Pigeon racers
From left to right, pigeon racers Greg Warren, Joe Nemelka, Duane Kugler, John Georgopoulas, and Carter Mayotte pose at an event in 2019. Photo courtesy of the Omaha Grain Belt.

As a young newspaper delivery boy, a curious Carter Mayotte stumbled across a pigeon loft and peeked in with wonder to see all the birds. However, an angry homeowner scared off Mayotte in what could have been the end of his pigeon journey.

When the Omaha homeowner called him over the next day to show him the pigeon lofts, it turned out to be the beginning of a long hobby instead. Since then, Mayotte has built over 50 years of racing experience as one of 15,000-plus Americans who race pigeons.

“I equate it (being) a lot like horse racing because they need a lot of daily care, and the better racers are usually the better breeders,” Mayotte said. “It’s just the circle of life, you get them as a baby and they just grow old with you, so it’s just fun that way.”

In Nebraska, there are organized pigeon-racing clubs in Omaha, Lincoln, North Platte, Kearney and Columbus along with many rural racers who are not in a club. Mayotte spent 10 years as the president of the Omaha Racing Pigeon Association, where he planned and oversaw the 2013 Midwest Convention.

For national conventions, racers from across the country come together for a weekend filled with seminars, friendship and, of course, races.

“We have people from all over the world come from Belgium and Germany and from all over the United States,” Mayotte said. “It’s a good way to meet up almost every year with other people.”

About 200 out of state racers attended the Midwest Convention in 2013, and Mayotte expects similar numbers for the convention’s return to Omaha this year. Last year’s convention was held in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, but attendance dipped below 40 racers due to COVID-19.

For the 2021 convention, there’s the added excitement of having to wait an extra year. As Mayotte notes, pigeon racing is a process that requires a lot of patience. This year’s race is scheduled for Oct. 23, but pigeons are already on their way to Mayotte’s lofts.

The birds must be shipped when they are 35-40 days old because pigeons identify and select their home lofts at about six weeks old. From that point, the pigeon will return to the loft for the rest of its life. Over 600 pigeons have been sent for this year’s convention, meaning Mayotte has some work cut out for himself over the next few months.

“Even though I’ve been doing it for 50 years, it’s always fun to start again,” he said. “They’re like your friends, and it’s nice and relaxing when you come home from work.”

A local pigeon race that also occurs each year in the state is the Great Cordova Pigeon Race. Lance Larsen carries on the tradition today that his father, Darrol Larsen, started in 1976 for Cordova’s bicentennial celebration.

Each year, the Cordova community gathers for a potluck dinner that includes the traditional pigeon race. The Lincoln Pigeon Racing Club or other local pigeon keepers supply the birds, which are placed in a box for the start of the race. Children from the community do the honor of opening the boxes, and the pigeons immediately fly out into the distance.

“It all happens quite quick, but it’s a lot of fun for the pigeon handlers and for our kids and village members, too,” Larsen said. “If kids and people have fun memories of their hometown, then they look forward to coming back and living here.”

Over the last few years, the village has also hosted a car show on the same day as the pigeon race, and that has drawn additional visitors to Cordova. Larsen is proud of the race’s long history, and he plans to keep it going through the 50-year anniversary of the Great Cordova Pigeon Race in 2026.

“I don’t think my dad would have believed it would have gone on for 50 years, so I personally would like to see a big celebration on 50,” Larsen said. “After that, whatever it evolves into or however long it keeps going is just a bonus.”