About 90 pigeons start cooing and flapping their wings as a car pulls up beside the wood-and-mesh coop in a dusty alley off a closed down stretch of Route 40 in West Baltimore.
"See how they hear the car when we pull up," says Antoine Butler, a thoughtful, heavyset young man with a thick beard. His companion, an older man named James Stewart, is holding a bag of feed. Butler grips a smaller paper bag by its folded top.
As Butler starts to open the door to the coop to feed the birds, Stewart says, "Watch those racin' homers. They're hanging by the door."
"They ain't goin' nowhere," Butler replies.
But he is wrong. As he and Stewart talk birds, the homer slips out and flies off.
"Oh, that homer out," he says.
"Told you you have to watch the door," Stewart says.
"He might come back," Butler says.
"No, no, he's gone."
"No, he's right there," Butler insists, pointing.
"He might take off," Stewart says.
"I don't think he knows his way home," Butler concedes, still looking up in the sky.
Only about six of the birds in the coop are homers, and the men just bought two more to introduce into the coop. "I would never let those two go," Butler says, since their internal compass would lead them straight back to the place they were born. "But most everything in here was born here and they wouldn't go nowhere else. So I could take their babies to Arundel Mills, the outskirts, Jessup, and whoever makes it back fastest is a good bird. They can go up to 500 miles away."
"They can go farther than that, but a race is only 500 miles," Stewart adds. "Here to Richmond, Virginia, or Atlanta, Georgia, and they will make it back."
Pigeon owners pay an entry fee to participate in organized races, in which a tractor trailer drives up to 500 miles while the men wait back at their coops. The truck has a flap that allows the driveman, as he is called, to pull a string and free all the birds at once.
"Man, like two or three thousand birds will come out," says Stewart, describing the sound as overwhelming. Not all the birds will make it home, though: Some will be lost, others killed. But each will try to return to its own coop, which is fitted with a sensor. "They put a device on their leg and whoever drops first wins," Stewart explains.
Racing pigeons can be a lucrative sport. "You can get half a million," Stewart says. "You got lesser races and then the big races. They've got a world cup over in England. And you might race against a man in England and you don't even have to be in the same place because the distance is the same."
"Fifteen hundred," Butler interjects, a more common local pot. But, he admits ruefully, the most he's ever won is "a gift certificate to [TGI] Fridays."
He has, however, been able to make some money doing a white-dove release. "It symbolizes something within peoples' culture," Butler says. "Now what it symbolizes, I don't know. But for Italians at a celebration, a funeral, or a wedding, I'll release them and they'll all fly out and then come right back."
Butler keeps scanning the sky for his lost homer, even after he lets out four tipplers, which make up the majority of his coop.
Rather than racing, tipplers, which are smaller than homers, are bred for endurance. "They are bred to fly for 22 hours," Stewart says. "They marathon birds. Athletes." Both Butler and Stewart spend most of their time and energy on tipplers.
"I'm just starting to try the homers now," Butler says.
He studies business at Towson and lives with his parents and has had his coop-marked with the letters "BMB" for Bird Men of Baltimore-for about two years. He and Stewart are in a club called the Flying Tippler Society, which hangs out at 3 on a Wing, a pet shop on North Monroe Street. About nine of the 30 members of the club were there when Butler and Stewart bought the new homers earlier in the afternoon, including two young girls, one of whom cradled a rabbit. If those girls follow Butler's trajectory, they too may end up as pigeon fanciers. "I got into it through my uncle and just hanging around with the older guys," Butler says. "It's somewhat of a Baltimore tradition. I just kept doing it. We'd sit out here during the summer and cook on the grill and talk bird talk."
Butler whistles, still scanning for the lost homer. "It's not that bad that he's gone," he says. "But if he had a mate here, she's left looking after their young herself. But in all reality, she'll hook up with someone else and they'll have a stepfather."
Kind of like people. Butler sees many lessons for humans in his birds. "It's relaxing to me the way they can just go fly freely and, regardless of where you take them, they can find their way home," he says. "So it is a learning experience. You say, 'Damn, if you take a bird somewhere and he never been there before and he will make his way home, and he is one of God's creatures, then why can't we just fly freely like a bird?' And they're just so humble," he adds, looking into the coop, which Stewart is now cleaning, a mask covering his face. "They don't hurt nobody. They just want to eat, poop, have sex, and fly. And that's it."
But even the life of a pigeon is not entirely care-free. "Your predator is the hawk," Butler says. "When he comes, it's curtains. It's lights out. He can demolish you. You figure you gonna raise this bird from an egg and just see him take that thing out of the air," he pauses and looks up. "Is that one?"
"That's a seagull," Stewart answers, looking up from the coop.
"He comes and sits right on top of that thing right there," Butler says, pointing at a tree in the alley. "During this year he took two of my good ones, and I was upset. So really I haven't been flying for the last three weeks. It's no fun. You don't get no enjoyment out of it when you raise something and it go out and get killed."
"You got to respect the hawk and you got to expect him, expecting him to come at any given time," Stewart adds.
Butler scoops up a bird and lovingly cradles it. "This is my favorite bird. I call him Black-and-White Splash. He can go anywhere. Sad thing, the hawk killed his father," he says.
It's also the threat of the hawk that makes the sport thrilling, however. "When the hawk chases them and he pushes them off so far that he don't know where he's at, and you've counted him out, and then you wake up and come here one morning and you see your bird sitting, it's just like adrenaline," Butler says. "It feels so good."
A moment later, he points up at the power line above the coop. "Look," he says, grinning a wide, gentle grin and pointing at the homer that he feared had been lost, "he came back."