maybe they’ll start flying in circles around the loft. A few days later, they’ll start flying out for an hour or so.”

The real training begins when the new flock is taken away from home, first for a few miles, then up to a 100 miles or more, until they’re ready to race, club members said.

Domenico said an average racing pigeon flies about 50 mph, but top birds can reach between 60 mph and 80 mph.

Chaney Sr., of Martinsburg, was a well-liked, well-regarded club member who was always willing to share his knowledge and his pigeons with any club member starting out, several members said.

“He gave me birds when I first came into the club,” said Rodney Pitsnogle of Myersville, Md.

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