Pigeon lovers unite downtown for national convention

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

If you go

• What: National Pigeon Association 2013 Grand National Show and Convention.

• Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St.

• When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

• Cost: Free and open to the public

• Information: http://www.npausa.com

Every American roller pigeon with even a hint of brown in its feathers has a connection to Clark County.

That's because the birds -- known for doing somersaults through the sky -- never had that color until Keith Casteel gave it to them.

"My browns are the best," Casteel said. "Other people have tried to get browns like that, but they just can't beat me."

Casteel has been breeding the birds since he was a boy growing up in Camas. Now he's running what could be considered the Super Bowl of the fancy pigeon world -- the National Pigeon Association's 2013 Grand National Show and Convention -- which continues through Saturday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

Most people think of pigeons as the feral birds that often mess up public parks and other areas -- but there's a lot more to them than that, Casteel said.

"It's a hobby that really gets in your blood," Casteel said. "There's a lot to it that people don't understand."

For one thing, there's more than 350 different breeds of pigeon, almost all of them created by people who noticed an odd trait in a bird and tried to foster it.

At the show, there's a breed called Jacoban, with a head-eclipsing plumage that looks like a fur coat gone awry. There are pouters, tall skinny birds

with chests that puff out into fist-sized balls. There are trumpeters, known for their strange progressive cooing and their long-feathered feet. And there are parlor rollers, which do somersaults on the ground.

And that's just for starters. There are about 3,200 birds on display during the event, which is free and open to the public.

"The pigeons that live under the bridges everywhere, those are just feral pigeons," said Jack Lawrence, who raised pigeons at Oregon State University before retiring. "Most people think that's what pigeons are, and they're not. These are high tech pigeons."

Lawrence often helps out as a show judge, although he's not working this convention, just enjoying the birds. He's bred racing homers for more than 30 years.

"They're bred for speed and bred for their homing ability," Lawrence said. "In World War I, World War II, Vietnam even, for communications they used pigeons. They saved a lot of lives."

Racing homers can fly upwards of 70 mph and, contrary to popular belief, they have always been the main birds used for communications.

"A big thing with messenger pigeons, carrier pigeons, the names get mixed up," Lawrence said. "Carrier pigeons were never used for messages, and passenger pigeons were a wild migratory pigeon that went extinct."

People have been breeding the birds since at least as far back as the 1300s, possibly much longer. And in some places, the birds are still used to send messages or other information from place to place.

"A pigeon is the only message (carrier) that the Pentagon has not found a way to jam," Casteel said. "They send three birds out and one pretty much always gets through."

In New York City, some hospitals have pigeon roosts, and they'll send medical samples across town via pigeon because it's much faster than using a bike messenger, he added.

"It's the first or second bird ever domesticated, it's between the pigeon and the chicken," he said.

Domesticated birds also live much longer than their feral cousins. Feral birds live perhaps 18 months. Domesticated pigeons average 10-15 years, with some getting to the old age of 30 or 35.

"There are also breeds that are specifically bred for meat," said Vern Whittle, who lives in Yelm and is a member of the Puget Sound Pigeon Club.

Whittle got interested in the birds as an eighth grader after watching a fellow student give a presentation about them. Intrigued, he bought two rollers and muff tumblers from the boy, he said.

"And he gave me 26 other birds to keep me interested," Whittle said. "I've had pigeons basically ever since."

He doesn't breed that type, but one of the main food birds is about the size of a chicken and is called, ironically, a giant runt, he said.

"They'll raise a squab (young pigeon) for about four weeks and then butcher it for meat," Whittle said. "They butcher them at that age because, the longer you feed them, the more they cost, and at four-and-a-half weeks they're as big as their parents."

Many breeders will eat the birds when they get an animal that doesn't really work with the traits they're trying to foster. They actually taste pretty good, Casteel, Whittle and Lawrence said.

"There used to be a lot of places that raised squab for restaurants, but it's not as popular now," Lawrence said.

Casteel describes the taste as something like a rich cornish game hen.

"Hospitals actually use it to make that gray protein paste," Casteel said. "That's pigeon. They've found that pigeon protein is the most easy to digest for humans. And there's more meat on the birds than you think."

What he enjoys most as a breeder, though, is experimenting with bird genetics, Casteel said.

"I enjoy the breeding, to actually work the genetics to come out with what you want so it's your representation," Casteel said. "You see your line, it's you out there. You did this."

That's why his success at getting the chocolate brown color in American roller pigeons remains a huge point of pride.

On the showroom floor, looking out at about 20 brown American rollers from various breeders, he grins.

"All the browns in these birds go back to me," he said, adding that it took him about five generations of birds to get the color right. "I don't know any major fancier that doesn't sit down and breed their birds at least four times on paper before actually breeding them."

And beyond that, there's just something about the birds that's calming.

"It's just a lot of fun," Casteel said. "The birds are so soothing. You can go out in a loft and they're just cooing and cooing. It's a slower paced hobby than a lot of people have these days, but it's just so rewarding."

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo;soe.vorenberg@columbian.com.