By BRICE STUMP
The Daily Times of Salisbury
MARDELA SPRINGS, Md. (AP) — There are pigeons, and then there are pigeons. For Wes Frooks, 51, all birds of a feather are not the same. A modified shed behind his home holds three coops filled with dozens and dozens of cooing, fluttering and mating pigeons.
“I raise and sell `tag birds,’ and every `fancy’ pigeon I raise is banded,” he said. “They are called `high flying tipplers.’ They are not `racin’ ¡homers.’ ”
At Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Frooks is the tool room supervisor.
“I have been foolin’ around with pigeons since I was about 8 years old,” he said. “I saw older guys raisin’ pigeons and I knew it was somethin’ I wanted to get into. It seemed like it was a fun thing to do, somethin’ to really occupy the mind. We tried to get them to fly the highest and fly the longest amount of time, then we could brag about having the best flock in that part of town.”
As a boy, he started out with 10, and grew the flock to 75. For a few years he had to put his hobby on hold.
“In 1987, I came from Baltimore to Willards and a boy there was raisin’ some, and that got me interested in getting back into pigeons. I heard that a guy in Baltimore was gettin’ rid of his birds, so I bought `em all and brought them down here. As for the kid in Willards, his grandmother told him he couldn’t have pigeons anymore and tore his coop down. I picked up the pieces and rebuilt the coop at my place,” he said.
Standing amid a dozen or so fluttering pigeons, Frooks bubbles with excitement as he explains the joys of his hobby. The more he talks, the more the pigeon fancier of his youth is revealed. After work, he can’t wait to get home to check on his birds — the new eggs, the hatchlings, the plumb squabs.
There is, he said, just something special about this pastime that soothes his soul. Just being in the coop makes him an excited kid again.
“They nest like chickens, but reproduce more like rabbits,” he said with a generous smile that revealed the shiny gold fillings in his teeth that sparkled with his grin. “As long as you let ’em breed, it’s back to back. Because I raise the young to sell, when they are about 10 weeks old I keep the hens and cocks together and breed all year around.”
There are usually two eggs to each nest. In 18 days, the first hatches, and on the 19th day, he said, the other hatches. And in a few weeks, the squabs have adult feathers with hues of red, brown, black, gold, blue and mottled. Unlike the mostly gray pigeons of the city, tipplers come in an ever-changing variety of colors and patterns.
“Every time breeders lay eggs, the colors of the hatching birds are different. I want unique colors,” he said.
“Once the young birds, that they call squabs, are big enough to be kicked out of the nest, I move them to another part of the pigeon house so they older birds won’t peck them.”
“I deal with a guy who has opened a pet feed store in Baltimore to bring him so many birds when he needs them. People want to raise and fly birds; these are sort of domestic, because all they know is that the coop is their home. When they take flight, they come back home. The only way you lose them is when hawks or falcons are around,” he said.
As soon as a pigeon takes flight, it seeks out landmarks and quickly gets its bearings and ascertains where home is.
As he moves in and around the coops, Frooks whistles with a certain pitch to help his 200 birds recognize him.
“When you see that the bird understands you, like when you whistle, you are getting somewhere,” he said.
Yet his whistle is more comfort than educational. A young bird must be in the hands of a long-term owner to be trained to accept home and recognize a distinctive sound so the owner can fly his pigeons and have them come home when released.
“I had some birds that would fly 13 hours. They will go as high as they can go and stay in flight for hours before they come back,” he said.
As might be expected, every horizontal inch of the coops are coated with droppings, the universal calling card of pigeons, whether fancy or plain. Just like people who have horses or fall in love with boats, raising pigeons is all about work and diligence. The coops have to be routinely cleaned, the nest fixed up, the chicken wire kept in good repair. Frooks even has an infirmary of sorts for his flock.
“Sometimes they get a little cough or something like that, so I put them in a special section and medicate them,” he said.
He fusses over their diet of special grains and grit, used to make egg shells hard.
“I have to take care of ’em. When I take birds to Baltimore, the guys up there hit the store quick. They call me the `Eastern Shore tippler man.’ They love me ’cause they know I got good birds.”
To support his hobby, Frooks sells young birds to be flown, but not to squab fanciers looking for a delicacy.
“I tell people, `Oh, no, you’re not eaten’ any of my birds,”‘ he said.
To get a rise out of his friend and fellow shipyard worker, Granville Dutton told Frooks he’d like to sample tender young pigeons, “Maybe with a little gravy ’round ’em.”
“That ain’t never goin’ to happen with my squab,” Frooks said with laughter. “There’s enough things out there tryin’ to eat my birds, like cats, hawks and falcons, without you eatin’ ’em.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)