Pageant of the Pigeons Celebrates a Much-Maligned Creature
A pigeon stands next to its award at the Los Angeles Pigeon Club's 2015 Pageant of the Pigeons. (Susan Valot/KQED)
Judy puffs up her chest and shows off her white coat, cooing at onlookers. She's not your typical beauty contestant. She's a pigeon.
She was one of more than 4,000 birds that stuffed the Los Angeles Pigeon Club's Pageant of the Pigeons, which wrapped up recently at the Ontario Convention Center, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles.
The pageant has been held every year since 1946. The largest fancy pigeon show in California -- and one of the largest in the country -- has become a pre-Thanksgiving tradition for bird lovers. It's like a dog show for pigeons.
And like a winning canine, Judy knows how to strut her stuff. The Pomeranian pouter hangs out near her owner in one of the rows of double-stacked cages. The all-white bird looks like she's swallowed a tennis ball, with the pocket below her beak poofed up with air.
"Hello! Coo! Hello," Judy's owner, Kathie Johnson, coos at her, "Oh, you are so pretty!"
Johnson, who lives in Orange County, talks to an onlooker about the bird, which won a champion title at a nationwide competition earlier this year.
Compared with a lot of the other competitors here, Johnson doesn't have very many companions for her Judy -- only 20 or 30 pigeons at home.
Johnson hasn't always been a pigeon raiser. She remembers playing with the birds at a friend's house when she was a kid, but she never got into them until another friend took her to a show about 20 years ago.
"And I go, 'Look at those cute birds! They look like little teddy bears!' They were so cute and the vivid colors. They really did. And I fell in love with them," Johnson said.
Johnson said most people are baffled when they first find out she raises pigeons.
"'Huh?'" she said with a laugh. "'You have pigeons?... You mean the flying rats?' Pigeons are anything but flying rats. They're very intelligent creatures."
Johnson points to another woman walking down the aisle and calls her the "Miss Disneyland of Pigeons."
The woman's name is Sieglinde Tate. And while her property near Pismo Beach in central California doesn't have roller coasters and rides, it does have pigeons: about 4,000 of them.
"There's no reason I got started. I just did," Tate said. "I started collecting all kinds of animals and I really stuck with pigeons."
Tate also has miniature horses, which sometimes try to follow her into the barn area where the birds roost.
Tate said she had to move to the country to accommodate her menagerie, which she started when she was 11 years old.
"It's hard to explain. They just permeate my whole life," Tate said. "Everything I look at, I look at it in a way like, how can it help my pigeons or how can I convert it to a pigeon."
Tate doesn't sell her birds, like some people. She says she does it just for fun. Some of her pigeons are 18 years old. She likes to joke that part of her property has become a convalescent home for pigeons.
She said she likes coming to the pageant to see all of the birds and to see if she wants something new. But she admitted that most of the time, if she wants something new, she has to go to shows in Europe, where raising pigeons and showing them has a much longer tradition than in the U.S.
Down at the end of the row of cages, against the wall of the exhibit hall, Joe Schabert stands in front of a special bank of lighted cages that make up a judging station. He opens cage doors and uses his hand to maneuver birds into position, so he can get a better look.
"This is really one of the better classes so far," Schabert said to the group of a dozen or so people sitting in folding chairs in front of the cages.
Schabert is a judge of American Fantails at this competition. The birds have tail feathers that fan out like a peacock. Their chests puff up so far that their heads sink down below, making them look almost headless from the front.
"This bird's a little heavier in the wings than I really care for. That's really its only problem," Shabert told the crowd as he eyed the three birds left in the cage at the end of a round of judging.
"It's got good width of legs. It can angle 'em forward. The bird can walk. But it is heavier in the wings. I like to see a lot cleaner of a wing on a bird."
Schabert pointed to the birds.
"That's No. 1. This bird here is No. 2," he said.
Schabert comes out from Minnesota every year to judge the competition. He says the birds are misunderstood.
"The problem with the general public is they see so many wild pigeons and bridge pigeons and farm pigeons, and they don't realize there's 300-something varieties of exotic pigeons," Schabert said as he sat at a nearby table between rounds of judging.
He said that most of the people who enter the fancy pigeon competition want to have fun, but he said they also "take their hobby pretty seriously."
The birds come in all shapes and sizes: fat, skinny, tall, short, feathered feet, bald necks.
One popular bird here was the Jacobin. From the side, they look like punk rockers with wild hair. Their feathers shoot upward around the neck, forming an Elizabethan collar that buries the head.
But pigeon fanciers like 59-year-old Stan Fail of Turlock worry that even cool features like that won't be enough to attract younger folks to the hobby. The crowd at the pageant skews older and largely male.
"My age and even a little older, people were into pigeons," Fail said. "As technology, as computers and everything has come into play, kids and stuff like that are not part of this type of hobby."
Schabert agrees. He grew up catching and raising wild pigeons and has been judging since the 1970s.
"When I was young, almost everybody either had a rabbit hutch or a pigeon coop or a chicken coop or a dog kennel in their backyard," Schabert remembered. "And nowdays, society doesn't allow that."
Schabert said he worries the hobby won't stay around after the current generation passes on.
No one here is quite sure how to get more kids involved. They say it doesn't help that some cities have laws that either outlaw or put limits on the relatively quiet birds, often treating them the same as chickens.
"It varies from city to city to city," Pageant of the Pigeons organizer Fred Maenpa said. "They have to be so far away from the house, so far away from the fence, so far away from your neighbors. And oh, you can only have four, you can only have 10, you can only have -- whatever the case might be."
Maenpa said he was forced to move from one Orange County city to another in order to keep his pigeons.
Maenpa, a retired teacher and coach, said it's sad that the birds' unwarranted reputation makes them harder to keep, especially in cities.
"It is very relaxing. You go out there and, being a teacher, you never know what kind of day you had at school, and you go and you sit in your bird cage and they're all happy to see you," Maenpa said, laughing. "Just like when you walk into your door and your dog can't wait to jump on your lap or whatever. Same thing."
Stan Fail knows that feeling. He said you can see it at competitions like the Pageant of the Pigeon.
"You'll find as you go around here that these people love these pigeons almost more than they do their husbands and wives," Fail said.