When Homing Pigeons Don't Go Home Again

SCIENTISTS, as well as homing pigeon breeders and trainers, are struggling to explain why most of the birds that competed in races over New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia in October have still not returned to their home lofts. Connecticut participants in the ancient sport say the birds' losses are adding a new and costly element of risk to their exacting sport. Among the highly specialized pedigreed pigeons known as ''race horses of the sky,'' a bird with the genes for breeding champions can command a price of $250,000.

Only 200 of 1,600 racing birds finished a 200-mile race from New Market, Va., to Allentown, Pa. on Oct. 5. On the same day, only 100 of 800 finished a 150-mile race from western Pennsylvania to Phoenixville, Pa.

About 40 percent of the birds eventually made it back, said Richard Phalen , executive director of the 11,000-member American Pigeon Racing Union. There is little hope the other homing pigeons will return.

Such events are not unprecedented, say Mr. Phalen and Charles Walcott, a professor at Cornell University who studies the neurobiology of the pigeons' homing ability. Of the 14,000 homing pigeons that raced 700 miles from Portugal to the Netherlands in July, 8,000 were lost.

What seems to be unprecedented about the Oct. 5 race, is the number of homing pigeons lost in relatively short-distance races, says Professor Walcott.

The homing pigeon's ability to find its way home has been tested over distances as long as 1,600 miles, Professor Walcott said. The bird's navigational abilities involve sightings of the sun and, most important but not well understood, a sense of the earth's electromagnetic fields.

Many theorize that the proliferation of cellular phones and computer modems could have something to do with the birds' not returning. Others say it could have something to do with solar activity such as solar flares or sun spots.

Solar activity, affecting the earth's electromagnetic fields, seems to be the most likely explanation, said Mr. Phalen. Although there wasn't a huge amount of solar activity during the race, he said, ''there was a significant amount.''

Some have theorized that seismic activity preceding a major earthquake on the East Coast disrupted the pigeons' electromagnetic sense. Others cite antibiotics administered to the pigeons, as well as the conditions of the transport to the release area that could have exposed the birds to warm temperatures before the race.

''Something in the air is wrong. Something is not right, the birds are losing their control,'' says Frank Zelinski, of Wallingford. ''I've been racing pigeons for 50 years and I've never heard of anything like this.''

The birds' getting lost adds a new factor of risk and uncertainty in what is already a declining sport, says Philip Tucciarone, 73, of Stamford. There aren't many young people involved in this.

Many Connecticut residents involved in pigeon racing, like Mr. Zelinski and Mr. Tucciarone, are continuing family traditions that began in the Old World.

Mr. Tucciarone explained that the sport takes a lot of work. ''The birds are very prone to infection,'' he said. ''You have to keep the lofts very clean, you have to administer antibiotics and medicine, you have to keep down worms, cankers, respiratory infections.''

The training of the birds begins when they're only a few weeks old, he said. First they're allowed to become familiar with their home loft, then they are taken 10 miles away and released, and then they're progressively taken much farther off. To get pigeon feed you have to go as far as the Bronx, said Mr. Tucciarone.

''Pigeons got a lot of people off the streets and out of trouble,'' Mr. Tucciarone said.

Mr. Zelinski chipped in: ''I can remember when I was around 12 years old, the happiness I felt after school when I could be with the pigeons.'' He is trying to involve another generation in the sport. ''There is no better way to keep kids out of trouble, teach them responsibility, the joy of competition, and the pursuit of excellence,'' he said.

''The sport is about producing a racing bird in perfect condition and successfully competing in races that can go down to the split second,'' he added.

The dramatic increase in the hawk population in Connecticut is another serious concern, said Mr. Zelinski. Still, no one has solved the mystery. ''Of course I'm concerned about races where most of the birds don't return,'' says Mr. Tucciarone. ''But there are races where all the birds return.'' And, he said, ''there are disasters; but you do everything you can to have the best birds, and you hope for the best.''