High above the Miami sky, two pigeons are falling in love.
And on the ground, Mario “Mayito” Lopez is beaming.
This is what he has trained his prized pigeon, El Bastardo, to do: elegantly seduce lady birds and bring them back to roost.
With a plump neck and iridescent green and purple feathers, El Bastardo is a champion in the local world of pigeon breeding. It’s a world Lopez has been infatuated with since he was a boy in Cuba, where raising, breeding and training birds to woo one another is a way of life.
“I love it,” said Lopez, who lives in Westchester and owns his own garage door installation company. “Some people love a dog or a cat or any other animal. This is the one that I like.”
The tradition has been transplanted by Cubans to Miami-Dade County’ neighborhoods like Kendall and Hialeah. Lopez, 40, estimates there are about 300 members of the local Club de Palomos Ladrones, which organizes competitions and crowns the most successful gigolo pigeons — or rather, their owners — with trophies and prize money.
“It’s all about beauty and seduction,” said Roberto Fumero, who raises pigeons in the backyard of his Hialeah townhouse.
Until recently, Fumero’s love for pigeons was a forbidden one: Hialeah’s code didn’t allow the keeping and breeding of pigeons. But recognizing the popularity of the sport, city leaders recently passed new rules that allow serious breeders to practice their pastime while minimizing potential annoyances like stinky coops, said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez.
Despite enforcing the ban through code citations, city leaders realized pigeon breeders were willing to brave fines in the name of love. “We started to see some of the residents that were keeping these competition pigeons, and we thought it was important to regulate and control it in a way that was going to be good for the rest of the neighborhoods — and also for those people,” Hernandez said. “This was a win-win.”
The new rules limit the number of pigeons residents can raise and regulate how big and where pigeon lofts can be built. The ordinance also specifies when owners can release their pigeons for training and exercise flights.
Miami-Dade County has similar measures for keeping pigeons .
Serious fanciers say Hialeah’s previous ban was a reflection of how misunderstood their sport is. It has nothing to do with the kind of pigeon racing — practiced by people like former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson — where flocks of pigeons are released thousands of miles from their homes to see which can race back the fastest.
“They are two completely different pigeons,” said 41-year-old Pedro Linares, who raises pigeons at his Westchester home. He started another local breeding club named after a type of pigeon, the ACCA, or the Asociacion Colombofica Cubana Americana.
In the Hispanic tradition, the typically-male fanciers call their birds conquistador or ladron — meaning thief — pigeons, because they conquer female pigeons, and in some cases steal those birds away from other breeders. The birds are identified by rings slipped around their legs, and getting your bird captured is part of the sport. Some captors don’t give back birds; others may charge a ransom.
In any case, merciless ribbing is pretty much a given, Fumero said.
Much of the name-calling takes place on the online community Palomeros Cubanos, or Cuban Pigeon Breeders. The site, www.palomeroscubanos.com, has 7,000 registered users. There, breeders post photos and films they take of their birds in action. They also share tips, like how to help chicks break through too-tough egg shells. (Hint: Tuck the egg into your mouth for two minutes — saliva will soften the shell.)
Every spring, when Lopez said hawks are less likely to be flying overhead, breeding clubs gather for competitions.
Competing pigeons are evaluated by a panel of judges standing on rooftops equipped with binoculars and stopwatches. The pigeon owner releases his bird. Judges give points for the amount of time the pigeon stays in the air, how high he flies and how many times he goes after a girl. Judges also take into account the bird’s “elegance according to popular opinion” when handing out points, according the club’s rules.
The ultimate goal is to bring a lady pigeon back home — but once there, her suitor must be a gentleman. Points can be taken off, or a pigeon can be disqualified, for pecking at his date or “brusquely” mounting his mate.
“Their job is to make girl pigeons fall in love,” said 24-year-old pigeon breeder, Nestor Montesino, who lives in Cutler Bay.
Hialeah does not keep records on pigeon violations, but considers the birds “livestock” along with more common barnyard critters such as chickens and goats.
Assistant City Attorney Lorena Bravo called the keeping of livestock “one of our salient code enforcement complaints,” with about 600 citations issued since last year.
While lobbying Hialeah officials to legalize their sport, Fumero said he had to persuade policy makers that competition pigeons are completely different from the sort of bird that sits on power lines and poops on cars.
“This is nothing like those pigeons. These are pigeons raised by hand. These are pigeons that, in a year, it can cost $3,000, $2,000 just to raise them,” Fumero said. “It’s really expensive.”
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, captive pigeons can live up to 15 years.
At the Padrino pet shop on East Fourth Avenue in Hialeah, Javier Carralero sells specialized pigeon feed, medicines and supplements to treat pigeon asthma, calcium for strong bird bones and liver cleansers. A bottle of liquid fertility treatment for pigeons costs $21.99. Pills to treat canker disease are $25.
“The pigeons, you have to take care of them. It’s like a car, that if you don’t maintain it with the curative process that it has to have, it will have many problems,” Carralero said. “That pigeon, you have it, and you love it a lot. You give lots of love to it. Pigeons are something that I can’t live without.”
Caring for the pigeons isn’t the only expensive aspect of the sport: The birds themselves can go for thousands of dollars. Lopez, owner of the prize-winning El Bastardo, said he has been offered $3,000 for the pigeon.
Those with Cuban blood lines tend to be the most expensive — and sought after. Two Miami pet shop owners pled guilty in December 2010 to smuggling 72 Cuban pigeon eggs hidden in plastic Easter eggs after they were busted by customs officials.
Pigeon owners can go so far as to install alarm systems to deter thieves from stealing prize birds.
“A pigeon right now can cost you $1,000, $400 or $50, depending on the type of pigeon that you want. It’s like saying, ‘I want to have a race horse,’ ” Carralero said. “You look for the best blood line there is of those pigeons. So you spend a lot of money on it, on food, on medicines.”
Breeders spend as much time on their pigeons as they do money.
“A lot of us lose our marriages,” Fumero joked.
Fumero said he spends hours every day keeping his pigeon cages clean — so clean that you’d have to be in the loft to detect any smell of pigeon poop. He quickly brought his pigeon loft up to Hialeah’s new rules and keeps his pigeons away from his neighbor’s yard in a screened-off loft to protect them from mosquitoes. A fan blows constantly to keep the roost cool. The floor is white tile — for easy cleaning, Fumero said.
It’s a labor of love — love that Fumero says is mutual, especially when it comes to his pigeon Shakira 305. Fumero said the pigeon doesn’t fly away when she’s released. Instead, she likes to perch on his head.
“I love my pigeons so much, especially when you sit down here, and you come from work really tired,” Fumero said. “You enjoy them, you see what they do, they come to you. Some of them, they fall in love with you. Shakira 305 is in love with me.”