On a recent Saturday morning in Compton, startled drivers turning into a residential area came to a sudden halt. Some two-dozen black and Hispanic men stood in the middle of the street. They sported baggy clothes, backwards baseball caps and tattoos, and stood near vehicles boasting wide silver rims and dark tinted windows. Oddly, they were looking straight up, pointing at something in the sky. The drivers craned their necks out of their car windows to find the focus of the men’s attention: a flock of pigeons.
“Keep those birds together,” one man shouted. “Their propensity ain’t good,” another joined in, peppering his speech with technical jargon. “They probably fed ‘em too much or too late,” another said.
The men were competing in the L.A. Invitational Super Fly, an annual event showcasing Birmingham roller pigeons, an odd, domesticated breed that naturally performs backward somersaults, or “rolls,” in the air. The breed of pigeon originated in Birmingham, England, and was then imported to the U.S., where it began showing up at shows and in magazines in the 1880s. Breeding the birds has evolved into a global sport that even has a world cup. It’s especially popular in gang-ridden areas of Southern California, where the pigeons are more than just a competitive diversion: they’ve helped many stay away from violence and drugs.
Will Stenhouse, who competed that day, is a case in point. He used to be part of a gang affiliated with the Bloods and was shot in the chest during a drive-by in front of his house several years ago. After surviving more than a week in critical condition, Stenhouse began devoting more time to pigeons, which he says inspired him to leave the gang and get a job. Now a breeder, he keeps some 520 pigeons in several large coops in his backyard. “Pigeons keep you out of trouble,” Stenhouse, who has a small tattoo of a dollar bill on his cheekbone, says. “When I’m stressing, I come in here, sit in this chair and vent with my birds.”
The logic, says Stenhouse and his fellow “flyers,” is that raising pigeons is a time-consuming hobby that requires hours of training, feeding and cleaning every day. Accordingly, the most zealous enthusiasts don’t have any opportunity to get into trouble, and instead join local roller pigeon clubs. The sport can also create a rare neutral ground for gangs, as competitions give members license to venture into rival territory without risking their lives. “It’s the one thing I’ve seen where enemies can come together and they still don’t fight,” says Keith London, who was the judge in the recent competition. “When it comes to pigeons, everyone calms down.”
Aficionados don’t take this sport lightly. The men in the recent L.A. competition began at 6:30 a.m. and visited seven houses all across the Southland by early afternoon, totaling 126 miles of driving. The flyers competed with “kits” of twenty pigeons in periods of twenty minutes outside their homes. The judge calculated scores based on their ability to get birds to spiral in unison, and the quality, quantity, style and depth of the birds’ rolls. Seconds after receiving their scores, the men were in their vehicles driving together to the next destination, where they repeated the process.
Many of the competitors are members of the National Birmingham Rollers Club, participate in the World Cup, and attend annual national conventions, where they mingle with roller enthusiasts ranging from Midwestern farmers to foreign entrepreneurs. Prizes for competition winners range from just trophies to awards as large as $2,000. The sport has some critics, including neighbors who tire of the commotion associated with raising and breeding. The federal government even became a foe when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested several flyers in 2007 for allegedly trapping and killing hawks and falcons that were preying on their pigeons. Roller pigeon aficionados then got a bad rap from general bird enthusiasts. “Unless members of the pigeon community start to take action and expose the hawk-killers in their midst, the entire hobby should be considered complicit,” read a post on the blog The Drinking Bird.
One-third of all national club members live in California and the greatest concentration lies in the southern part of the state, a trend that’s largely due to bird fervor in the inner city, says Don Macauley, president of the national club. He estimates there are some 1,500 enthusiasts in the L.A. area alone. Roller pigeons don’t really compete for popularity with other hobbies such as homing pigeons, which tend to attract higher-income enthusiasts, Macauley says. The national club has plans to capitalize on the sport’s success at helping at-risk youth by building a structured junior program that would educate kids about pigeons and donate birds to those who work hard at the hobby, he says.
Some are already doing that. Bennie Christian, a site coordinator at a public school in Watts, says teachers recently told one special needs student in 4th grade that she could raise her own pigeons only if she did her homework, something she had been refusing. She was so motivated to care for the birds that she started doing the assignments and became a better student. “She’s a normal girl now,” Christian says. “It’s because she had something to work for. We’re using pigeons as a vessel to get her to the spot she needs to be.”
Even organizations dealing with the most troubled people recognize the value of pigeons. “It’s a great way to change an individual’s mindset and get them to build rapport and a relationship instead of the way our community is usually viewed–as being animals and violent,” says Skipp Townsend, co-founder of 2nd Call, a community organization based in Compton that helps offenders and ex-felons reintegrate into society.
“As I investigate more and more, it’s like a form of therapy for all of these people,” says filmmaker Milena Pastreich, who is directing a documentary called “Birdmen” about the L.A. roller pigeon subculture. She says the hobby builds a sense of community and teaches discipline, nurturing and reliability that has them waking up in the wee hours of weekend mornings when other friends are just getting home from partying. Some men have even told her they would stay out of trouble because no one would take care of their birds if they went to jail. “They feed them everyday. They need to make sure that they’re healthy,” she says. “It wouldn’t work if they didn’t have this intrinsic love for the birds.”
Angel Alba, who competes from his house in Huntington Park, developed that love in his backyard in Compton as a teenager, before giving up his birds when his parents moved to an apartment complex. Once he no longer had the hobby, he joined a local gang. Alba eventually went to state prison and was shot four times by a rival when he was released, leaving the scar of a 9-millimeter bullet in his neck. After recovering, he returned to his love of pigeons, which he says encouraged him to leave the gang life, move out of Compton and start a family. “It keeps you in your backyard instead of being on the streets,” says Alba, whose arms are covered with tattoos of Aztec symbols. “It’s a good hobby for kids to have.”
Others say birds helped them avoid the gang life altogether. London, the judge in the competition, says the birds helped keep him from engaging in foul play like his twin brother, who joined a gang and has been in prison for years for armed robbery. “Most kids are into gangs because they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to bring out a passion,” London says. “Flying teaches you a sense of responsibility and patience. It teaches you how to stick to something.”