CASTLETON - Businessman Les Faris, owner of the Castleton Redemption Center and the Blind Spot at Castleton Four Corners, acquired an interest in raising birds at a young age. As a teen growing up in Sacramento, Calif., he raised a shed full of beautiful show pigeons. The birds frequently winged their way around the Golden State's hot Central Valley and always returned to Faris' home to roost.
Like most teens with childhood hobbies, Faris drifted away from such diversions in high school. Yet, little did he know that he would one day rediscover the wonderful world of pigeons-this time to become one of Vermont's foremost racing bird experts. And, if you'll pardon the pun, he's been cooing about pigeons ever since.
"There's a very beautiful and ancient heritage to pigeons," Faris said. "You first read about the birds in the Bible. Noah's white doves, in search of dry land, were trained pigeons when they left the ark. Egyptian officials used racing pigeons to carry messages up the Nile River to the Pharaohs to keep them posted on local politics, trade and gossip. The Roman used them, too. And by World War II, famous U.S. Army pigeons such as 18-year-old 'G.I. Joe'-whose hallowed remains are enshrined at Fort Monmouth, N.J.- were saving military and civilian lives while helping the Allies defeat fascism."
Faris has studied the birds and finds their ancient icons as bearers of spirituality, peace an sacrifice to be accurate.
"The birds really do like their human companions," he said. "They are trained to always come home after an exercise flight or long-distance race. They are the race horses of the sky."
Hawks and low utility power lines are one of the few enemies of racing pigeons.
"They don't fly very high in altitude," Faris said. "Sometimes a wayward bird can fly right into a power line decapitating itself."
One of Faris' prized banded birds is Buddy, a six-year-old thoroughbred bird with an impeccable lineage.
"For example, I have good papers for Buddy," he said. "I have records of his parents and grandparents."
In August 2004, at age six months-and after being trained from birth with ever increasing distance flights from home-Buddy was entered into his first race. The race, from Hudson, N.Y., to Faris' home on Benson, Vt., was over 100 miles long. It was an official timed race sanctioned by the sport's official American Racing Pigeon Union, Inc., also knows as the AU.
"Buddy won second place in this Young Bird Series race," Faris said. "He was clocked at flying 49 mph between Hudson and Benson, a distance of 101.260 miles. He's a good bird."
Faris maintains meticulous written records of all his racing birds as the AU requires. He also maintains a high order of cleanliness around the birds, providing the birds with comfort, food and a home to roost.
Raising racing pigeons is no easy task. It requires dedication and daily devotion.
"Ten days after mating, pigeons lay one egg. Thirty six hours later, a second egg is delivered," he said. Racing pigeon nests are made in small, straw- and felt-lined artificial clay bowls developed by breeders expressly for the purpose (see photo). Incubation occurs over 17-18 days.
"Babies are blind, pink and covered in down feathers," Faris said. "They are force fed by the mother via her bill. Both hens and cocks produce a kind of milk they use to feed the chicks. In six weeks, the birds are fully featured and look like adults."
Prior to all this, the birds have been banded. Each band contains the birds registration number and name. It will wear the band for the length of its life.
Faris plans to enter six birds in several upcoming official AU races including the popular 9/11 memorial race which wings its way from Ohio to New York.
"This is a 346-mile-long race," he said. The winner receives a $2,500 prize. In last year's 9/11 race, one of my birds came in at number 30. I expect we'll do well this year."
One bird event that has Faris engaged is a $1 million purse South African race. He's not sure if he will participate, but he is considering it.
"I'd have to ship one of my babies to a South African bird trainer," he said. "Then the trainer, in turn, raises the baby to learn to fly in the future race. Naturally, the breeder-that would be me-shares the purse with the overseas trainer."
When he's not busy breeding racing pigeons, Faris operates the busy Castleton Redemption Center and the Blind Spot, a custom energy efficient window treatment showroom at the center. He has also built a solar-powered house where he lives off-the-grid in Benson.
With Faris holding feathered pal Buddy gently in his hands, you can immediately sense a loving bond between bird and man. And if this writer were a betting man, he'd put his money down on any racing pigeon raised by the birdman named Les Faris.
Check It Out: To learn more about the hobby of racing pigeons in Vermont and New York, contact Les Faris at 802-468-2233 or visit the AU national website at www.pigeon.org/.