COVINGTON - Shoppers at Covington Gallery retail center on Turner Lake Road may have recently witnessed an unusual sight: 56 pigeons taking off in flight in the middle of an asphalt parking lot.
Those who did see the spectacle would likely never guess the pigeons were participating in a training exercise in preparation for what we humans would call one heck of a marathon: a 600-mile race from Baltimore, Md., to Stockbridge.
The feathered flock belongs to Stockbridge resident Leon Furnish, a member of the Greater Atlanta Racing Pigeon Club.
Members raise homing pigeons that compete in races using their natural instinct of returning to their nesting spot.
The recent release in Covington was part of the pigeons' preparation for race season, meant to help them build up endurance and "get rid of winter fat," Furnish said.
"Just like if you were getting ready to do any type of sports activity, you need to get in shape, and you usually go through some type of training to get there," he said.
Just how well the training has worked will be decided April 5, when Furnish's pigeons take part in a 200-mile race in Chester, S.C.
He estimated the race will take about five hours. The birds can fly about 45 mph without a headwind, he said.
But the South Carolina race will be a breeze compared to the race season finale in June: a 600-mile flight from Baltimore. Last year, the fastest birds took about 13.5 hours, leaving at 6 a.m. and returning home at 7:30 p.m., garnering Furnish seventh and eighth place finishes.
Lucky for him, the birds will be doing the hard stuff. He won't even have to leave the comfort of his home. That's because the pigeons are transported to their release spot by a hired driver. They are then released together. The bird with the fastest speed, based on yards per minute, wins.
Flight times are recorded by a scanning clock mounted on the entrance to the pigeon loft in Furnish's backyard, which scans an electric band on the birds' feet when they return.
The explanation as to why the pigeons keep returning to their home is one better left to Mother Nature, Furnish said.
"They've got good hearing, good eyesight, good memory and good smell, and they're sensitive to the earth's magnetic field, so it's a use of a combination of those senses, I guess," he said. "It's the same reason the humming bird goes down to South America in the fall and flies back to your backyard in the spring. It's just one of nature's wonders."
Even wild pigeons have the homing instinct, he said, though they can't fly the long distances like homing pigeons.
"Through breeding, they've developed the ability to fly longer and longer and faster and faster," he said.
Furnish first got interested in pigeon racing 33 years ago, while helping his son with a school science project.
He now has 150 birds in his backyard loft.
Pigeon racing enthusiasts usually breed their own birds or buy them at auction, he said.
Birds must be bought before they are 30 days old or else they will fly back to their original homes, he said.
Aside from making sure the pigeons are well-fed and watered and letting them fly around for exercise regularly, there's not much upkeep involved.
Race season lasts 19 weeks. Birds more than a year old compete for 10 weeks, starting with a 200-mile race and ending with a 600-mile race.
Birds younger than a year compete for nine weeks with distances ranging from 100 to 300 miles.
Furnish said pigeon racing is a great hobby for kids and adults alike who want to be out in nature.
"I just enjoy working with them, the competitiveness and watching them. You get a thrill when they come home," he said.
The Atlanta club, a chapter of the American Racing Pigeon Union, has about 50 members ranging in age from 13 to 91, he said.
"Some people go play golf, some people play tennis, some people fish. It's a hobby that you can do in your backyard and you can have some competitiveness and the whole family can be involved with it," he said.
The club has members who are doctors, lawyers and educators, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, he added.
"It's not just a redneck sport," he said. "There's a whole cross-section of people."
For more information on pigeon racing, visit www.garpc.org.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.