It’s almost time for John Celia’s birds to fly the coop.
The Silver Spring man houses, trains and races his homing pigeons, which he keeps in two large lofts in the backyard of his one-acre property. Come late April, it will be time for the strongest 15 birds of the 50 to 60 he bred for the season to compete against other members of the Capital City Club and the Washington Metro Racing Pigeon Concourse.
Celia, 73, said he began racing pigeons when he was 16. He was living in Southeast Washington, D.C., and walking home from the library that was only a few blocks away. In an alley he walked through, he noticed 14 or 15 pigeons flying around. When he stopped to look, a man stepped outside his house, whistled and — within minutes — the birds gathered themselves into a little building.
Celia began talking to the man, who offered him a pigeon to take home. He convinced his father to let him keep the bird, and his interest in racing homing pigeons took flight.
“It’s kind of a family sport if you like animals,” said Celia, a retired U.S. Navy petty officer whose kids have followed in his pigeon fancier footsteps.
Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the American Racing Pigeon Union in Oklahoma City, said the U.S. started in pigeon racing in the 1800s. The organization has close to 10,000 members throughout the country in 600 to 700 racing clubs. Pigeon fanciers — people who race pigeons — range in age, Roberts said.
“It is a sought-after outdoor hobby that the whole family can take part in,” Roberts said. Participants like animals, camaraderie with like-minded people and the friendly competition.
Roberts said there are more than 300 different breeds of pigeons. Aside from the homing pigeon, which is used for racing, there are show breeds and performance breeds that can tumble in the air and on the floor.
All of Celia’s birds are registered through his club, which is a part of a larger concourse, or a collection of clubs. All of the concourses are registered under the American Racing Pigeon Union.
Celia has two lofts — one for his younger racing pigeons and another for pigeons that are retired and used for breeding. He said he has about 18 pairs of breeders, which have about three rounds of two babies per nest, yielding about 50 or 60 birds.
He said he first teaches the birds to go from the landing board outside the loft to the section inside the loft, where they will live.
The lofts, which Celia built, resemble uniquely designed wooden sheds. There are different sections, with perches and nest boxes.
Celia said he lets the birds sprawl and start flying around the yard to gain strength. When they are strong enough to stay in the air, Celia said, he lets them fly as a flock.
At about six to eight weeks old, the birds are let out in the morning. When they build up muscles and can fly around the house well, he trains them to enter the loft after he calls them, which he said can take a few weeks.
“They are pretty intelligent and catch on pretty quickly,” Celia said.
Once the birds respond to his call, they are ready to start finding their way home. He then takes the birds in crates about a mile away and releases them.
“The first time, it takes a little while to come home,” Celia said. Later, it will take about 15 to 20 minutes.
Week after week, he will go farther away, allowing them to eventually fly from 100 miles away, which takes about an hour. He said during training season, he works with the birds for about two-and-a-half hours each day.
“I’m not teaching them how to come home. That’s naturally born with the bird,” Celia said. “You can take them in any direction, and then they will always come home. A pigeon will always come to the original home it is born in.”
Celia said there are 10 to 12 races every Saturday starting in April. The birds do not race during the hot summer months, but race again from late September through the middle of October.
He said pigeon fanciers are allowed to enter up to 20 birds in a race. He typically enters about 15 birds.
On Friday night, the club takes the birds to a destination that is equidistant from each of the homes. On Saturday morning, they are released.
As they arrive home, each bird is electronically clocked, so there’s a registry of when the bird came home. The clocks are taken to the clubhouse and put through a computer, which calculates the speed of each bird to determine the winner — the bird that returns home the fastest.
“It’s very accurate, and the races are won by seconds at a time,” Celia said. “As races get further and longer, birds are not so close together — maybe minutes apart.”
As the birds are shown more and continue winning, they garner more points, which is determined by a number of factors, including distance and number of competitors. Once a bird collects 100 points, the record is recognized and certified by the American Pigeon Racing Union, he said.
Celia said he has been fortunate to have two national champion birds. The homing pigeons have a racing career of five or six years, he said. It takes about three or four years to get enough points for a national champion bird.
Celia said pigeons get a bad reputation because of the wild pigeons seen on the street. That is why he does science fairs, such as Rockville Science Day, which is scheduled for April 28 at Montgomery College. He said the fairs give him a chance to educate others on homing pigeons and their use in history as messenger birds.
Racing homing pigeons has been a diversion for Celia, a retired master electrician. He said he would often come home frustrated after a day of work, finding solace in his birds.
“I find them just an individual, interesting species of nature,” Celia said. “Never have I ever had a regret all these years of the time and expenses I spent on them. It’s just rewarding to me.”
Celia said his homing pigeons give him peace of mind.
“It gives me a reason to get up in the morning,” Celia said.