There was a time when photographer Nicolas Tanner could comfortably say he knew very little about pigeons.
"My knowledge of pigeons was from the [HBO] show The Wire," he said in an interview.
Maurice Letellier releases his racing pigeons from boxes stored on the flatbed of his truck near Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Spring 2011. | (Nicolas Tanner)
But that changed in the spring of 2011 when Tanner spent a month with a group of pigeon racers in coastal Maine.
"You meet these guys, and you're meeting their friends, and all of sudden you're involved in this community that is welcoming because they love what they do," he said.
"I definitely did not expect to find the sort of community I did. It was very ... cute. Not in a pejorative sense, just in a really … in the way they care for each other and the birds."
Marcel Letellier holds a racing pigeon in his hand in Biddeford, Maine. Spring 2011. | (Nicolas Tanner)
Jim Peck sits in front of his pigeon racing and turkey hunting trophies in his living room in Saco, Maine. Spring 2011. | (Nicolas Tanner)
The pigeon racers are part of the Biddeford Racing Club. They are a small group of older men who had spent their lives working outdoors all around Maine. They had grown up racing pigeons, attending bird auctions, and raising the birds in backyard coops.
The men Tanner met were rugged in the sense that working outdoors weathers the skin. But they showed incredible, and surprising, tenderness when it came to their birds.
Tanner spent a lot of time with a man named Marcel Letellier, who, nearing 80, was the oldest member of the Biddeford Racing Club. Letellier's backyard was dotted by three small coops that, to Tanner, were filled with the same brownish-beige birds. But to Letellier, each was distinct.
"He had names for every single bird in his coop," he said. "He was very closely connected to the inner and outer lives of the birds. He knew which bird was about to give birth and how to handle tiny chicks."
"Visually that struck me — the juxtaposition between really weathered hands and burly looking men and watching them handle these shiny, often very beautiful, delicate-seeming creatures. And … they're cooing [to the birds.]"
Maurice Letellier holds a pigeon chick in his coop, immediately after it hatched from its egg in Biddeford, Maine. Spring 2011. | (Nicolas Tanner)
A pigeon is sold at auction in southern Maine. Spring 2011. | (Nicolas Tanner)
Pigeon racing relies on the natural abilities of the Racing Homer — a breed of domestic pigeon that has speed and enhanced homing instincts compared to other domestic pigeons. Training begins as soon as the bird is weaned and can fend for itself — about a month after hatching. When the birds are young they are exercised daily within the coop. But as they grow more familiar with their surroundings, they are given a longer and longer leash to fly away from the coop and return home.
For races, competing birds are tagged and taken to a location between 60 miles and more than 1,000 miles away from home. The birds are released from the same location and are supposed to fly back to their various coops. The time and distance are recorded and the fastest bird is declared the winner.
Pigeons are selected, tagged, and placed into holding boxes before they are shipped by truck to the take-off point and released. Biddeford, Maine. Spring 2011. | (Nicolas Tanner)
The sport dates back to the late 1800s, after homing pigeons were imported from Europe. The first official racing club was formed in 1872, with the larger umbrella organization — the Federation of Homing Pigeon Fanciers of America — following in 1886. Through the early 1900s, newspapers and monthly magazines dedicated exclusively to the sport sprung up to meet demand.
But between increasing restrictions on the keeping of pigeons and the fading interests of younger generations to take it on, the sport of pigeon racing is a dying tradition. And the Biddeford Racing Club is no different. In 1965, the club had 250 members. Today, just 35 members race their birds every Sunday from May through September.
A painting of a racing pigeon hangs on a wall in Maurice Letellier's house in Biddeford, Maine. Spring 2011. | (Nicolas Tanner)
Tanner got the chance to watch several Sunday race days. On one of those days, all the birds were trucked up to a location 150 miles away and released at dawn. The distance was short enough that the owners stayed at home. Some gathered together on one lawn, others waited dutifully by their own coop, but all keep their eyes to the skies anxiously scanning for the first set of wings.
When Tanner asked Jim Peck, one of the Biddeford racers, what he thought made the birds find their way home, he admitted he didn't know. "They just want to come home," Peck told Tanner. "Just loyal little creatures. That's all."
A coop in Jim Peck's backyard. | (Nicolas Tanner)