On the list of things Lelton Morse loves in life, his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, and God come first. His pigeons come next, but not by much.
Morse breeds and races homing pigeons. Hundreds of them reside in the spacious, airy lofts he has constructed next to his home, on a big open hill in Kingsbury, about ten miles northeast of Seguin. The flock includes racers, breeders, and retirees fourteen years old, birds that know his voice and ride in his hands and to whom he slips a Spanish peanut or two. They are all colors: blue with black wing bars, white with grizzled flecking, and red-checkered. Their feathers shine with robust health; their eyes are calm and accepting. To a visiting layperson, they are indistinguishable from their city brethren that, even now, are pecking at spilled popcorn in front of the Alamo. Yet in the light of Morse’s adoration, these birds seem dignified, even beautiful. “There ain’t much that excites me more than to sit at the loft and look at that big green field and see pigeons coming home over that bridge in the distance,” he says.
Homers imprint on the first place where they fly and will return to that spot for the rest of their lives. This makes pigeon racing simple: competitors send all their birds to the same predetermined starting point one hundred, two hundred, or even four hundred miles away; turn them loose; and the bird that gets to its home loft the fastest wins. “I’ve won more than I’ve lost,” Morse says, “but it’s the birds themselves that make me happy.”
Texas is second only to California in the number of statewide pigeon racing clubs, with at least 48 scattered from Nacogdoches to El Paso and South Padre to Lubbock. Pigeon fliers spend the summer training young birds for a seven-week racing season in the fall. After the winter’s breeding and training season, the spring is spent racing older birds. The training regimen is different for each, and Morse has his preference. “I’m a young bird man, not an old bird man,” he says, though, in truth, he competes in both categories.
Cocks and hens compete equally. The birds wear an identifying number on one leg band, and on the other they sport a computer chip that’s read electronically the instant a bird returns to its loft at the end of a race. The precise return time downloads into a special clock, and a couple days after the race, the pigeon club fliers meet, and everyone’s clock information is put into a computer program that generates a list of birds that traveled the fastest, the most yards per minute. A tailwind can help pigeons hit eighty miles per hour, but purists are often more interested in how the bird performs honestly, without a tailwind boost. “The honey hole is a race when they’re between one thousand and twelve hundred yards per minute, about forty miles per hour, and headed into a slight headwind,” Morse says. “Those are pigeons working to win.”
Morse, who is fifty, grew up poor in Arizona, in a family fractured by addiction. He was eventually adopted and raised by his grandfather, Wayne Brasher, who trained racehorses. When Morse was sixteen, one of Brasher’s racehorse associates, Glen Burnham, gave Morse a dozen pigeons and loaded him with advice on feeding, training, and caring for the birds, wisdom so keen that the young novice won races against pigeon men with decades of experience.
His life didn’t have room for pigeons for very long. He married at eighteen; his wife, Phyllis, was two years younger. “We didn’t get married because we had to,” he says. “We did it because we were in love. It’s been thirty-one years of marriage, and we’re still in love.” When their son, Wayne, was a child, they moved to Texas, and Morse went into the steel construction business. The family also raised sheep to sell to 4-H and FFA competitors, and Wayne showed sheep as well, at hundreds of stock shows. Morse missed only one of those shows. “I always said that when we had a child, it was going to be all about that kid,” he says. “And we were.”
After Wayne left for college, Morse started thinking again about pigeons. One day he saw them flying, followed them until they landed, and knocked on the door. That’s how he found the New Braunfels Racing Pigeon Club, which soon led him to the Texas Hill Country Invitational Racing Pigeon Club. He was back into birds. “I use the same training tactics and feeding scheme Glen Burnham taught me, and it’s still playing beautiful music,” Morse says. “Keeping them healthy, mentally sharp, and fit makes them respond really well for me.”
For several decades until the fifties, San Antonio Express photographers covering University of Texas football games used pigeons to fly film to San Antonio to make deadline for the Sunday edition.
Pigeons can mate for life, and both the cock and the hen take turns sitting on the nest and feeding the hatchlings. Young homers are weaned and housed together at about six weeks old. After a few days of acclimation, a door in their pen is opened, and the birds begin to fly outside the loft but stick close to it. They’ll flock together, flying big circles, until the day comes that they stay aloft for an hour. That’s the signal, says Morse, that it’s time for road training. The birds are taken five miles away from the loft and released. “That first time, they make about thirty huge circles, figuring out where home is. But they do figure it out.”
Morse will do five days at five miles, then two days of loft flying, a kind of weekend of rest at home. The next week, it’s ten miles. When the birds start arriving home before him, it’s time to stretch out their mileage—twenty miles, then forty, sixty, and so on, until they successfully do one hundred miles three times before their first race. The longer flights build endurance, but it’s the early flights that reinforce the notion of home and the bird’s ability to get there. In a race, you want a pigeon to break fast and sure instead of wasting time circling or succumbing to the flock instinct and following other birds. “People get in a hurry for training distance, which is a mistake,” says Morse. “The five- and ten-mile trips are imperative. That gets them confident.”
Morse blows a whistle each time he sees his birds coming in. The pigeons refocus at the whistle, flying that last distance extra hard, trusting that the comforts Morse has provided will be there when they arrive. “I was raised that if you put in a hundred and ten percent, then you can expect a good outcome,” Morse says. “Unless you deposit something, you cannot ask for a withdrawal. If I’ve not deposited safety, security, feed, and love to those birds, how can I stand out there and whistle and expect anything from them?”
People have selectively honed and exploited a pigeon’s innate homing instinct for thousands of years, especially in times of war. Genghis Khan kept abreast of his realm’s goings-on thanks to a pigeon relay that spanned Asia and much of Eastern Europe. A messenger pigeon bound for England bore news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Even into modern times, pigeons were indispensable military assets. After all, a person carrying secret plans can be captured. Enemies can cut telegraph wires or telephone lines. Rugged terrain or battlefields can deter a vehicle’s passage. A bird traveling high overhead, however, draws little attention and may be hard to shoot as it wings homeward to command central.
In October 1918, during the last days of World War I, Major Charles Whittlesey and the remaining men of the American 77th Division were pinned by Germans to the depression of a hill in France. Worse yet, the Americans were also taking friendly fire. Whittlesey sent a desperate message to commanders on the spindly leg of Cher Ami, a pigeon. “Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us,” he wrote. “For heaven’s sake, stop it.” Cher Ami arrived at the division headquarters loft blinded in one eye, shot in the breast, and with a message case dangling from a nearly severed leg—but she did arrive, likely saving 194 lives. Soldiers fashioned a wee wooden prosthetic leg for Cher Ami, and she was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for her bravery.
A pigeon’s homing ability is not entirely understood. It’s thought that they use the sun as a compass and landmarks to navigate and they appear to tune in somehow to Earth’s magnetic field. Atmospheric odors may also help, and there’s research indicating the birds may use low-frequency sound waves to find their way home. Or it could be all of the above. Whatever it is, it works. A breeding hen Morse once sold to an Arizona friend escaped her new digs and took off. “She made one thousand miles in four days and came home,” he says. “That’s a good bird.”
Solar flares can alter the magnetic field and temporarily disrupt a pigeon’s homing acumen; so can sonic booms. Occasionally, pigeons will follow a flock going someplace else and get dragged off the correct course. They can hit power lines. Sometimes, people shoot them. Hawks actively hunt them. Mostly, though, homers return home, motivated, according to the people who fly them, by an intense desire to reunite with their mate, their nest, and the familiar comfort and food of their loft.
Birds in crates, about four hundred pigeons in all, were organized on the ground; the collective cooing sounded like the purr of a giant cat.
On a Friday night this past October, Morse and the other fliers of the Texas Hill Country Invitational Racing Pigeon Club gathered at a house in Bulverde, about an hour west of Morse’s place, to check in their entries for the following day’s race. Birds in crates, about four hundred pigeons in all, were organized on the ground; the collective cooing sounded like the purr of a giant cat. A stack of pizzas waited on a table, and a birthday cake was in the fridge. Someone wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “I just really like pigeons, okay?” The birds were scanned into a computer and loaded into numbered compartments on a trailer. Very early the next morning, a driver would haul the trailer to Waxahachie and release the birds for a two-hundred-mile race. Bill Miller, who’s raced for more than four decades, watched as pigeon after pigeon was checked in. An expert in old birds, he’s qualified more pigeons to “elite champion” status than anyone else in the United States. The bird’s uncanny ability to find its home and its depthless desire to go there still moves him. “It’s amazing—just amazing—that you can send him hundreds of miles away and he will come home that same day,” he said. Morse, standing nearby, gazed at him intently.
For Morse, whose early childhood was rocked by uncertainty, there’s more going on. The steadiness, loyalty, and love that he yearned for when he was very young are precisely what anchor his life now. The birds have those qualities too, innately. As he talked about it at his house one day, his blue eyes grew bright and glassy. “The birds might’ve got turned out for a race that morning,” he says. “It might’ve been cold and windy and they put in a long day, but they’ve marched through that adversity like little soldiers. They know they’re going to be fed and cared for at the end. Those little guys will risk their lives to make me happy. I see them come over that bridge, and I well up inside. I go to blowing that whistle, and they come in as fast as they can.”
On a Saturday morning in Waxahachie, just after sunrise, a lever was pulled on the trailer to release the pigeons, who bolted aloft. For two hundred miles, they passed over farmland and rivers, cities and industry, highways and neighborhoods. Hours passed. In the early afternoon, Lelton Morse began scanning the clouds until, at last, a tiny silhouette appeared alone amid the whole sky, beating steadily, courageously forward. It was pigeon 4189, a barred blue cock, and he was almost home.
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Birds in Hand.” Subscribe today.