pigeon Night-flying Rollerspigeons
Wendall Carter, Jerry Allen, his ten-year-old son, and I had just returned home, at about 7:30 PM after an awesome day of flying rollers in the western North Carolina mountains. Our local club, the Central Carolina Performing Roller Cub, had voted to suspend our club fly and, instead, support the Mountain Empire Fly on Saturday, May 22nd, 2006. It had been a long day that had begun at 4:00 AM, which is so typical of roller flys, and we had visited the lofts of half a dozen roller fanciers, eaten fresh-smoked mountain trout and enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of our colleagues in the sport. Notwithstanding our fatigue, and being the die-hard roller enthusiasts that we are, Wendall decided to kick out his A-kit before the sun was to set at about 8:45 PM; “Plenty of time,” he said confidently.
Wendall Carter’s family of rollers, he calls his Jake-‘n-Bakes, are well known across the Southeast. He has bred them down since 1989 from a foundation pair consisting of a red mottle cock that he obtained from Richard Jaconette and a dun (dilute silver) bar from Roger Baker. Jaconette/Baker, hence the name, Jake-‘n-Bake. Wendall had gotten his start in rollers, as a boy, from “ol’ man Snelling”, in Richmond, Virginia. He paid 50 cents each for them, from money he saved from a paper route. Ol’ man Snelling felt sorry for him a he was leaving and said, “Wait a minute,” and gave him another pair for free. Wendall housed them in a fish crate he nailed to his grandma’s wood shed, and he has been hooked ever since. Since adulthood, Wendall has been an active roller man, competing and judging in regional competitions to numerous to name. He was one of the founding members of the Triad Roller Club and the Five-bird Burn-off, his personal favorite. In the Burn-off, each participant would fly five birds to be judged strictly on individual performance for frequency, depth, speed and quality. The winner of the “best performer” was free to select the bird of his choice from among the other kits entered. “It took a lot of guts to fly in the Burn off,” says Wendall with a chuckle.
On this warm, calm spring evening, the kit that Wendall put up consisted of twenty birds, about three quarters of them young birds, with five holdovers to show the youngsters the ropes. “It’s getting’ a little late, isn’t it Wendall?” I asked him. “Don’t worry,” he replied confidently. “The older birds will show the youngsters the way home.” On this particular day, the kit came out on one of those rare occasions when they perform like you know they can…….and with friends in the yard! They looked like a World Cup kit; floating on butterfly wings, slow and easy. We were treated to twenty to thirty- foot, half and three-quarter turns every half-minute or so. “We have traveled a couple hundred miles today, and the best kit is right here in your own back yard!” I proclaimed excitedly.
After putting on a show for forty minutes we noticed that the kit was still climbing between breaks. “I didn’t feed those birds any different than usual yesterday, and they haven’t eaten at all today. I’m surprised to see them go up like this. I knew a guy who lost his whole A-kit flying late in the evening, because they followed the light of the setting sun,” he joked half-heartedly. “I wish you hadn’t said that, Wendall. Never invite the fates,” I replied nervously as streaks of red and purple began to paint the sky, and the setting sun glowed orange.
The kit was still working, flying slow, rolling and breaking like clockwork, more like once every minute, now, with no signs of flying stiff and fast. They were maintaining a height of 800 feet or so, but instead of circling above the loft, they had moved off to the west….towards the setting sun. “Those birds are following the sun, fellas,” I announced worriedly, as if anyone really needed to hear that as twilight continued to settle around us and the street lights kicked on. Wendall’s faith in his birds was not so easily shaken, however. “Don’t worry. They’ll be down in a minute.” But, all too soon the twilight faded, a few stars came out, and a big full moon began to rise above the horizon as the kit faded from view. I was visibly shaken at this point. “Can anybody see the kit anymore?” I asked, doubting the visual acuity of my now-aging eyesight in the darkness. “There they are!” shouted Jerry’s ten-year-old son. Thank goodness for the eyes of youth, but I could not see a thing in the blackness of the night.
I scoured the indigo sky from horizon to horizon, hoping to spot the kit. And then I saw one of the most amazing sights, I believe I have ever seen. As the moon was rising higher in the sky…you know…. one of those moons that look larger than life….. the kit appeared, winging its way across the soft glow of the moonlight. Then silhouetted, like ET and Elliot on that bicycle against the backdrop of the full moon, now at about 400 feet, the kit of rollers broke; close to a three quarter turn; the homozygous grizzles and white flights glowing like moonflowers in the moonlit night. “That is the darndest thing I ever saw,” I said quietly to my friends who were equally spell bound by the sight we were witnessing. The kit seemed undaunted by the fact that the sun had set. They just kept right on circling, flying slowly, breaking and rolling as if for some imaginary judge with night-vision goggles. “Did you cross owls into those Jake-‘n-Bakes somewhere along the line?” Jerry and I joked…hoping that our concern and worry were not evident. “The next time you fly these birds, we’re gonna tie glow sticks on their legs. It’ll look like the fourth of July when they roll!” Wendall remained steadfast. “I’m not worried. They’ll come down soon. They’ve done this before.” I have to admit that I did not share his confidence.
The birds had been working for two and a half hours by now, and fatigue and fear of the night-flying began to take its toll on the kit. A few spent individuals began to drop out of the kit and wing their way across the night sky, flying like homers, frantically searching the inky blackness for their loft in the glare of the streetlights and the city lights of Greensboro’s buildings. Wendall had turned on flood lights all around the lofts and kit boxes and a street light that he had installed, nearby, illuminated the yard like daylight. (I vowed to go home and have one installed, as well.) All of us were whistling for all we were worth…until we could no longer manage a pucker; our hands cupped around around our mouths trying to broadcast our location to the wayward kit. A solitary homozygous grizzle criss-crossed the sky above us, back and forth, at only 50-100 feet. Our whistling seemed to fall on deaf pigeon ears for we could not bring them down. Instead, the solitary bird continued winging his way hard, across the night sky. Then, with landing gear down, a bird or two began to settle on the loft and rattle the traps. It was a comforting sound.
The main body of the kit was once again nowhere to be found. The city lights of Greensboro glowed a few miles to the west. “They’re bound to have headed for the light. Maybe they’ll come down on a city building in the light and make it back in the morning,” Jerry and I said, trying to sound encouraging. “Don’t worry. They’ll be back,” Wendall repeated, clinging to hope that had already escaped me.
I truly believed, at that point, that Wendall had lost his A-kit. “I can’t believe they wouldn’t come down, Wendall,” I shook my head in disbelief, but I was heartsick for my friend. Wendall was silent for a moment, his pride over the world-class performance his birds had put on for us was now replaced with a more somber expression as he, too, realized that he might never see them again. By eleven o’clock, we were exhausted from the long day. “We gotta go, buddy”, we said. “Call us in the morning.”
“Don’t worry. They’ll be back,” was all he said.
The sand man was beating me to death, and I had little trouble falling asleep, despite my concern for my roller buddy and the excellent kit of birds that I was sure had been lost. Up at 7:00 AM, I wolfed down breakfast and while feeding my own birds, I phoned Wendall. “You ain’t gonna believe it,” he said. “ I checked the kit box at midnight and half the kit was back. I woke up at 2:30 AM this morning and went out to check again. They all made it back, but one…you know…that white bird!” The homozygous grizzle never did make it back. “I told you they’d come back!” he gloated. Some of those birds had flown five hours…others for seven hours! The ordeal was over and all was well. So goes my first and only experience with night-flying rollers. I don’t think I’ll try that anytime soon; but, as a result of the experience, I developed a deeper appreciation for the true character, the stamina, and the heart in these birds, Birmingham Rollers.
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