The Kentucky Derby in the sky |

The Kentucky Derby in the sky

by Ron Walker

Rusty Williams is the Howard Hughes of racing pigeon fanciers. He connects with 5,000 pigeon fanciers on Facebook and has his own website At times he grooms 500 racing pigeons for a race and has dearly loved the sport for 60 years. He calls it the Kentucky Derby of the air. Smith Valley is his home.

In our hour and a half together, I glean as much information as I can. He tells me Belgium, Holland and China are the world’s primary racing pigeon countries.

“Recently one of China’s millionaires paid $300,000 for a pigeon at auction in Las Vegas,” he says.

My first question is, “How do they do it?” and he tells me, “they navigate by the sun and magnetic fields. They will fly in a light rain, but not a downpour, and fly in snow, but in fog they get all screwed up.”

Quick to tell a story, Rusty lets go with a dandy.

“I drove my pigeons to Burns, Oregon and fed and watered them the night we arrived. Next morning, after watering and feeding, as the “rose bud” was coming up over the mountain, I released them. It was 6:40 a.m. Immediately I jumped in my car and drove home, as fast as I could. The first thing I hear coming up the driveway is someone shouting, ‘we have birds!’ I’d driven 310 miles and pigeons don’t fly airline miles, they zig zag.”

Ethyl, his wife of 57 years brings in freshly brewed coffee, and more secrets of pigeon racing come tumbling out.

“Male and female pigeons both race, but sometimes the maternal instinct will give the female an edge. Also, some breeds are good for speed, others for hardiness. Even the color of the eyes tells me something,” Rusty says.

I probe deeper.

“A pigeon fancier will ship me 1-5 pigeons ($100 fee to Rusty for each, the 6th is free) and I train them for a month and a half. I give them good feed, good meds and start with “baby steps,” of 1 mile, and 2 miles. Eventually they are flying 100 to 300 miles. If they falter, I go back to 30 miles to build their confidence and work up again,” he says.

At this juncture, Rusty uses words like scanners, computer chips and “function of time and distance,” also I learn March 1 to June 15 is when Rusty accept birds.

Rusty shares a personal moment.

“At one time, I lost my job due to health reasons, and I shouldn’t have lost it. It was back in the ’70s. Pigeons won me $46,000 for my family and I eventually found a job,” he says meaningfully.

In muted tones, Rusty mentions 3 stars he has had in his lifetime and sadly I am not quick enough to uncover the story behind those words. When asked why pigeons return to their loft, “it is because they love their home,” he says simply.

I see a man who is a virtuoso of the sport, a scholar, a prudent business man, and an adventurer who is in love with life. I just wish I knew more about those 3 stars.

Ron Walker can be reached at