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Flighty pigeons took a cross-country trek

( The Dallas Morning News )

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PITTSBURGH -

They battled killer tornadoes and crushing heat. They crossed deserts and mountain ranges. They accomplished something out of the ordinary.

Two racing pigeons that flew their coops in two Texas towns winged their way nearly 1,500 miles to return to the Pittsburgh home of their original owner, Tom Murphy.

"This achievement is second to none in the world of homing pigeons, " says Mr. Murphy, 55, preening like a proud papa. Though bred to race and return home, the longest races locally are 600 miles and pigeons' average speed in the races is 60 mph.

Fifteen hundred miles is something else again.

The Austin owner of one of the birds is excited, too.

"You bet it is" an accomplishment for a bird to fly that distance, says Dave Bounds, an accountant who bought one of the birds a year ago. "Even people who have birds in condition for a race can't achieve this."

He wants the pigeon back, and he'd like to buy some more from Mr. Murphy's stock. Mr. Bounds says a friend of his accidentally let his bird out. The second bird that returned to Mr. Murphy escaped from an Amarillo coop, possibly during a storm, says Mr. Murphy, but he has not been able to reach that owner.

He believes the birds made their flights - separately - in about five days.

Word of the achievement has spread through bird circles. Mr. Murphy is getting congratulatory telephone calls from all over the country. Pigeon breeders are driving in from out of state.

"They want to see the birds and touch them," Mr. Murphy says.

This is the real thing, says Lou Arcuri, racing secretary of the West Mifflin Racing Pigeon Club near Pittsburgh.

"He's had good distance birds, but this just caps it," Mr. Arcuri says.

The pigeons, both males, "were thin when they got here," Mr. Murphy notes. "Obviously, they had been blown about by storms. By the grace of God, these birds made it, but I don't know how. I don't know what they ate. Racing pigeons are fed expensive, premium seed."

They don't eat insects, and they wouldn't know how to find their own food, he adds.

"These are nothing like the park pigeons. I call those birds bums. They give racing pigeons a bad name."

Mr. Murphy had been breeding and racing pigeons for about 15 years. But a year ago, he broke his shoulder while on the job as a pressman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The accident left him unable to work or to care for his 30 birds. He sold all of them, including two male birds, born in 1991 and 1994, for $300 each.

"Basically, they are captives in the coop" of a new owner, Mr. Murphy says. "They are bought for breeding."

When pigeons are sold as adults, they cannot be allowed to fly because they will try to return to their original home.

The two birds don't have names - just numbers on the bands on their legs. Pigeons are banded before they even know how to fly. The bands are supposed to be tamper-proof to prevent cheating in races.

Mr. Murphy says the identity of the two long-distance fliers has been verified.

"There are birds that have flown farther, but it took months or, in some cases, years," he says.

"Pigeons flying long distance are possible prey to predators - hawks and falcons. There were storms and tornadoes in the Southwest when they started out. And the temperatures in Texas were 120 degrees. They won't even let us race birds when it's that hot."

The long-distance flight is unusual, but not unheard of, says Gene Yoes, a pigeon breeder who edits and publishes The Racing Pigeon Digest, based in Lake Charles, La. Some clubs used to hold 1,000-mile races but discontinued them because of the expense involved in shipping the birds for races.

The time involved in those races ranges from a low of two days and three hours in 1958 to 28 days in 1986, Mr. Yoes says.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service