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The race is on

Pigeons overhead may be flying in from Buffalo

It was a warm Thursday afternoon, and the members of the Braintree Racing Pigeon Club were readying their pigeons for a 400-mile race. The feathered competitors cooed in their cages. Each bird wore two plastic leg bands -- one with an identification number, much like a marathon runner's bib, and the second with a microchip that would serve as a miniature stopwatch.

The winged athletes were loaded into a truck bound for upstate New York, where they would be released. From that point on, they would depend on navigational instincts to fly back home to Massachusetts. The first to return would win.

Their estimated flying time from Buffalo: About seven hours.

Races like this happen almost every weekend during the warm months. At any given time, the pigeons you see flying across the South Shore may not be your average park pigeon, but a prized racer from a club in Braintree, Norwood, Plymouth, or Quincy, heading very purposefully for their respective finish lines.

"The sport," says Peter Hultman of Weymouth, "is incredibly competitive," and a bird can be worth thousands of dollars. The owners feed their birds the best grain and seed, and monitor their health carefully, as they develop their own motivational techniques.

They are not just racers, Hultman says. "They're our pets."

For centuries, people have marveled at a pigeon's ability to find its way home. Researchers at Cornell University believe that pigeons use the sun as a compass to navigate the skies, and that they can detect the earth's magnetic fields.

The races are organized by the Greater Boston Concourse, a league of 10 local clubs that breed "thoroughbreds of the sky." The Concourse has been around since 1928, but the sport itself has evolved over centuries.

Many of the enthusiasts were introduced to this backyard hobby by their fathers, or grew up in a neighborhood where a neighbor had a pigeon loft, and most have been racing for decades. Chuck Houghton of Hingham, who owns several pigeons, including a white one nicknamed Moneybags, is typical. He joined the club in 1974.

Today's racing pigeons face challenges that their forebears did not. Town ordinances often view pigeons as rats rather than thoroughbreds -- a view that the American Racing Pigeon Union, a national organization based in Oklahoma, is doing its best to counter.

The Braintree Racing Pigeon Club ran in to trouble in 1999, when it was headquartered at the Weymouth Sportsmen's Club. Tensions between the gun-shooting members of the sportsmen's club and the pigeon - racing members led to an order from the town's public health agent that pigeons should not be brought indoors. Thus, the pigeon-racing faction was evicted.

The Braintree Racing Pigeon Club's new home -- a trailer parked at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy -- is not exactly fancy digs. But the pigeons don't seem to mind.

The members meet at the clubhouse before every race. The walls are speckled with photos of club members and their birds, trophies, and plaques. Club member Al Cappellini hung up a certificate his father received in 1943 from the commander of the Army Pigeon Service, thanking him for donating homing pigeons to the military during World War II. On the opposite wall, a panoramic black-and-white photograph shows hundreds of Boston Concourse members posing for a group photo. It is dated Dec. 20, 1931.

This is where the club members gather on "shipping night," and wait for Arthur MacKinnon to arrive. MacKinnon, a retired truck driver from Carver with tattooed forearms, serves as the official chauffeur for birds competing in the Greater Boston Concourse. He drives the league's truck that pulls a long trailer especially designed for birds: There are troughs for grain and water, and ceiling fans to provide ventilation. It can hold up to 4,000 pigeons.

Each built-in pigeon basket is labeled with a club's name: "NWP" in orange paint indicates the Norwood Homing Pigeon Club; red stickers spell out "PLY" for the Plymouth Racing Pigeon Club.

On a typical shipping night, MacKinnon stops first in Plymouth, then Quincy, and then Braintree to pick up the South Shore Flyers' birds. Then he will drive between 100 to 600 miles west. The shortest race starts in Berkshire County, and the longest in Sandusky, Ohio.

For the 400-mile race starting in Buffalo, MacKinnon released the birds -- all 756 of them -- on a Saturday morning at 6:15. The skies were partly cloudy and the temperature a comfortable 52 degrees as the South Shore pigeons started on their 400-mile flight.

Back home, club members watched the skies.

The Plymouth Racing Pigeon Club proved to have the fastest birds in this race (varying distances to the birds' home lofts were factored in to the rankings). Four pigeons belonging to Aldo and Jeff Morini of Kingston took first, second, third, and fourth place. The birds from the Braintree Racing Pigeon Club performed well, with two of them finishing in the top 10. The fastest bird from the Braintree club, owned by Kevin Williams, ranked seventh place overall.

Typically pigeons will race nonstop on trips less than 300 miles and make one stop for a drink on longer races.

"It's the end of the race for the birds when they return to loft," Hultman said. "It's the end for the guys when they find out the results, and we figure out who won."

To do that, members meet at the trailer and upload their results to the clubhouse computer using WinSpeed racing pigeon software. Results are posted on the Greater Boston Concourse website, boston-concourse.com. Racers compete for trophies, bragging rights, and occasionally cash prizes of up to $2,000.

Hultman, who raises his pigeons in a backyard loft, says it's more than a casual pastime. The racing season may start in April and end in October, he says, but success in the sport requires "365 days a year of preparation."

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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