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Angola man has a bird's-eye view of racing pigeons

Marlon Brando's character Terry Malloy famously raised pigeons on a tenement rooftop in "On the Waterfront."

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson raced the stout-looking birds with short legs.

John Fincel of Angola understands their appeal, even if many people see pigeons as nuisances in parks and plazas.

Fincel, 64, the Bison Racing Pigeon Club president, spends around $4,000 a year to take care of his racing pigeons. That includes purchasing some of them from as far away as Europe and the Netherlands.

"John eats, sleeps, drinks pigeons," said Mike Tomczak of Eden, a racing club member. "He's a committed breeder and flier, a fierce competitor and loves the sport."

"It's a good sport, and it's kept me out of trouble," Fincel said.

Fincel, a production supervisor at Engineer Composites on Buffalo's East Side, picked up the hobby from his father, Bill Fincel, who started racing pigeons in 1958.

Unlike the Brando movie character or Tyson, Fincel's coops aren't on the rooftops of apartment buildings. His are kept in a small part of his 4-acre backyard. He lives in the Angola house his father built.

Two pigeons rest in a coop at the home of John Fincel in Angola Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The roughly 100 birds are separated into categories, including young and old and his top racers.

Fincel takes pride in the health of his birds.

He gives them 10 to 12 different seeds, with corn, peas, wheat, barley and safflower. Vitamins are added to the mixture.

The pigeons also receive medications, including vaccines. Sick birds are quarantined and treated until they're better.

"Once you keep them healthy and strong, they seem to overcome any illnesses out there," Fincel said.

"They are healthier than most people in this country," he asserted.

His hobby was a transition at first for his wife, Fincel said.

"At first she thought it was kind of weird and strange," he said.

Fincel's step-daughter takes care of the birds when he's away.

He has a tried-and-true formula for training the pigeons. After a bird is about 30 days old, he separates it from its mother, as happens in the wild, Fincel said.

He places the bird in a separate coop to get adjusted, and after five days he lets it out to fly.

Over time, Fincel said, the bird's range expands, though it's still too young to fly away. They start racing at around six months of age.

Because the pigeons are happy with their surroundings, the birds stay for life, Fincel said.

"If they like it at home, they're going to come home all the time," he said.

Fincel talks to his pigeons from day one with the words, "Come on champs."

Pigeons train for racing at the home of John Fincel in Angola Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"Once they are accustomed to you, they are very friendly," he said. "They fly right up to you, and end up flying on your shoulders and pecking lightly on your ear."

Most local pigeon races are 1oo miles long, and typically start in Sterrettania, Pa., at an open spot off a highway exit.

At that distance, all of the birds generally come back, Fincel said.

More casualties tend to happen in races of 200 to 300 miles.

That's often due to being picked off by red-tailed hawks or flying into high-tension wires, which birds in the middle of the pack don't see coming, Fincel said.

Some also die from hunters illegally shooting them when the flock flies overhead, he said.

"Sometimes when they come back three weeks or a month later, they'll have a hurt wing or a scar on their breast," Fincel said. "Then you know they got shot or hit something."

He once entered about 10 birds in a 600-mile race, and they all returned.

Mark Phillips, the club's race secretary and a Lockport resident, said Fincel is widely respected among pigeon racers.

"John is a good mentor, and helped me get on track racing pigeons," Phillips said. "He's well respected not just here but throughout the state."

Membership in the Bison Racing Pigeon Club has dropped significantly over the years.

When his father was active, there were about 80 members.

Today there are 15, but only eight or 10 are active.

Few younger people are willing to spend the time to get involved, Fincel lamented.

"Eventually it will probably die out, especially in this area," he said.

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