This piece was produced by independent producer Jens Erik Gould and originally aired on KCRW’s Which Way, LA?.
It’s late on a Saturday morning in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Pacoima. Standing in his backyard, Will Stenhouse releases a group of 20 pigeons into the sky. Suddenly, half a dozen birds do somersaults, fall towards the ground for several seconds, and then recover. Several dozen onlookers cheer in approval.
“I’m proud of them.” Stenhouse says about his pigeons.
Stenhouse, 38, is a forklift operator in this blue-collar area. But his real passion is breeding and flying Birmingham roller pigeons, a peculiar breed of bird that naturally performs backwards somersaults—or “rolls”—in the air.
Birmingham rollers were bred in England in the 1800s and then imported to the U.S. Over the past decades, flying the birds has evolved into a global sport that even has a world cup. Today, there are an estimated 5,000 roller pigeon enthusiasts nationwide, and nearly one-third of them are in Southern California.
Surprisingly, most enthusiasts hail from lower-income areas of Los Angeles, and quite a few of them are former gang members.
That’s the case with Stenhouse, who used to be part of a gang affiliated with the Bloods. He has a scar on his chest, a reminder of the drive-by shooting that hit him in front of his home years ago.
After he recovered from critical condition, Stenhouse began devoting more of his time to pigeons, and he says that dedication inspired him to leave the gang and get a job. He found pigeon shows and competitions to be a neutral ground for rival gang members.
“It’s cool to see Crips and Bloods fly pigeons and be in the same pigeon club together without fighting,” says Stenhouse, who has a small tattoo of a dollar bill on his cheekbone.” You go to areas you’re not supposed to be in and they welcome you. It changes the way you feel about them.”
Milena Pastreich, an L.A.-based filmmaker who has spent years following roller enthusiasts for her documentary “Birdmen,” says men find a sense of family in the pigeon community that they used to get from gangs.
“They do anything for their birds, including staying out of jail,” Pastreich says. “A lot of them say that if they went to prison nobody would be able to take care of their birds.”
Now a breeder, Stenhouse has more than 500 pigeons in multiple walk-in cages in his backyard. He spends several hours everyday training them to fly in competitions. When the weekend comes, he travels from house to house watching his fellow enthusiasts compete.
Judges rates the birds’ performance based on the quality, style and depth of the their rolls. “You get the most score when the birds break in unison,” says Marshall Duncan, who was already in first place when Stenhouse flew his birds. “At least five have to roll in unison to score.”
The sport does have its critics. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested several flyers in 2007 for allegedly trapping and killing hawks and falcons that were preying on their pigeons.
“I got in trouble for killing hawks,” says Keith London, a South L.A. breeder who was charged with a misdemeanor. “The federal government brought in an undercover guy who hung around us for 18 months and got seven of us.”
The arrests earned roller pigeon aficionados a bad rap among general bird enthusiasts. London argues killing the predators was justified because they were making it impossible to fly pigeons.
London adds that pigeons add social value to communities by helping people like himself stay on the straight and narrow. “That’s what kept me out of trouble,” London says. “My twin brother was a gang member. A real one. Saggy pants and everything. And I didn’t hang with him.”
Back in Pacoima, Stenhouse couldn’t agree more. “You’re spending more time in your backyard than in the streets,” he says. “When I’m stressing, I come sit here and vent with my birds.”
Jens Erik Gould has done work for TIME Magazine, KTLA 5 in Los Angeles, The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg. He was based for three years in Caracas, Venezuela, for another three years in Mexico City, and has now been a California correspondent for nearly two years. As a musician, Jens has been a performer and songwriter for 14 years and plays regularly in Los Angeles at venues from the House of Blues to Genghis Cohen. He is also the creator of Bravery Tapes, a multimedia experience that portrays stories of human courage.