Fascination With Roller Pigeons Comes Home to Roost
February 25th, 2017 by Jennifer Brown

Gary Richards’ pigeons are a unique breed. They are roller pigeons, named for their ability to turn tight somersaults in the air and even on the ground.
Photos by Jeff Paries

Squinting in the Arizona sun, his head tilted back and eyes scanning the sky, Gary Richards, 61, watches his birds perform their aerial feats.

“If it’s not windy, they go so high you can’t see them,” he says. “The only time they leave is if something chases them.”

Gary, a machinist by day and an on-call volunteer with the City of Safford Fire Department, needs to go no farther than his backyard to indulge his hobby of raising roller pigeons. There, a 12-foot-by 8-foot breeding pen houses pairs of birds. Two 4-foot-by-8-foot kit boxes house birds that are ready to fly.

Gary’s interest in birds dates back to his youth, when he owned various breeds of pigeons. It began when, at age 7, Gary raided barns looking for birds with the help of his older brother, Keith.

“My mom, if she knew where we’d been, she’d still kick my butt,” Gary says with a laugh.

Gary owns two breeds of roller pigeons: Birmingham rollers and parlor rollers. Both breeds compete in annual competitions: two with the National Birmingham Rollers Club, an organization of people who raise rollers; and the World Cup, held annually at a different location around the world.

Birmingham rollers distinguish themselves by their ability to roll, or somersault, backwards in rapid, tight rotations.

In competitions, groups—called kits—of up to 20 pigeons are flown at one time. They have to fly for at least 20 minutes and keep a tight grouping while in the air to receive points. Points also are awarded for breaks—five birds tumbling at once. More than five birds tumbling at once garner additional points. The length of the fall also weighs in.

Parlor rollers cannot fly. They roll—turn somersaults—on the ground. Competitions are based solely on how far the bird rolls.

When raising rollers, the birds’ living quarters typically are divided into several compartments.

Separation pens are used to divide the sexes during nonbreeding season. During breeding season, pairs of birds reproduce in a breeding pen. Each pair has a nest box, where they lay eggs and raise their young.

Competition birds are housed together, as a team, in kit boxes. The boxes also are the point from which the birds take flight—comparable to a runway, with clearance—and where they return.

Gary owns about 160 birds, most of which are the Birmingham variety. He prefers to breed 12 pairs of birds at a time.

“When mating birds, find the ones with habits that you like,” he says. “Hopefully, you’ll get the ones that work—you made the right choice.”

The babies are raised to fly. After they have flown for two to three years, they are moved to the breeding pen. When the birds are done breeding, Gary tries to find a new home for them.

“I hope to find someone to use them,” he says. “Hopefully, a young kid trying to start.”

Gary says the birds are ideal for children to work with, and are often used in 4-H Club programs.

“They can handle them,” he says. “They won’t fly off.”

It is important for trainers to keep their birds on a schedule.

“All you teach them is discipline,” Gary says. “All the rolling is in their genes.”

The birds’ behavior can be manipulated by the quality of their food. When flying them, their feed is mostly a mix of milo, wheat and corn.

“Lots of protein can calm them down some,” Gary says. “Hardly any protein can make them nuts. It’s a balance.”

Gary says he tries to give his birds direction as much as possible.

“A good trainer uses a whistle and gets the birds back with food,” he says.

For Gary, raising roller pigeons is about more than training and competition.

“I got more friends through the pigeons than any other hobby I’ve ever had,” he says. “I can go to any state, take my directory, call up anyone and have a place to stay.”