In an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” titled “Opie the Birdman,” Opie raises three baby birds by hand until they are able to fend for themselves and fly off. But the real Birdman of Mayberry could very well be Steve Norman, who raises hundreds of birds every year at his Granite City Loft, just a few blocks from the downtown business district.
Unlike Opie’s birds, Norman raises homing pigeons, and they come back when he sets them free.
Norman wasn’t much older than Opie when he began raising pigeons, beginning his hobby in order to earn a merit badge in Boy Scouts.
“I was raised out in the country, and we had some old buildings, and I converted one into a pigeon coop and raised some fancy breeds.”
Norman explains that the “fancies” — fantails, twisters, longnecks and Cassanovas — don’t fly as well as the homing pigeons he now races, but he still has a few of them.
He got started racing the birds in his last years of high school and picked up again right after college for about ten years, then took about a 30-year sabbatical, and started back up about 20 years ago.
During that time, Norman has met and made friends with a lot of the other people on the East Coast who are involved with pigeon racing. One of those people, the owner of Marengo Farms in Alabama, put on a charity race to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association. Norman brought the idea back to Surry Sunrise Rotary, where the idea percolated among the regulars of “the back table” until, in 2016, the club decided to stage their own pigeon race for charity, raising money for area school backpack programs.
Norman enlisted other pigeon racers in the Mount Airy Pigeon Racing Club — Bill Williams, Doyle Mosley and Jimmy Mundy — to participate in the charity race.
“People didn’t think we could pull it of, me included,” Norman said of that first race. The club raised $7,000 the first year, doubled it the second year, and were only $3,000 away from a goal of $25,000 for the third year when Hurricane Florence caused the race to be postponed, giving the organizers a week’s reprieve to meet their goal.
“Food Lion has been phenomenal in working with us,” said Norman. “A backpack of food costs $3.36.” He did some quick calculations and said, “With the money we have raised so far, we’ll be able to pack 7,400 packs. That’s 3,700 for the city and 3,700 for the county.”
“School administrators tell us a whole lot of children come to school on Monday, and they haven’t eaten since they left on Friday. It’s awful that’s happening right here.”
Norman and his pigeons are already involved with the school systems. He takes some of his pigeons to third-grade classes, and talks to the kids about the birds.
“The kids are really good. But the teachers won’t hush,” he told his fellow Rotarians on Sept. 12, as he showed them some of his birds, a mix of previous winners and up-and-comers.
Just before the presentation, club president Chip Pulliam announced to the club there was a letter to the editor in that day’s Mount Airy news from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) complaining of cruelty in the sport of pigeon racing without mentioning or taking into account the charitable nature of the Rotary race.
“Those people have not seen the loft downtown. They don’t call it the penthouse for nothing,” came a comment from the back table.
“Wild pigeons spend their lives dodging hawks and looking for food,” said Norman. “My birds dine on filet steak and drink the finest wine.”
Indeed, Norman’s feed room has many buckets of grains, such as Carolina Mix, Ultimate Blend and even one called Pigeon Candy.
“They love that one,” he said.
He further customizes those blends with additional grains, up to 20 different ones, depending on what the birds require at any given point. Just like human athletes, he carbo-loads them for two or three days before a race.
There is no wine, but a refrigerator full of medications to treat and prevent any avian illnesses that may arise.
“If they weren’t happy, they wouldn’t come back,” responded Tom Webb to the PETA letter, as the entire sport of pigeon racing is based on releasing the birds hundreds of miles away from their home loft, and then seeing which one gets back home the fastest.
“In a way, I can sort of see where these people are coming from,” said Norman. “The birds engage in maximum aerobic exertion for many hours, sometimes flying as fast as 75 mph, and some of them don’t make it back.”
Norman said he likes to think that the pigeons who don’t come back have joined a flock of town pigeons along the way, and he knows that happens sometimes, but he also concedes that occasionally his birds succumb to hawks.
But his birds live to be 10 to 13 years old, and when they get some age on them, Norman retires them to breeder status. So, in addition to their diet of champagne and steak, they get to have lots of sex, he said with a twinkle in his eye.
“What’s so bad about that life?” he asks, before adding wild pigeons rarely make it to be a year old, before predators or disease takes them.
“There’s a lot of work in what we do,” said Norman of the sport of pigeon racing, “The ones of us who do it are getting older, it’s getting more and more expensive, and it robs you of opportunities in your life. There’s an eight-week racing season in both the spring and the fall, and you have to be there the day before, you have to be there when they’re released, and you have to be there when they come in.”
Not to mention the time and effort it takes to train the birds. The birds naturally return to the place from where they first took wing, but Norman takes considerable pains to condition them to where they are best able to do what comes naturally.
When people ask Norman how pigeons are able to navigate such long distances with unerring accuracy, he ticks off the usual theories: the gravitation pull of the earth, instinct, some folks even say they follow the interstates, but Norman saves for last the theory of his 10-year-old granddaughter — God.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.