Racing pigeons have fascinated Shawnee man for 70 years
Shawnee -- Not many know it, but Shawnee is home to a grand champion of a somewhat unusual sport.
Retired dentist John "Doc" McLean may be better known in local circles as a homing pigeon expert and the best of the best in pigeon racing, or at the very least the best in the Kansas City Pigeon Racing Club.
Though the sport has a large enough following to bring $35,000 for a top racing pigeon in magazines devoted to the sport, McLean is among a dwindling number of people keeping the sport alive locally.
McLean gets a special thrill out of raising and racing his pigeons.
"I've done this for 70 years, and I've never found any sport as good," he said.
With the help of fellow Shawnee resident Marty Chow, McLean breeds, trains and races the birds. The sport and the birds are misunderstood, the friends said.
"Everybody thinks pigeons are a dirty bird or a pest," Chow said.
"They think these wild pigeons are the same (as homing pigeons)," McLean added. "But that's like confusing a jackass and a racehorse."
McLean became a homing pigeon aficionado by accident while growing up in Columbia, Mo., where the sport was fairly popular.
"The neighbor boys brought me two little wild pigeons and asked me to keep them," he said.
Since that day, when he was just 9 years old, McLean has been learning about the birds.
He didn't get a chance to work with homing pigeons while serving as a bombardier in World War II or as a dentist in the Korean War, but he knows the tales of pigeons used to carry messages in wartime, showing up despite being shot or otherwise injured and earning medals of honor.
McLean wonders whether homing pigeons might ever be used again in times of combat.
"You wouldn't think you'd be using something that old-fashioned, but any time you use something electronic, the signals can be picked up and codes can be broken," he said.
Birds not bothersome
McLean said he moved to Shawnee 30 years ago when many of the Belgian farmers in the area kept pigeons. Pigeon racing is a national sport in Belgium, McLean said, though it has not been passed down through the generations in America.
While McLean is one of the few who have kept up the sport, he makes sure his birds aren't a bother to others.
The pigeons are kept under lock and key except when exercising or competing. If they were allowed to fly and wander, they wouldn't head straight home when racing, Chow said.
"These birds are so well-trained, you don't even know your neighbor has birds," he said.
Chow, whose father raised pigeons in China, had noticed McLean's birds out exercising when he would drive by his house, but he didn't want to just knock on a stranger's door. So when Chow, a computer technician, happened to go to McLean's neighbor's home to repair a computer, he asked her to introduce him to McLean.
Since then the two have seen each other almost daily. McLean enjoys Chow's stories about his childhood in China, and Chow has been soaking up McLean's knowledge of pigeon racing.
"I didn't know he's that good, that known in the region," Chow said. "It just happens that he's the best in the region."
For those who know, it's easy to tell a homing pigeon from a wild pigeon.
McLean said like racehorses, racing pigeons are athletes and treated as such: They are trained, exercised and fed a particular type of bird feed. They generally are twice the size of wild pigeons, with smaller feathers, though McLean said that's still not enough for most people to notice the difference.
A competition pigeon is given a leg band marked with its owner's club, its year of birth and a specific number. The best in recent years was No. 6767 -- he was McLean's version of Seabiscuit or War Admiral.
Currently, the best are No. 7510 and "Pencil," named for its coloring and one of just a few birds that Chow and McLean refer to by name.
Each bird also has a computer chip leg band used for timing. In races, the birds are picked up from the owners' homes, usually 12 or more per owner, and driven to a location where they are released together. The distance from each home to the release point is measured down to the yard, McLean said.
"Horses have a jockey to tell them what to do; those pigeons don't," he said. "They have to figure it out for themselves."
At 85, McLean spends about an hour a day with the pigeons, getting around with the help of a golf cart. He's not sure how much longer he'll be able to keep up the sport, but he plans to keep at it as long as possible.
"If I didn't have heart problems or arthritis," he said, "I'd race 'em another 15 years -- make it to 100."