At 9 years old Larry Bolger picked up a pair of interesting pets, two pigeons. He built them a roost out old crates and kept them in the ally beside his house. Bolger, now 71, has owned pigeons ever since. They are not the average pigeons that are found in flocks around major cities; these are classified as fancy pigeons. These pigeons descend from homing pigeons, Bolger said.
Bolger began to tap into the special skill set of his birds in 1963 by getting involved in racing pigeons. Bolger joined the Lyndhurst Homing Pigeon Club, which happens to have ex-boxer Mike Tyson as one of its members. He and other club members trained their birds to race and competed against each other.
“They call this hobby the race horses of the sky,” Bolger said.
Bolger trains the birds to race by placing them in cages, driving them roughly 50 miles away from home, where they are released. The birds then fly back to Bolger’s house. When the birds return, Bolger feeds them, rewarding them for their hard work. Over time the birds associate flying home with being fed so they learn to fly home as quickly as possible. The birds are fed a mix of grains and seeds and drink water enriched with vitamins, brewer’s yeast and wheat germ, Bolger said.
“I keep them healthy with vitamins,” he said. “It keeps them healthy and gives them stamina.”
Earlier this year, Bolger moved to Dover from New Jersey. His flock of pigeons made the move with him. Bolger has installed two tool sheds that have been converted into pigeon lofts in his backyard and joined No Boundaries Club, a nearby pigeon racing club. Bolger’s hobby earned him a bit of attention, said Hilda Flowers, a neighbor.
“One morning I was walking and the birds were circling back to their nest and I thought it was quite interesting. The next time I saw them I stopped and he told me his story,” she said. “It was something new in our neighborhood.”
Come race day, Bolger will select roughly 15 pigeons from his team of 33 race birds. He will take them down the No Boundaries Pigeon Club, where they will be loaded onto a truck with other club members’ birds. The birds will be driven anywhere from 100 to 500 miles away, depending on the age of the birds. The birds will all be released all at once. The pigeon that returns to their owner’s house the fastest is the winner. Bolger has won his fair share of races over his long career. He won first place in a 300-mile Central Jersey pigeon race. He beat out 190 other teams or lofts; in this particular race, Bolger even beat out Mike Tyson.
Page 2 of 2 - Speeds are calculated using a computer chip that is attached to the pigeon’s leg and a computer pad that is placed at the entrance of the loft in Bolger’s backyard. When a pigeon lands on the pad to enter the loft their flight time is recorded electronically.
The racing season for young birds begins Sept. 5 and runs through early October. Young birds race between 100 and 300 miles. Yearlings start racing in April, Bolger said. They fly from 100 to 500 miles. By the end of race seasons half of his team could be gone.
“The hawks go after them and some of them aren’t the smartest, so you lose them because they just don’t have it,” he said. “They get hit by wires when they’re racing home and some can’t take the distance and fall by the wayside.”
Pigeon racing used to be more popular that it is now, Bolger explained. He is hoping for a new generation of racers to come along.
“It kept me grounded and made a better person out of me,” he said. “It’s a good hobby. I think every child should have a hobby like this, because it would keep them off the streets and away from drugs and alcohol. It kept me off the street.”
Pigeon racing is an expensive hobby (between buying food and vitamins, paying to enter races and buying birds to breed more racing birds), but it’s worth it, Bolger said.
“It’s calming for me,” he said. “I’m going to be 72 in the spring and it keeps me active. It’s my passion. Some people have a passion for golfing, some guys have a passion for being runners. This is my passion.”