Gary Hegner figures that his obsession with pigeons began around the age of six. He was in the school library and came across a book dealing with the ubiquitous, urban-dwelling birds. "I fell in love from the day I read it," recalls Hegner, now 59 years old.
Hegner bought his first pigeon at age 10 and began entering the birds in races before he finished high school. In his first competition, Hegner's top finisher was a silver bird, so he decided to name his racing stable the "Silver Loft." Unfortunately, the moniker was already taken by a veteran pigeon-racing enthusiast. "I ended up marrying his daughter and now I have the Silver Loft to myself," Hegner laughs. His black satin jacket features a patch that reads "In Memory of Frank 'Dynamite' DeCarlo, 1910-1973." "That's my father-in-law," he notes. "That's the gentleman whose daughter I stole."
Hegner is hanging out at American Legion Post 474 on St. Paul's North End on a Friday evening in late September. The occasion is the 44th Annual Twin Cities Gold Band Race, featuring some 379 pigeons, all less than a year old. The Gold Band is the final event of the official local season, sponsored by Twin Cities Racing Pigeons. Later this evening, the birds will be packed into crates, loaded onto a trailer, and driven some 300 miles west to Jamestown, North Dakota. The following morning, at 7:30 a.m., they'll be released en masse. Whichever bird can find its way home at the fastest clip will secure winter bragging rights for its owner--and $1,000 in prize money.
Hegner has 16 contenders in the race and he's feeling pretty good about his chances. "I'm very proud of the birds," he says. "I'm looking for better than second." Hegner's only worry is that the birds might fall prey to a power line or a hawk. "There are so many hawks out there today," he laments. "They're destroying the pigeons."
The roughly 30-person crowd gathered at the American Legion hall this evening is almost entirely male. Along with a collective fascination with pigeons, the group seems to share a common wardrobe of satin jackets, flannel shirts, and baseball caps, and a fondness for Miller Genuine Draft. "I missed one race this year," says Larry Leach, chairman of the Twin Cities club. "That was because I was in the hospital with a heart attack."
Denny Kuhn is a veteran pigeon racer from Belle Plaine who owns about 300 birds. "How they could find their way home from hundreds of miles away just fascinated me," says Kuhn. "It's one of those mysteries of Mother Nature." Kuhn recently sold a pigeon to a guy in Middleton, New York. About three and a half weeks later, the bird showed up back in Belle Plaine, having completed the roughly 1,200-mile journey home.
Mike DeMaio is wearing a stars-and-stripes bandana, black leather jacket, and Harley Davidson T-shirt. He lives just a few blocks from the American Legion hall, on a lot that he shares with his self-storage business. Behind DeMaio's house are three trailers reserved solely for his pigeons. He's been racing for 20 years, carrying on a family tradition that he picked up from his dad. "We were partners for 20 years, until he died two years ago," DeMaio says. "My whole family's in this sport. I must have 25 relatives who race pigeons. It's in my blood."
The DeMaio family's most illustrious racer was a female pigeon they dubbed Lolo Girl. The bird had a reputation for being--quite literally--a cock tease. "She'd go over to my uncle Louie's, which is only a mile from here," he recalls. "My uncle would call my dad or me or my ma and say, 'Lolo Girl's here again. She's teasing all my cocks.' She'd be the only hen out with all his cocks and she'd drive 'em all nuts."
In 1974, the DeMaios entered Lolo Girl in a 430-mile race out of Topeka, Kansas, that Mike says boasted some 10,000 competitors (although it should be noted that pigeon racers, like fishermen, have a strong propensity to embellish). "The bird came home, won the race, went in the trap, and died of a heart attack," DeMaio says. A stuffed Lolo Girl now resides in DeMaio's office, amidst the various pigeon-racing trophies he's won over the years.
The trophy room wouldn't receive any new additions as a result of the local racing finale: DeMaio's top finishers in the Gold Band competition clocked in at 13th and 14th, just a minute behind the winning pigeon. One of Gary Hegner's birds did, in fact, end up taking home the top prize. The winning pigeon touched down at Hegner's Silver Loft on Albemarle Street at 12:40 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, after clocking an average speed of almost 60 miles per hour.