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AUDIO: Keys Man Races Pigeons — And Rescues Them

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Mark Hedden
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For WLRN

When he was young, Jim Hale told a friend he was going to move to Key West and become "the pigeon king." His friend, a budding comedian, thought that was an excellent joke. But Hale was serious.

He did move to the Keys, 30 years ago, and he started keeping and breeding racing pigeons. He's been successful with that, and he's got an unexpected sideline: rescuing the racing pigeons that wind up in the Keys after they're blown off course from Cuba.

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Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
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WLRN
If the band on a bird's leg says FCC or FCI, it means it's a racing pigeon from Cuba.

Hale doesn't know exactly what brought the Cuban birds to his loft — "they don't come with a story," he says — but they often show up in the spring, when birds of prey are migrating.

"If you were on the plains of Africa and a tribe of lions started chasing you, the last thing you're going to worry about is where home is," he says. "You're just going wherever you need to go to get away."

Many of the Cuban birds Hale rescues return south when he releases them. But there's one white pigeon who won't leave him no matter how many times he releases her.

He released her as part of a basket of white pigeons during the parade celebrating Diana Nyad's swim across the Florida Straits, the same route this bird followed. 

"That one's like a pet. She won't leave me. I don't want to force her," Hale says. "I let her do what she wants to do. A lot of the Cuban birds that don't want to go back, I give to guys that are from Cuba that have birds here. That one, I won't. I've kept her just because she's special to me."

Listen to Jim Hale tell the story of his life with pigeons:

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Credit Mark Hedden / For WLRN
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For WLRN
Racing, also known as homing pigeons, are the same species you see on the street. But they are selectively bred for their inclination to return to the roost — the faster the better.

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Credit Mark Hedden / For WLRN
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For WLRN
Jim Hale releases white pigeons for weddings and other special events in the Keys.
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Credit Mark Hedden / For WLRN
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For WLRN
In pigeon racing, individual pigeons and who bred them are identified by bands around their legs. The numbers indicate who owns them and where they came from.

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Credit Mark Hedden / For WLRN
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For WLRN
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Credit Mark Hedden / For WLRN
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For WLRN
Pigeons assemble before release for an afternoon flight from their loft. The roof of this area lifts up.