MOLINE — The sky was more full of pigeons 30 to 40 years ago, and the numbers slowly are growing again, according to Moline-East Moline Racing Pigeon Club members.
"People may not realize it, but pigeon racing's been going on for thousands of years," club president Steven Hoffman said.
The club, which dates back to the 1800s, used to be one of four pigeon racing clubs in the Quad-Cities, long-time club member and officer Dennis Mosher said."In the late 1970s and early 80s, there was our Moline club, as well as East Moline, Rock Island and a Mississippi Valley Club."
There were more than 100 pigeon racers in the Moline club when it merged with the East Moline club, said the Rev. Dr. Mark Gehrke, the only flyer who lives in Moline.
The other 13 club members are from outlying areas, said Mr. Hoffman, who lives about eight miles from Donahue, Iowa.
Mr. Hoffman and club vice president Tony Swanson once belonged to the defunct Mississippi Valley Club.The Rock Island Club also is extinct, leaving the Moline-East Moline Club as the only pigeon game in town.
"But we're kind of growing again. We gained three new members last year," said Mr. Mosher, adding that there are two women in the club.
Leaders hope to increase the club's public exposure, and raise money for a new pigeon trailer at a trivia night fundraiser on Friday, April 12, at the University Club of Moline, at 1518 5th Ave., Suite 200, Moline.
Doors open at 6 p.m., followed by trivia at 7 p.m. The cost is $10 per person, with a maximum of eight players per table. There will be an auction and people can bring their own food, but drinks must be bought on site. For reservations or more information, call Rev. Gehrke at 563-508-8388.
The Moline-East Moline Club is part of a larger concourse, involving groups from Rock Falls, East Rockford and Janesville, Wis., Mr. Mosher said. "There are about 45 to 50 members in the concourse. We compete together, meaning over 1,000 birds fly.
"How we do it is we basket the birds together, put them in a crate, and a driver from the concourse takes them to a release point, and then each bird flies back to its own loft," he said. "We race 75 miles to 540 miles. And it's all electronic now. Each bird has a computer chip on its leg."
"Then it comes down to time vs. distance, and whoever's fastest wins," Mr. Hoffman said.
"You just sit in the back yard and wait for them to come back to you," Mr. Swanson said.
"And there's nothing more spectacular than seeing a pigeon return from a 500-mile race," Mr. Mosher said. "They circle around, and then look at you, like they're saying 'we're home.'"
"It is a rush," Rev. Gehrke said.
The spring season begins May 5-6 in Libertyville, Iowa, and continues through July 6 with races from Glenwood, Iowa, and Collyer, Kan. A fall season runs from August to early October.
Some people don't think pigeon racing sounds like much of a challenge, Mr. Hoffman said. "They're just like any athlete. They have to be in top form -- top condition."
"The real challenge is in the breeding," Mr. Swanson said.
"You start with the babies born that year and train them to go a mile or two,"he said. "Then you take them out 5 to 10 miles, before trying to get them out to 40 miles and back. The first actual race is 75 to 80 miles."
Pigeons are believed to have an instinct for knowing how to get home. Research suggests they rely on a combination of sight, smell and an orientation with the earth's magnetic fields, according to various websites.
"It's a fascinating hobby, and you don't have to be rich or poor," Mr. Mosher said. "You can spend thousands of dollars, or you could just use pigeons given to you."
"Their home could be an orange crate or a $20,000 loft," Mr. Hoffman said.
"Plus, no one can really tell, or knows, if a pigeon's going to be good or bad," Mr. Mosher said. "Anyone with any type of animal sense at all can be good at it."
It used to be difficult to get anyone to share information on pigeon racing, because racing was so competitive, but now there is information on the Internet and in magazines such as Pigeon's Digest, Mr. Hoffman said.
Mr. Mosher has had several champions and captured many awards in his 34-year pigeon racing career. He said the sport was highly popular in the Moline Belgian community where he grew up.
He said his worst disappointment was in 2005 when all his birds were stolen. The crime went unsolved, but conservation police suspected the pigeons were stolen by someone intending to use them for pigeon-shooting competitions.
Mr. Mosher and Mr. Swanson were about 14 when they got started in the sport.
"And did you know that the Queen of England has her own loft," Mr. Hoffman asked. "So does Mike Tyson."
People are usually surprised by that, he said, "and they're surprised that pigeon racing's still around at all."
Today is Thursday, Dec. 12, the 346th day of 2013. There are 19 days left in the year. 1863 -- 150 years ago: Two boys who haul coal from Coal Valley to Davenport were arrested yesterday for running their teams through the city street at a furious rate. 1888 -- 125 years ago: E.H. Barker dislocated his left wrist and suffered a compound fracture of the right wrist when he fell from the roof of his icehouse. 1913 -- 100 years ago: Lou Harris was elected county superintendent of schools to fill the unexpired term of the late S.J. Ferguson. 1938 -- 75 years ago: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a state must give equality in educational privileges to white and Negro law students. 1963 -- 50 years ago: About 300 employees of the Augustana Book Concern, staff members of the Board of Publication of the Lutheran Church in America, as well as friends of the community and out-of-town guests honored Dr. Birger Swenson at the annual Christmas dinner of the Augustana Book Concern last night in Westerlin Hall on the Augustana College campus. 1988 -- 25 years ago: The Christmas shopping season began early this year and continues to bring out shoppers in record numbers, according to Quad-Cities retailers interviewed today.