LAKE PARK, Minn. (AP) -- Homing pigeons mystify Fred Haring.
A pigeon fancier since youth, Haring, like thousands more who raise and race the birds, doesn't know how they find their way home after being released hundreds of miles away.
Some people believe homing pigeons have a mysterious ability to orient themselves with the Earth's magnetic field. Others think the birds are guided by the position of the sun or stars.
But nothing has been proven.
''Nobody really knows how they do it,'' Haring said. ''That's the most remarkable thing. It's the six-million-dollar question.''
A semiretired North Dakota State University math professor, Haring raises more than 85 racing homers on his farm near Lake Park.
He inherited his love for the birds from his father, a Dutch military man who grew up raising racing homers himself.
Haring says pigeon fanciers -- those people fond of the birds -- are more common overseas than in the United States.
Here, he says, people tend to lump homing pigeons and barn pigeons into the same category, usually because they don't know any better.
Racing pigeons are selectively bred like dogs or horses and have more muscular chests, longer wings and sleeker bodies than their barn pigeon counterparts.
And because they are so strong and sleek, they're able to travel hundreds of miles at more than 60 mph without stopping to eat or drink.
For races, fanciers will affix a numbered band to each bird's leg, then have someone transport the pigeons to a destination point and set them free.
The owners must then wait and watch for the birds to come home, catch them, remove the bands and record the times by dropping the bands into a special clock.
Pigeons are then placed according to their speed, which is calculated by dividing the flight time into the flight distance using airline surveys.
The result is expressed in yards per minute.
''That's half the fun -- watching the birds come in,'' Haring says.
But sometimes the birds don't come in, meaning they've likely been shot by a hunter, killed by a hawk or were disoriented by poor flying weather, such as fog.
In the latter case, the pigeons sometimes come home when the weather clears, which is a good thing for their owners, who pay anywhere from $5 to $1,000 a bird, depending on their lineage and parentage.
When the birds return home from a race, Haring says they're not so much hungry as they are thirsty.
So if it's not food and shelter they're after, why do they return?
They're responsible parents, Haring said.
Pigeons mate for life. They also share the responsibilities of raising their offspring, with both the male and female nest-sitting during the course of each day.
In fact, fanciers use the birds' commitment to parenthood to further encourage them to hurry home.
For instance, homers who are nesting make especially fast racers. Concern for their young makes them anxious to return.
Racing pigeons are divided into four categories, depending on how far they fly: short-distance, middle-distance, long-distance and super-long-distance.
The actual flight distances range from about 100 miles for short-distance racers to 1,000 miles or more for super-long-distance racers.
Haring prefers middle-distance racing -- 300 to 450 miles -- and calls super-long-distance racing cruel because it puts the birds through too much stress and strain.
He and eight other members in the area racing group Red River Valley Fliers race their birds from south to north from mid-April to September, starting in Sisseton, Watertown and Sioux Falls, S.D.; Omaha, Neb., or Topeka, Kan.
Trainers first allow the young pigeons to become familiar with the area near their home loft. They then begin releasing the birds farther and farther away, gradually increasing their flight distance until they are strong enough to fly great expanses.
Haring says raising homing pigeons for racing or showing has become an expensive and time-consuming avocation, forcing many youngsters who grew up with the hobby to abandon it.
Haring, who grew up raising pigeons in Java, Indonesia, came to the United States in 1959, later coming to work at NDSU in 1962.
He says he was struck so few people in the area partook in the hobby of raising homing pigeons that he felt displaced.
So Haring began feeding and caring for two pairs of barn pigeons on his property, which kept him content for a while.
But one day, without considering the consequences, he allowed a young man to hunt for ducks on his property.
The man killed his pigeons.
When Haring heard the nearby shots ring out, he confronted the man, who said, ''What? They're just barn pigeons.''
''They may just be barn pigeons,'' he said to the man. ''But they're my friends.''
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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