Flight of the pigeons:
Rich Hayes’ Birmingham rollers are best in the world
By VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian/Photographed by MICHAEL GALLACHER of the Missoulian
POLSON - If you happen upon a certain flock of birds flying west of Pablo Reservoir around 6:30 in the morning, your first reaction may be, “What in the heck is wrong with them?”
The answer: Nothing.
Sure, they may seem to come to a screeching halt in mid-flight and start doing backward somersaults as they twist toward the earth like a spinning yo-yo, and sure, you won’t catch anything from an eagle to a sea gull doing anything so preposterous.
But Rich Hayes’ birds are bred to tumble through the skies, performing a feathered air show like no other.
Not only is there nothing wrong with Hayes’ Birmingham roller pigeons, there is everything right with them.
Rich Hayes of Polson has spent a lifetime breeding and flying Birmingham roller pigeons. His passion for the birds has been rewarded with a first place finish in the 2008 World Cup Fly competition sponsored by the National Birmingham Roller Club. Photo by MICHAEL GALLCHER/Missoulian
Indeed, they are the best Birmingham roller pigeons in the world.
Hayes, who lives just south of Polson, won the 2008 World Cup Fly with his pigeons, which rolled better than any other Birmingham rollers on the planet.
The 66-year-old who has raised pigeons since he was a kid in California and started competing 13 years ago. His birds had three times qualified for the World Cup prior to this year, finishing 15th twice and 16th once.
“I’d always thought, 'Man, it’d be great to finish in the top 10 sometime,’ ” Hayes says.
“That’s the only group anybody notices.”
Instead, his pigeons registered the highest score ever seen in the United States during regional qualifying, then easily beat the other 67 World Cup finalists. The top 10 included birds from South Africa, England, Denmark, Australia, Holland and the United States.
The championship carries no cash prize but does deliver one serious perk: an all-expensespaid, darn-near around-the-world 10-week trip to serve as the judge for the 2009 World Cup finals. Instead of 68 people from around the globe lugging all their birds to one spot to compete, one person traveled to four continents to judge the finalists at 68 different locations.
Hayes doesn’t know if he’ll do it, though.
“Who’d take care of my pigeons while I was gone?” the bachelor says.
Hayes was about 12 years old and growing up in 1950s California when a pigeon fell out of a palm tree and landed near his feet.
“I took it home and asked if I could keep it,” he says. “I fed it bread I had mushed up and it perched on my shoulder all the time.”
Later, Hayes was riding his bicycle through Downey, Calif., when he spied a whole flock of Birmingham roller pigeons plummeting through the sky. He watched them return to their pens n rollers have some of the same instincts as a homing pigeon n sought out their owner, and started learning about the unusual birds.
“They have a muscle in their back that locks up and causes them to flip backwards and do somersaults,” Hayes says. “They know how they do it, but they don’t know why they do it.”
Some call it a genetic defect.
Others believe the pigeons developed it as an evasive maneuver to escape charging predators such as hawks.
Whatever it is, people started breeding the best of the rollers more than 200 years ago in England, and the hobby has developed into a sport as well.
Breeding is a key. Some pigeons are “shallow” rollers and some are “deep” rollers, but if you breed two deep rollers you’re likely to come up with a bird that somersaults all the way to earth and kills itself.
“If you don’t breed them right, the offspring will spin to their death,” Hayes says. “We call a deep roller 'hot,’ and you don’t want to breed two hot rollers. You want to mate a hot one to a bird that’s more controlled.”
The sport even gets referenced in “Hannibal,” Thomas Harris’ follow-up to “Silence of the Lambs.” As he tries to mess with FBI agent Clarice Starling’s head, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter suggests to her that her parents were both “deep rollers,” leaving her with a predisposition to crash and die.
In competition, owners send out birds in teams, known as “kits,” of 15 to 20.
The goal is to have as many of the birds as possible flip backward and start somersaulting toward the ground at the same time n that’s called a “break” n and as often as possible over a 20- minute period.
“I think they get leaders, and certain birds will trigger the rest,” Hayes says. “It’s like good team chemistry. When you fly them and they all spin at the same time, it’s like Beijing fireworks.”
It takes a minimum of five birds breaking to score points.
In the World Cup, Hayes flew 19-bird kits, three times had all 19 break at the same time, and had many more scores in the 10-16 range.
If one bird in the kit returns to its pen, the scoring can continue, according to Hayes. Once a second bird flies back, the scoring is over no matter how long the rest of the birds remain in flight and keep on somersaulting.
The number of breaks, and the number of birds in each break, determines a raw score.
Hayes had 46 breaks in the World Cup.
The judge also determines the quality of each break n i.e., “how nice and compact they are,” according to Hayes n and the depth of each break.
Hayes had breaks that lasted as much as 60 feet before the pigeons pulled out of them.
The raw score is multiplied by the numbers awarded by the judge for the quality and depth of each break. Hayes’ birds scored a record 2,444
points in regional qualifying.
Their score in the World Cup of 1,950.72 didn’t approach that, but was easily enough to beat second-place Riaan Kruger of South Africa, whose birds scored 1,571.4.
That man flying Birmingham rollers more than half a century ago that Hayes saw in the California sky?
He offered to give the young Hayes two birds. With his parents’ blessing, a lifelong hobby was born, and Hayes is so interested in introducing his sport to others, especially young people, he asked that his phone number (212-0167) be included in this story.
“It’s something to do besides sit inside and play video games,” he says. “Us older guys are starting to die off, and I want to see young people carry on something I have a real passion for.”
Passion? Hayes has a Birmingham roller tattooed on his forearm.
Today, on his semi-rural property, Hayes keeps approximately 150 birds, about 100 of them rollers.
Among his other birds are several white racing homers Hayes uses to raise the rollers.
“With the pigeons it takes 18 days to hatch and three weeks for them to fly,” he explains. “With the white racing homers raising them the rollers just make more eggs, and it saves about a month of time.”
A retired heavy equipment operator with one son and one granddaughter, Hayes keeps his birds in several pens and a little house given to him by another man who raised Birmingham rollers but moved away.
Hayes and friend Jerry Creager, who also raises birds, were busy putting a new roof on the birds’ new home last week.
“What Rich likes most about this sport,” Creager said from the roof, “is that you lay flat on your back.”
True enough, there’s a lawn chair in the yard, where Hayes takes his morning coffee every day after releasing the birds at about 6:30 a.m.
“They circle 200 or 300 feet above me and do their breaks,” Hayes says. “I just really enjoy watching them.”
Feed for that many birds costs him about $60 a month, and Hayes religiously changes the water in the several pens and the home two to three times a day.
He flies the birds early in the morning, before he feeds them, because “you’ve got to fly them hungry or you’ve got no control over them.”
The pigeons faithfully return to where they feel safe, and know there is food and water to be had, after they’ve gallivanted about in the sky for a half-hour or so.
He has until December to decide whether he’ll judge the 2009 World Cup Fly.
“I was in the service, so I’ve seen a lot of the world,” he says. “But I’ve never been to South Africa or Australia, and I wouldn’t mind doing that.”
If he turns it down, he says the names of 10 members of the National Birmingham Roller Club are drawn from a hat, and the membership votes on who will judge the next competition.
Meantime, while his victory didn’t come with a cash prize, it has been somewhat lucrative.
His huge scores this year have caught the eyes of many a breeder around the world.
“Six months ago I couldn’t give away a pigeon,” he says.
“Now my good ones go for $500 a pair.”
A sight to see
Want to see Birmingham rollers in action? Go to YouTube, search for “Birmingham rollers” and click on the video from FatherLawrence called “Wholly Rollers are Birmingham Rollers.” To learn more about the sport, visit the National Birmingham Roller Club Web site, http://www.nbrconline.com. If you’re interested in becoming involved, contact Rich Hayes at 212-0167.