Pigeons attract attention for their midair flips and rolls

Sunday, June 19, 2005

VILLA RIDGE, Mo. -- High in the air, the pigeons dance. They fly in figure eights and turn backward somersaults.

As they fall through the sky, they somersault again and again. They are spinning balls of feathers.

Then each one pulls out of its fall, flies skyward and repeats the maneuver.

Sometimes they do this in unison, making for an amazing avian chorus line.

These pigeons are a breed called Birmingham Rollers -- slightly larger than a dove and splashed in white, red, gray, many hues of black and variations. They have a sweet aspect and a comforting coo.

Their breeders can't say for sure how often or whether the birds will roll. No one really knows why they do.

People in England have been breeding the rollers since at least the 16th century, and the St. Louis region has become at least a small center for them with about 15 breeders, including some who enter their birds in competitions. They are members of the National Birmingham Roller Club, and the group's president is Eldon Cheney of Lonedell in Franklin County.

One local breeder, John Moehlmann, 53, of Villa Ridge, also in Franklin County, says experience has shown that the roll is not a protective move. Hawks sometimes attack the pigeons when they are rolling because they perceive the rolling bird as injured. Science has shown that the roll is not an epileptic seizure -- an autopsy showed that rollers' brains were the same as those of pigeons who didn't roll.

"The theory is that a gentleman in England saw a bird do a flip, thought it was neat, caught the bird and domesticated it," Moehlmann said.

About 2,000 fanciers belong to the national group, including 34 in Missouri and 51 in Illinois.

Most of them are men. The boxer Mike Tyson owns Birmingham Rollers. He had about eight with him in the hotel before his fight in July. The birds had their own room.

Moehlmann makes and installs patio covers for a living. He and another local fancier, Vernon Hoormann, 74, of Florissant, are drawn to the birds for different reasons, but both show signs of being hooked.

"It's a hobby where you don't have to deal with anybody but yourself," said Hoormann, a retired truck driver. "I like to just sit in the backyard and watch the birds."

Added Moehlmann: "It's a new ballgame every time they hatch. The bird can be a champion, or it can be a dud."

When Moehlmann talks about the birds, he stresses the uncertainty of the sport and says that's part of why he likes it. First of all, the birds' rolls are genetic, and there are no guarantees, no matter how sturdy the breeding. Some birds don't roll at all. Some birds roll too much and hit the ground at midspin and are killed or injured.

Then there are hawks. Moehlmann said that last year, he lost 33 birds to hawks. Another nine died in falls.

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