Ken Larrey is bringing a display to the Big Fresno Fair that’s part research partner, war hero, GPS system and speed racer.
As a member of the Selma Racing Pigeon Club, Larrey will have a number of his racing pigeons and fancy pigeon breeds on hand to answer questions and help inform fair-goers of the little-known facts about the birds most have traditionally seen as only a nuisance.
“We call them God’s perfect flying machine because they can fly 50 miles an hour, 15 hours non-stop on a teaspoon of food,” Larrey said highlighting the small birds’ unique abilities to return home in all sorts of weather throughout the year. That ability has given pigeons a special place in history as they’ve been used to deliver messages that have saved hundreds of lives during war time.
“The Coast Guard used them until 1992 since they can pick out orange lifejackets from 15 miles away in rough seas. They’d find the lifejackets thinking it was food,” Larrey said of their keen eyesight.
Larrey is especially impressed with how the male birds even share half of the parenting responsibilities to the point they produce crop milk to feed newborns.
Another racer is Hanford’s Ed Harmon. He’s a member of Hanford’s Racing Pigeon Club and estimates he has 100 birds on his Elkhorn property. Harmon studied genetics in college and said his goal is raise birds that can improve on racing times.
“It’s fun trying to breed even faster pigeons as they’re clocked electronically now.”
Larrey started raising pigeons when he was just 9 years old, collected more from neighbors in the Fresno area and now races them along with 55 others in their club that includes members from Hanford, Kingsburg, Visalia, Madera and Fresno.
“As a kid, you wanted one of these and one of those and one of those. After a while you realize if you have all these different kinds, you won’t get good offspring. If you race, you want birds that will get home quicker,” he said.
Their club is hoping to start spreading more positive information about the hobby of raising pigeons and the different kinds there as they come in 150 different colors and there are more than 400 different types.
A booklet from the American Racing Pigeon Union compares the hobby to horse racing but says the pastime can be enjoyed for a fraction of the cost and creates an interest in genetics, nutrition, physiology, weather, math and carpentry.
“It’s a whole different attitude in Europe,” Larrey said. “There, people will pay $15 to look at the pigeons and there’s a line around the block. So we need to see how people in other areas have different attitudes and maybe people could open their minds. I’m asking for them to think the next time they see one in the park to realize they’re fascinating animals.”
Larrey estimates he has 700 birds on his country property outside of Easton. Some are racers, some are fancy with iridescent or lacey feathers and the white ones are for his business, Wings Away where he releases them for special occasions. He’s been hired to release 100 birds during Kingsburg High’s graduations. For events such as funerals, he said the releasing of the birds is often an emotional and symbolic gesture.
“When people see a white dove being released there’s the connection that the spirit is free. The white birds are a sign of peace and love, and in the Christian world it’s the sign of the Holy Spirit,” he said of Biblical accounts. “In the secular world, every postcard that says ‘love’ shows a white dove.”
Larrey is hoping people are especially impressed with the little birds’ abilities to return home after being taken hundreds of miles away from their coops. He trains them by taking them a little farther from home each time so they can get oriented and fly home. Exactly how the birds figure that out has baffled scientists for decades.
“It’s interesting to see how since Darwin and before him, the studies that have been done in figuring out how they come home,” he said of scientists’ experiments with magnets, blinders and the birds’ sense of hearing.
“It’s still a mystery. Scientists since Darwin on have put GPS on them, followed them in airplanes and helicopters or put magnets on them and they still don’t know exactly what it is that makes them come home,” he said. “I’ve asked a thousand of them and they haven’t said a word to me.”
Larrey says he’s not necessarily looking for new club members with the fair display, but is hoping to spread a new respect for the often-maligned critters. To most, pigeon racing may seem like a pastime from yesteryear, but to Larrey he sees it a soothing way to take care of fascinating flying racers.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, black, white. They don’t care. You feed them and water them and they’re coming home. We’re all here for the birds. We have millionaires and guys that are just field workers. With the birds, everything’s equal. Pigeons are pigeons and home is home.”