Racing pigeons are quite a coo for retiree

In the corner of his mudroom, Ed Harkey rustled through stacks of papers and books, searching for his old racing pigeon clock.

It's an antique with brass workings and a crank that stamps the exact time a pigeon returns from flight - down to the second - on a roll of paper inside a dark wooden box.

It wasn't easy to find. The trouble had to do with the scores of trophies Harkey's hands had to dig around amid the clutter. Fifty years of racing and raising homing pigeons have left the gleaming tokens of past triumphs everywhere - in the mudroom, the living room and the closets - each with a shiny silver pigeon perched proudly atop it.

And they've migrated elsewhere.

"I have hundreds of them in the garage," said Harkey, a 64-year-old Concord native who has raised homing pigeons most of his life.

His fascination with them was not unlike that of many boys who grew up listening to war veterans describe how the winged creatures saved soldiers' lives by ferrying vital messages back and forth during battle.

The kids lapped it up, and Harkey led the pack. It was a different time back then, he said.

"Me as a kid, we didn't have nothing but maybe baseball to play," he said. "We didn't have high-tech TV and all."

As a youth in the 1950s, Harkey lived behind Troutman's Bar-B-Q back when it was The Little Pig, the Red Pig's kin. He caught his first pigeons there in the front yard as they dropped in for an early morning meal.

"I fixed me up a little old cage, raised it up with a stick on some fishing line," he said. "When they would go up under there to eat, I would pull that stick out."

When he had a dime to spare, Harkey would ride his bike to the feed store on Market Street and buy a bag of special chicken feed in hopes of turning his birds into champions.

No one really agrees on how pigeons home. Harkey said pigeon fanciers he's met over the years throw around just as many theories as do research scientists.

"I've heard so many tales in my time you wouldn't believe me if I told you: That they've got metal in their beaks. They sense by the sun," he said. "The good Lord has just given them the ability to home."

He does know that good racing pigeons - those that can be set free 600 miles from home and make it back - come from good bloodlines, not the kind of common pigeons roosting in the city parks of Concord.

"It's like taking a mule to the Kentucky Derby," Harkey said, comparing ordinary to champion pigeons. "He'll make it around eventually, but he's not going to win any races."

Today, Harkey has scaled back from the sport. Where he once had 200 birds in the old chicken coops that dot his yard on Cline Street, he now has 30 birds, all from top homing bloodlines.

Retired from his city job as a heavy construction equipment operator, Harkey now has more time to sit under the tall shade trees in his front yard and watch his pigeons come over the horizon.

It's there that he also has the opportunity to reminisce about past triumphs.

"I flew against the queen of England," he said. "I beat her birds in a race in Chattanooga."

As he sifts through an old steel filing cabinet in his garage, looking for photos from the competition, he shuffles past books, papers and more than a few of those familiar silver pigeons, peeking out of the drawer.