Polson’s Elite Pigeons Win World Cup

By Beacon Staff

Rich Hayes is not your typical retiree.

Instead of going hunting or casting a line, the 66-year-old former heavy equipment operator from Polson prefers flying Birmingham Roller Pigeons. And 13 years after he began competitively breeding and flying the English specialty pigeon, he’s the best in the world after winning the 2008 World Cup Fly.

“I’m blown away,” Hayes said. “I’m a world champion!”

Birmingham Rollers are known for their ability to roll backward through the air faster than the human eye can grasp. In roller pigeon competitions, “kits” – or teams of rollers – of 15 to 20 are judged on how many birds roll in unison, along with the depth and quality of those rolls in a 20-minute period. Kits are also scrutinized on their ability to regroup and roll again.

During competition, a pigeon trainer opens a birdcage and lets the rollers take to the sky, where they soar up to 400 feet above the ground before they begin their methodical tumbling toward earth, dropping 40 feet at a time. In groups as big as 15, the pigeons synchronize their rolls with each bird rotating 12 times a second. Then as quickly as they fall, they regroup and do it again.

“Pow!” Hayes said. “It’s like watching fireworks.”

Each year more than 1,000 competitors from the United States and across the world compete in regional competitions for a chance to make the World Cup Fly. Hayes won his regional competition and then outlasted 67 other competitors for the 2008 world championship. In previous World Cup Fly competitions Hayes’ best showing was 15th.

Hayes said his pigeons tumbled in unison and performed a high number of turns at the world championship, two key elements to his winning point total. It’s critical for the birds to stay together – if two or more birds leave the flock, scoring stops.

Steve Holten, a flyer and breeder and third place regional finisher from Columbia Falls who was in Polson the day Hayes won the world championship, said it wasn’t even Hayes’ best performance. Holten says that, both in the regional competition and in a flight just days prior to the world championship, Hayes’ pigeons were better than at the World Cup.

“A guy in South Africa got close, but not close enough,” Hayes said.

Roller pigeon competitors have a camaraderie that spans the globe. Hayes is a dignitary in this seldom-publicized hobby and a world-renowned breeder, but he doesn’t do it for the money. Nevertheless, pigeons have become marginally profitable for Hayes. A pair of Hayes-bred Birmingham Rollers cost $50 prior to his championship and now they’re going for around $500.

“People compete from Serbia to Australia – I wish my birds would have done as well as Rich’s,” World Fly Cup treasurer Tim Decker said.

Buyers from South Africa have been Hayes’ biggest customers, but his most avid fans are still Americans. His inbox was filled with e-mails from across the United States celebrating the success of his new American record for points following the World Fly Cup.

Annually, Hayes raises 200 pigeons from 20 breeding pairs, hand selecting the best rollers, not only for their tight-rolling aptitude but also for their nurturing ability. The best birds, Hayes said, come from the best parents. Birds, though, can be over-bred, or what Holten called “hot,” resulting in birds that spin so frequently they are unable to recover and crash.

But both Holten and Hayes say meticulous breeding is the only way to avoid such occurrences. Why the birds roll in the first place, however, is still somewhat of a debate, though Holten and Hayes agree: It’s not a form of epilepsy.

“They can control it,” Holten said. “It’s an impulse to roll; it’s a genetic thing.”

Hayes first fell in love with pigeons as a fourth grader in Los Angeles when he found an injured pigeon that had fallen from a palm tree on his way home from school. He nursed it back to health and even walked around with it on his shoulder. It’s a soft spot that has gotten him to where he is today.

Hayes has become the world’s best largely because of the three hours per day he spends training his birds. He’s grown accustomed to this routine, so much so that the chance to be the World Cup Fly’s official judge – an eight-week all expenses paid trip around the world – seems daunting.

“I’d like to do it, see the world for free; they treat you like a king,” Hayes said. “But who is going to take care of my birds?”