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Tony Puopolo has been keeping pigeons in his Pickering backyard for two decades.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When you visit Tony Puopolo's home in Pickering, Ont., and he likes you, he might offer a parting gift of pigeon poop. In Toronto, the excreta of the humble pigeon is often made up of city litter. But Mr. Puopolo's blend is produced by the 70 racing pigeons he keeps in a luxurious backyard coop. They're fed a strict diet of corn, barley and wheat, which, when digested, apparently become great fertilizer for vegetable gardens.

One of the greatest challenges of Mr. Puopolo's life has been trying to teach people that the feathered friends he raises for sport are different from the those that are cooing nuisances in most urban centres. In Mr. Puopolo's world, pigeons are revered for their ability to fly long distances at impressive speeds, finding their way home with the use of their biological GPS devices. Their skills at "homing" can translate into cash prizes for those that breed them and enter the racing circuit.

Pigeon racing's popularity has dwindled throughout Mr. Puopolo's lifetime, despite Mike Tyson coming out during his post-boxing career as a pigeon fancier (the proper term for those who race). The Canadian Racing Pigeon Union has about 1,000 members – roughly half as many as it had in the 1980s.

Though the heyday of pigeon racing was the first half of the 20th century in Canada, a small but strong group is keeping the sport alive – most of them concentrated in the GTA and Southwestern Ontario, according to Oscar DeVries, the president of the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union. They breed the birds in on farms or in suburban backyard coops, trade them to experiment with mixing bloodlines and sell some of their best birds (or descendants of their best birds) at auctions.

When Mr. Puopolo was growing up in Toronto, near Bloor and Dufferin, in the 1960s, many neighbours kept coops in their backyards.

"We caught a couple pigeons or you traded with your buddies and it was just a cool thing to do," Mr. Puopolo says. "Now it's tough, you know? Kids have computers." Today's racing circuit is made up mostly of those who grew up with the sport – the youngest member of Mr. Puopolo's group is 40. A problem, he says, is public perception of the sport, especially in cities where pigeons are regarded as no more than flying vermin.

Pigeon racing got its start in the early 1800s in Belgium and quickly spread through Europe, where the domesticated birds were already being used to transport messages. Racing remains popular in European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands today and has recently, and curiously, taken off in China. This year, a Chinese man set a world record when he shelled out $400,000 for a racing pigeon named Bolt (after Usain the sprinter, not lightning).

Mr. Puopolo's racing group has created a scholarship for relatives of its members in hopes of stirring up interest among the younger generation. Another way of making the sport enticing is through cash prizes.

This weekend marks the fourth annual Canadian International One Loft Race, one of the biggest pigeon racing events in the country, where the top prize is $25,000. Given that it's an international race, birds have been transported from all over Canada and the U.S. to East Gwillimbury, Ont. Some birds are worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars and they are, Mr. Puopolo wants to make clear, very different from their wild, urban brethren.

"The confusion is that these guys are taken care of and healthy and so on," he said, "whereas the wild ones can spread disease and they mess up people's cars and people get upset."

Types of races

The most popular style of racing is taking birds out to a given point – as much as 800 kilometres – from their homes, releasing them and then calculating how quickly they get back to their homes. Birds are trained by taking them out when they're about a month old, within a few kilometres of their homes, and letting them fly back. Distances are steadily increased until some are completing hundreds of kilometres in one day.

Since the birds have been raised in different lofts, pigeon fanciers track their birds' return to the loft with a clock that scans a microchip in their leg bands, and use an agreed-upon formula to calculate its speed in yards per minute. Adjustments are made to rates based on each loft's distance from the "start line." Sometimes, races are won by mere seconds. In many races, both males and females compete, but in what's called the "widowhood system," only males race. They are separated from females when they are young, Mr. Puopolo says, and "before the race, you put them together so they're all frisky."

One-loft races, such as this weekend's, are the type Charles Darwin likely preferred: They're all about good breeding. Pigeons from different breeders are shipped out to the same loft when they are very young and raised together in what amounts to a big pigeon orphanage. They're all trained by the same person and given the same feed. When it comes race day, they are transported out to a spot a given distance from the loft, released and expected to find their way back to the loft. The first one back wins.

"The breeding of the champion bird would come through," Mr. Puopolo says. "The better bird is going to be able to fly faster and trap faster. It really does show the blood stock that is better."

Losing birds

Last week, Mr. Puopolo released 14 birds in a race. Only 13 returned. Sometimes, they simply get lost, are found by a local and returned to their owners using information on their identification bands. In other situations, they have unfortunate meetings with power lines or birds of prey on their way home. On this Thursday morning, a Cooper's hawk is circling Mr. Puopolo's pigeon loft, hoping to have lunch. Last summer, two hawks were daily visitors to his backyard and picked a few pigeons from his lot.

The pigeons' greatest enemies, however, are minks. Last year, one wriggled his way into the loft through a small hole in the mesh and, within half an hour, had killed almost half of Mr. Puopolo's 70 birds.

"Animals have to eat, and that's nature – but these things just kill," Mr. Puopolo says ruefully. "There's no way you can eat 33 birds in one sitting."

Keeping clean

Two decades ago, at the far edge of his vast suburban backyard, Mr. Puopolo built himself a quaint white pigeon loft. He enters the loft routinely to feed, examine and clean up after his flock. The last task is the most time-consuming.

"Some guys scrape every day and get rid of it. I do it once a month," he says of the cleanup job. Dried pigeon feces, he explains, is "deep litter" and it has advantages. "The bacteria in that is dry and it prevents the sickness. It's more of a natural way of the birds living," he says.

Before he enters the loft, Mr. Puopolo steps into the garage, takes off his running shoes and puts on 15-year-old steel-toed work boots: his pigeon shoes. Part of the reason for specialized footwear is he doesn't want to track any disease into the loft that could infect his flock. The other reason? It's a deal he has with his wife.

"If I go into the coop and into the house, there's a death in the family," Mr. Puopolo says with a chuckle. "[The shoes] come up to the garage and that's it."

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