COAL TOWNSHIP - Most mornings, Gil Yoder is up and about between 5 and 5:30 a.m. and heads out the back door of his Mulberry Street home and down the backyard to his second home - his pigeon loft.

Yoder, 81, is one of the last area competitors in what was once a thriving sport in the coal region - pigeon racing. Recently, one of his birds took first place overall in a major race from Athens, Tenn., back to central Pennsylvania, and although Yoder looks at least 10 years younger than his age, he knows that winning that race will be one of his last hurrahs in the sport.

And there have been many hurrahs. A bookcase in Yoder's living room is filled with trophies he has won over the years, and his wife Lorraine says a cubbyhole in the attic is filled with even more.

"I get tired of cleaning them all," she jokes. "Trophies and plaques. He wins them and I clean them."

Once thriving sport

Up until the year 2000, the Shamokin Area Pigeon Club was a thriving one. Henry Lauer, Wilmer Schoch, Frank Vottero, Jim Mowery, Hank Smink and Ed Faust were just a few of the people who raised and trained racing pigeons in the area along with Yoder and others. But the Shamokin club eventually disbanded and Yoder has since joined a club in Ashland, and that one is now down to about seven members, he said.

Besides himself, Dave Kaseman and Dave Barnes are other area racers still active, Yoder says.

"We used to have about 25 members. A lot of the guys died off," Yoder says. "It's a good clean sport and hobby, especially for fathers and sons. But it's like everything else around here. Most of the kids graduated from school and went elsewhere. There just was no work around here anymore."

Arvel Freydenfelt, a member of the Greater Harrisburg Pigeon Club, called pigeon racing "an old man's sport" in a recent story in the York Daily Record, which also noted that many suburban townships now have ordinances against pigeon racing in residential areas.

Yet. in some areas, it remains a vital sport and hobby.

"It's still pretty big in the cities," Yoder says. "It's big in New York and New Jersey."

A generational sport

For those who grew up with the sport, it's not easily divested.

"It's always been in my blood. My granddad raised pigeons and my dad raised pigeons where I grew up in Springfield and I started getting involved when I was about 10 years old," Yoder says.

Yoder grew up an all-around athlete, competing in football, basketball and baseball at Coal Township High School. He later played semipro baseball and basketball and says, "I was always competitive."

He gave up opportunities to play competitive sports at the college level to go to work at a shirt factory in town, where he worked for more than 30 years. At the time, people around here could make a good living and raise a family without going to college, Yoder says, although he says he regrets not "not making something of myself" by going to higher education.

As Yoder got older, his competitiveness channeled more and more into his pigeons, and he has educated himself about the sport. He subscribes to publications about the sport and continues an active correspondence with other pigeon fanciers around the country.

He mentioned that one of the people he corresponds with frequently is one of the biggest real estate investors in the state of Utah.

"There's no way I'd get to know a guy like that without racing," Yoder says.

One of the first things Yoder did after marriage and his move to Mulberry Street was to build his loft, which is two stories high and now houses about 150 pigeons in different rooms.

"Breeding is the fun part of it," he says, showing off his various birds, who are separated by categories - young birds, older birds, hens, etc.

"He won't take birds from other lofts," Lorraine says. "They have to be his birds."

It's not a sport for the finicky or lazy, that's for sure. A quick tour through Yoder's loft on a sweltering July evening worked up a sweat without one actually doing much of anything. The birds must be fed, watered, trained daily, no matter the weather. The loft must be cleaned daily, no matter the weather.

Controversy

The sport is not without controversy. Races can be fairly dangerous for the birds, due to natural predators (hawks, falcons, etc.) and hazards such as power lines, bad weather and even cellphone towers which, according to an article on the website omegatoday.net, may interfere with the birds' navigational systems. Some estimates claim that more than half of released birds return to their lofts on average. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has campaigned to outlaw the sport for a variety of reasons, including accusations of illegal gambling and cruelty, but Barry Paddock, writing in The New York Daily News, claimed that PETA fabricated much of its findings.

Breeders try to be as selective as possible when mating their birds, trying to strengthen the breed.

Racing pigeons, also called "homers", are trucked from their lofts to specific starting points, usually between 65 and 650 miles away in the U.S., and released. The birds then return home and their time to cover the distance is measured. Birds rates of travel are calculated and compared with the other birds.

Training begins when the birds are several weeks old with small flights around or near the loft and progress with longer and longer flying sessions. Eventually they are taken on training flights similar to the ones they will compete in.

Frequent race starting sites along the eastern seaboard include Williamsport, Md., Athens and Pulaski in Tennessee, and Roanoke, Va.

There are two main seasons during the year, in the spring, when young birds race, and in the fall, when older birds race, according to Yoder.

Over the years, there have been different timing methods used to monitor the flights. Birds are banded with an ID number and club location when they are young and wear those bands permanently. In recent years. microchips are implanted on the birds, much as runners wear chips in their shoes, and lofts can be equipped with devices to read the chips when they come home.