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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pigeon Racing Attracts Loyal Fans

One year after Alexander Karelin released his champion carrier pigeon into the air for a 340-kilometer race, he is still waiting for the bird's return.

European breeders once offered Karelin $10,000 for the bird, but he refused to sell. When he entered the pigeon into its last race, his friends warned him of an impending hurricane. But Karelin had faith that his bird would thrive with him under any circumstances. Now he realizes he was mistaken.

"It is a tragedy," Karelin, 53, says of the pigeon he considered a part of his family. "I know how long I should wait for a bird. As a trainer, you get to know your athlete. If a bird is expected in 5 1/2 hours, and it's already been six, you know something is wrong."

The president of two pigeon flying clubs -- the Russian Union of Sport Pigeons and the Moscow Federation for Sport Pigeons -- Karelin has been racing pigeons since he was 8, when he found his first carrier pigeon nearly freezing in the snow. Karelin took the bird home and called him "Red."

A former art restorer, Karelin now trains pigeons for Moscow-based races and raises funds to keep the flying organizations afloat. The club earns money by housing enthusiasts' pigeons and selling pantyhose on the side. After paying the $30,000 annual rent for the clubs' offices on Kutuzovsky Prospekt and the monthly $100 to feed the 80 pigeons kept in dozens of wire cages on the premises, Karelin barely breaks even.

Pigeons have been used to carry messages for over 2,000 years and were used during World War I and II to carry orders between field commanders and remote units. Russia was one of the strong centers of carrier pigeon breeding and pigeon racing until World War II, when the Germans took all the best specimens back to their country, Karelin says. "How else can you explain the concentration of good carrier pigeons in Germany?" he asks. The Russian Union now has about 2,000 members.

Pigeon enthusiasts attest to the bird's loyalty and cleanliness. "When I first saw all these pigeon lovers, I thought they were crazy," says Tanya Baoussova, 27, a novice pigeon racer. "But then you get to know them, and the people involved, and you see that their behavior is so human."

Baoussova says pigeons have been known to return to their owners through any weather, even after being shot by hunters. "It makes one cry," she says.

Pigeons race distances as great as 2,000 kilometers at average speeds as fast as 145 kilometers an hour. No one knows exactly how they find their way back home. Some research points to navigation based on the position of the sun. Other evidence shows that birds see certain visual patterns in ultraviolet light that could be guiding them.

Some people, like Karelin, believe the birds sense the earth's magnetic fields and worry that the appearance of so many electronic devices -- pagers, cellular phones, computers and rockets -- endangers the birds. "Before 1974, all of my birds were healthy. But when all this computer and rocket stuff started to happen, they started to fall from the sky," he says. Karelin spends hundreds of dollars a year on medicine and vitamins for his pigeons. This past year was a terrible one, he says, with many birds, like Karelin's, not returning from races.

"But if my champion is still alive," Karelin says, "he will come back to me. I'm sure of it." Some birds overshoot their destination by a few degrees, and fly until they are "literally losing their feathers and skin." They then must find food and water to recover and grow strong again and in the process often create a new home.

Even so, some pigeons still return to their owners. "It is especially hard if they have started a family," Karelin says, "But I have known birds to come back after a year and a half -- sometimes with their babies."