Updated Friday, January 11, 2013 at 05:56 AM
Eagles are majestic. Doves are romantic. Pigeons, with their tatty wings and street-living ways, are seen by many folks as dumb and dirty, referred to as the "rats of the sky."
But if you ever met a sleek-feathered, iridescent-colored, sharp-eyed racing pigeon, you'd never think of his cousin — that humble creature eating bread crusts in Pioneer Square — the same way again.
Pigeon racing is a centuries-old, worldwide sport thought to have originated in Europe. It attracts enthusiasts from around the world — including a bunch of guys crowded into a Kent basement on a recent Saturday morning, sitting on folding chairs balancing paper cups of coffee and Safeway doughnuts on their laps.
The Greater Seattle Racing Pigeon Club — the biggest pigeon-racing club in Washington, with 38 members — has begun meeting for the 2013 season.
Racing won't start for another couple of months. But this year's crop of pigeons are a week old and need to be banded with the numbers that will follow them throughout their racing careers.
I first saw trained pigeons being exercised in formation off a rooftop in Brooklyn, N.Y. I've watched them swoop through pink sunsets in India and fly back-dropped by minarets in Istanbul.
The sport's universal appeal is proven by the diverse immigrants drawn to the Seattle club.
"We're proud to say that we have more different nationalities than any other club we know of," says George Dobre, an immigrant from Romania who is club president.
The crowd happily throws out the nationalities of its members: Mexico, Poland, Taiwan and Morocco, just to name a few.
Members raise their own birds in custom-built plywood lofts, often in their backyards.
Despite the old-world vibe, pigeon racing has become surprisingly 21st century.
Pigeons are banded with plastic bar codes on their legs, and lofts are outfitted with bar-code scanners. "Like a grocery store," Dobre says.
Birds are transported to race points throughout Washington, Oregon and California, then let loose to fly back to their individual lofts. Times are clocked and stored by the loft scanners.
Members compete against each other and other pigeon racers throughout the state.
While racing hasn't always been so high-tech (pigeons used to be fitted with mechanical clocks), here in the Pacific Northwest it has historically been a pastime of immigrants.
"I got to know all the old-timers, the immigrants, Belgian and German," says Jack Ibuki, who started racing in the early 1960s when he was a teenager, "A lot of them lived in the Beacon Hill area. That was the so-called 'hot spot' of racing pigeons."
And while Ibuki says local interest in pigeon racing has waned since he was a kid, the Seattle club boasts its highest membership ever, a boon that leadership credits to new immigrants. Two potential new members at Saturday's meeting are both from Mexico.
"There are thousands of people coming here from other countries every day that had to leave pigeons behind," says member Derrick Esquerra, who came to pigeon racing through his father, an immigrant from the Philippines. "They've got to know about the club."
A visit to Dobre's home illustrates the love many pigeon racers bring to the sport.
His dining-room walls feature plaques from races won and photo-portraits of prizewinning pigeons. His pigeon loft, nicknamed the "Blue Danube," takes up a significant portion of his suburban backyard and is stocked with fancy organic-pigeon feed. (No bread crusts here!)
He pulls his favorite pigeon, named Alba Iulia after a city in Romania, from the fluttering brood. She is pigeon royalty. Plump and haughty, her color shifts from green to pink in the overcast-afternoon light.
Through some mystery of nature, homing pigeons can permanently orient themselves to their lofts, giving them the ability to find their way home from many hundreds of miles away.
"The babies. They fly up on the roof of the house ... and they spend about a half-hour up there looking around," says Dobre, who started flying pigeons as a kid in a little town near Bucharest, Romania.
"And then that's their house for life."
Dobre speaks freely of how much he misses Romania. Watching him coo over his birds, it dawns on me how this sport, based on the pigeons' instinctual orientation toward home, is perfect for immigrants hoping to stay connected to their native countries.
George Dobre, who started racing pigeons as a child in Romania, shows off a prize bird in his backyard in Kent.