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Homing in on Libby

| August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Couple raises and races pigeons

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

It began as a serene Sunday afternoon in the country.

Bob and Marlene Sheridan sat outdoors in the shade, enjoying a stunning front-yard view of Treasure Mountain. They talked quietly, but mostly just relaxed. Two dozen turkeys, a couple of Canada geese, eight goats, five horses and a cow lazed about nearby on the acreage off Granite Creek Road.

"I wish they'd show up," Marlene said casually.

"They'll be here," her husband replied. "Trust me."

Minutes later, a shout broke the quiet.

"There they are!" Bob yelled, bolting from his lawn chair, his eyes fixed on the sky.

He quickly headed toward a small building, whistling to hasten the pair of white birds circling overhead. He picked up a metal can and tossed feed onto a landing platform just under the structure's roof.

Sheridan's first racing pigeons had arrived home from their 150-mile journey.

He coaxed them through a small opening into the coop's holding area where he removed numbered bands from the birds' legs. Then he activated a timer to record the instant his athletes finished.

Sheridan beamed as he announced the time.

"Two hours and 30 minutes. They ain't gonna beat those two. No way."

The competition was one of several held this summer by members of the Great Northern Racing Pigeon Club of Eureka. Sheridan's two pigeons had been released along with several dozen others from a site southeast of Huson.

It was Sunday's "B" race, with the 250-mile "A" race having started earlier the same day at Melrose. Club members primarily battle for bragging rights, although there's a little money involved.

Sheridan, whose birds have dominated this summer's races, grinned in anticipation of rubbing it in once more.

"They're gonna be mad at me again," he said of other racers.

The 58-year-old retired truck driver liked pigeons even as a boy, and had them as pets while growing up on the East Coast. He began racing in 1971 in New Jersey, where the sport is highly popular.

It's also big in California, where the total purse for a single event last year was $470,000.

"We're gonna put birds in that race next year, me and my partner," Sheridan said.

He has 250 birds now, housed in three different coops. One hut is for the 120 juveniles born this year, another has separate quarters for male and female breeders, and a third is home to 20 "rollers," or pigeons born with the knack of flipping backwards when they fly.

The Sheridans transported 100 pigeons, along with several more of Marlene's critters, all the way from Pennsylvania when they moved to Billings in 1992.

"We rented the biggest U-Haul you could," Marlene said, shaking her head at the memory.

Bob said they've created their own Lewis and Clark trail across the state, having also lived in Roundup and Ulm before settling in Libby a year ago. Snakes were the impetus for the final move.

"We saw 12 rattlesnakes in one week, including one in the house," Marlene said. "I can handle mountain lions and bears, but I don't like rattlers."

Pigeons have an instinct to return to the place they're born, just as geese instinctively fly south in the winter. The trick is to breed the best birds together like horse or sled dog breeders do to produce the best racers. Birds have individual traits, too, with some flying better into headwinds, some with tailwinds, and some excelling in the rain.

Sheridan has improved his line over the years through careful selection of parents.

"I started with 50-cent pigeons and throwaways from other people," he said. "God gave me the knack of being able to pick a good one."

Now his stable includes birds acquired from as far away as New York state and North Pole, Alaska.

Training begins by letting young birds fly around the yard for a while. Later Sheridan will take them a few miles away for release. Birds that show the best navigation skills getting home become racers, with training flights of up to 25 miles.

Diet is important, too. Sheridan's team gets a mixture of black sunflower seeds, corn, wheat, Austrian peas, safflower, and chicken pellets.

He teams up with Libby resident Gene Kleppe to race as partners against four long-time Eureka team members and a new recruit there. The two men share costs and winnings, and have caps proclaiming "The Libby Connection" as a reflection of their racing success.

Sheridan's birds are involved in other bigger-stake races as well. Some of his pigeons are entered in races coming up in Arizona and New York City.

He won Colorado's biggest race in 2003, collecting $11,000 that he split with a North Dakota partner.

He subscribes to the twice-monthly "Racing Pigeon Digest" which lists results, upcoming events, top birds for sale at prices of $20,000 and more, and handlers to whom pigeons can be sent for entry in far-away events.

Sheridan fiddled with a well-worn "Homebound Flight Chart" while waiting for his two dozen birds to return from Sunday's races. The wheel shows average speed over a certain period of flight time.

He has become so knowledgeable about pigeon pace that he can predict return times within five or ten minutes. He sat in his chair Sunday, adjusting the flight chart and checking his watch, and said, "Right now if one was to show up it would be 53 miles an hour. That's too fast. Not enough wind.

"They should be flying 44 to 45. That's what I'm hoping for. I've had 'em fly 72 miles an hour if there's a tailwind."

When his two leaders arrived home Sunday they had averaged 46 mph.

Sheridan hopes to establish a separate club in Libby to compete against the Eureka club. He calls pigeon racing a good family sport, one that is particularly beneficial for children.

"It teaches kids how to take care of something," he said. "We'd all help them get started. We're always looking for new members. It's a lot of fun."

Anyone who is interested in getting involved may call Sheridan at 293-3553 or 283-2190.

He acknowledges that Montana, which has just two pigeon racing clubs, is a bit behind other areas of the country as far as participation. He also laughs about commonly held beliefs in the pigeon racing world.

"Everybody argues that the birds in Europe are the best," Sheridan said. "That's a crock. Just like every horse in Kentucky is a winner."

Get him talking about pigeons and he can go on and on. He clearly loves everything about the sport, accepting that his limited resources will limit his level of accomplishment.

"I would like to make a lot of money. But it's like anything else — you have to have money to make money."

Then the pigeon coach was gone, walking across the lawn, looking up in hopes of seeing his next arrivals.