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Roller pigeons

(Top) Bob Berggren of Clinton displays one of his 125 well-trained roller pigeons that recently competed in the unusual sport on South Whidbey. (Bottom) Several roller pigeons rest in their Clinton loft between training flights. - Gayle Saran
(Top) Bob Berggren of Clinton displays one of his 125 well-trained roller pigeons that recently competed in the unusual sport on South Whidbey. (Bottom) Several roller pigeons rest in their Clinton loft between training flights.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

South Whidbey residents who bothered to look up in the sky last weekend may have noticed flocks of pigeons flying, spinning and falling in the skies over Clinton.

They were no ordinary pigeons. These were "roller pigeons." Possessing the unique ability to perform somersaults during flight, the airborne dynamos were competing in a regional flyoff.

Clinton resident Bob Berggren, who owns 125 roller pigeons, was one of seven pigeon fanciers from the Puget Sound area to enter his birds in the event, which is a part of the World Cup of Rollers. The competition takes place in regions around the world over several months, with judges traveling between regions. Berggren said he won't know for several months if his pigeons will be in the final ranking.

But he doesn't care whether he is a winner or not. He just loves working with pigeons -- something he has done since he was 10 years old -- and is in his element when he is talking about his rollers and explaining their unusual airborne behavior.

"The roller is a performing bird from the family of pigeons discovered in Birmingham, England, where they were developed for their ability to do rapid backward somersaults," he said.

The birds' performance consists of these backward somersaults during flight. Rollers compete in a kit -- a group of 15 to 20 pigeons who are trained together. Berggren's kit for the World Cup consisted of 17 pigeons.

A kit is scored based on how many roll at the same time, how fast they are going and how many feet they tumble. Once they go into a roll, they fall anywhere from 10 to 60 feet.

"It's more fun for me than a trip to Disneyland," said Berggren. "When a kit is in good shape and well-trained, it's very exciting to watch them roll."

In order to get ready for a competition, the rollers must be in peak mental and physical condition, Berggren said. They get to that point by going on frequent training "missions," eating specialized diets and through some tricks of the trade. One of those tricks is adding a little stress to the missions to excite the birds and increase their instinct to roll for protection.

Berggren explained that mental stress occurs naturally when a hawk flies near the kit. The kit will group tightly and in some instances will break into the roll at exactly the same time.

Psychological stimulation or stress can be induced by adding something strange into the kit box -- the container in which the live. A rubber snake and party balloons can be put into the kit box the night before a mission.

Berggren likes the balloon trick.

"This will induce the desired stress, each time a birds moves it's wings the balloons will move," he said.

The next competition for Berggren and his kit will be the National Birmingham Rollers Competition in the fall.

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