A homing pigeon set out from Omaha, Neb., on Oct. 12, one of many of his kind competing in a race.
He was supposed to arrive at his Wisconsin home later that day. But the pigeon missed its mark and continued flying all the way to Southwest Michigan.
Mike Willming couldn’t have imagined any of that when he discovered the bird at his Coloma home on Oct. 16.
“I stepped back into the garage and there’s this pigeon perched up there,” Willming said.
Willming suspected that his friend Ron Mazigian, a taxidermist, might have put the pigeon there as a joke — until it moved.
The bird was very docile, tired from its long journey off course. Willming and his wife, Sue, noticed bands on the pigeon’s legs and were able to search the Internet and determine that it belonged to the Rock River Racers club in Wisconsin.
Eventually, they made contact with the bird’s owner, Alan Porter of McFarland, Wis., just outside Madison. Porter explained the bird’s racing background, and said he would like to make arrangements to have it returned.
He never expected the Willmings to personally deliver the pigeon.
“We had been planning a weekend trip and had not yet decided which direction we were heading,” Sue Willming said. “The bird made the decision for us.”
The pigeon had no name, just the band number 1099. The Willmings affectionately named him “Wrong Way 1099.”
Mike and Sue headed to Wisconsin their motor home along with their 8-year-old granddaughter Addisyn Willming and their new feathered friend.
They returned the bird, got to see Porter’s pigeons and learn about his hobby, and eventually went on to Wisconsin Dells and other local sites before returning home.
A lifetime of racing
Porter, now 74, has been racing pigeons since he was a teenager in 1961. The training process involves taking them away from home at gradually increasing distances.
Porter even competed against the pigeons himself — while learning to drive, he’d take a bird out and then try to beat it back home.
“It kind of just gets in your blood after a while,” Porter said. “Taking care of something and getting the thrill of watching something you don’t quite understand come home from different directions and distances.”
Pigeon races are determined by calculating a bird’s average speed, since not all of them are headed to the exact same place. Electronic clocks and chip bands have helped make the process easier.
Porter said that pigeons compete based on their age. “Old birds” that have been alive for more than a year can race up to 600 miles. Wrong Way 1099 is a “young bird,” born in May, and was racing against other first-year competitors.
The race from Omaha was supposed to cover 355 miles. Porter started about 25 birds in the race. He said he isn’t sure how Wrong Way 1099 got so far off course.
“I picked that bird as my best bird in our pool,” Porter said. “It had flown and done good this year. I was a little surprised it went way over there.
“He was quite a ways away and on the other side of water. They don’t like to fly over large bodies of water.”
Porter said that birds getting lost isn’t unusual, but most are found closer to home. He said he’s driven 60 or 70 miles to get a bird back, but having one brought to him from 250 miles away was a new experience.
Porter said that with the recent passing of his wife, he plans to get out of the sport for good soon.
He mentioned that pigeon racing has become popular in China, where competitors are willing to pay significant sums of money for accomplished birds.
In March, a Belgian pigeon named Armando was purchased for about $1.4 million by a buyer in China, breaking the previous record by nearly a million dollars.
Contact: bsanders@TheHP.com, 429-1294, @HPBenSanders