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Conway hills damp but alive

  • Sage Fuller, 10, of Conway holds a screech owl brought to the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday by Tom Ricardi of the Mass Bird of Prey Rehabilition Facility. Asked what it felt like to hold the bird, Fuller replied with surprise, "It felt light." Recorder/Trish Crapo

    Sage Fuller, 10, of Conway holds a screech owl brought to the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday by Tom Ricardi of the Mass Bird of Prey Rehabilition Facility. Asked what it felt like to hold the bird, Fuller replied with surprise, "It felt light." Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Alice Tibbetts, 11, of Windsor, MA, steadies one of the racing pigeons the Northwest Junior Flyers brought to Conway's Festival of the Hills on Sunday so that Jacoby Demerath, almost 6, of Easthampton see what it's like to hold it. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Alice Tibbetts, 11, of Windsor, MA, steadies one of the racing pigeons the Northwest Junior Flyers brought to Conway's Festival of the Hills on Sunday so that Jacoby Demerath, almost 6, of Easthampton see what it's like to hold it. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Chris Curtis Recorder<br/>Bird rehabilitator Tom Ricardi of Conway holds one of his charges, a great horned owl, at the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday.

    Chris Curtis Recorder
    Bird rehabilitator Tom Ricardi of Conway holds one of his charges, a great horned owl, at the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday.

  • Chris Curtis Recorder<br/>Conway resident Jessica Recore, 9, serves as perch for a screech owl at the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday. The owl is part of Tom Ricardi's Mass. Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Facility exhibit.

    Chris Curtis Recorder
    Conway resident Jessica Recore, 9, serves as perch for a screech owl at the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday. The owl is part of Tom Ricardi's Mass. Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Facility exhibit.

  • CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Alice Tibbetts, 11, of Windsor, MA, fans out the wing of one of the racing pigeons her group, the Northwest Junior Flyers, brought to Conway's Festival of the Hills on Sunday. This variety of pigeon is called a "red," Tibbetts says, because of its feathering. Jules, her white and black specked pigeon, is a "grizzle." Recorder/Trish Crapo

    CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Alice Tibbetts, 11, of Windsor, MA, fans out the wing of one of the racing pigeons her group, the Northwest Junior Flyers, brought to Conway's Festival of the Hills on Sunday. This variety of pigeon is called a "red," Tibbetts says, because of its feathering. Jules, her white and black specked pigeon, is a "grizzle." Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Tim Tessier, an adult organizer of the Northwest Junior Flyers, displays a device that determines the times of the racing pigeons' flights. An ankle tag is removed from the bird at the end of the race and deposited into the device, which computes a reading of the birds' flying times. Birds average 45 mph, Tessier said. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Tim Tessier, an adult organizer of the Northwest Junior Flyers, displays a device that determines the times of the racing pigeons' flights. An ankle tag is removed from the bird at the end of the race and deposited into the device, which computes a reading of the birds' flying times. Birds average 45 mph, Tessier said. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Sage Fuller, 10, of Conway holds a screech owl brought to the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday by Tom Ricardi of the Mass Bird of Prey Rehabilition Facility. Asked what it felt like to hold the bird, Fuller replied with surprise, "It felt light." Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Alice Tibbetts, 11, of Windsor, MA, steadies one of the racing pigeons the Northwest Junior Flyers brought to Conway's Festival of the Hills on Sunday so that Jacoby Demerath, almost 6, of Easthampton see what it's like to hold it. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • Chris Curtis Recorder<br/>Bird rehabilitator Tom Ricardi of Conway holds one of his charges, a great horned owl, at the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday.
  • Chris Curtis Recorder<br/>Conway resident Jessica Recore, 9, serves as perch for a screech owl at the Conway Festival of the Hills on Sunday. The owl is part of Tom Ricardi's Mass. Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Facility exhibit.
  • CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Alice Tibbetts, 11, of Windsor, MA, fans out the wing of one of the racing pigeons her group, the Northwest Junior Flyers, brought to Conway's Festival of the Hills on Sunday. This variety of pigeon is called a "red," Tibbetts says, because of its feathering. Jules, her white and black specked pigeon, is a "grizzle." Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • CONWAY (October 6, 2013) — Tim Tessier, an adult organizer of the Northwest Junior Flyers, displays a device that determines the times of the racing pigeons' flights. An ankle tag is removed from the bird at the end of the race and deposited into the device, which computes a reading of the birds' flying times. Birds average 45 mph, Tessier said. Recorder/Trish Crapo

CONWAY — Did you see the pigeons?

Variations on this phrase, or “Look at the owl!” were on quite a few lips Sunday at the Conway Festival of the Hills, which drew hundreds to the ball fields and Town Hall lawn despite inclement weather.

The birds in question represented the Northwest Junior Flyers Racing Pigeon Club, and the Mass. Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Facility, respectively.

“Owl’s going to need a bath tonight,” said Tom Ricardi of Conway, lowering a great horned owl for a child in a stroller to stroke. The owl’s now candy-coated feathers testified to the popularity of the birds. Separated by one tent in the ball field, the two predator and prey bird tents both managed to draw small crowds even during the festival’s signature event, the skillet toss.

Alice Tibbetts’ bird Jules was among the collection of pigeons crated on the NJF table, with more in a coop adjoining the tent or peering up at visitors from suitcase-sized pens on the ground.

Tim Tessier, 75, of Chesterfield said he has been raising pigeons since he was a child and began the youth club in 2002 because his adult club was cut-throat and lacking in sportsmanship.

Participants raise and train pigeons, then drive them far from home and release them to time their return to their home coops.

Most of the pigeons look like the garden variety, but Tessier said they are hybrids of the same type used in World War II to transport clandestine communications.

Some of the cooped pigeons were free for the taking, provided the interested party could convince their parents to sign them up. This is how Alice, 11, of Windsor got involved. She saw the pigeon booth at the Cummington fair last year and wanted to try the hobby.

Now she has a little less than 30 birds, her father has built her a better pigeon loft to replace the one borrowed from the club, has competed several times and enjoys the hobby. “It’s really, really fun,” she said.

“You have to feed them and change their water, and also go through the training process,” she said. This involves teaching the pigeons to associate a particular noise — Alice has opted for shaking a can of rocks — with feeding time. This done, the birds will return to the coop for food when within hearing distance after they are let out to exercise. The rest of the distance, hundreds of miles from New York when competing, comes down to their homing instinct.

“That one will be going back to Cummington,” Tessier said, as a pigeon flapped away from a young handler, ultimately opting to perch on the coop rather than fly away in the cold drizzle.

The periodic rain showers and sustained drizzle grounded the planned release of hundreds of birds, with messages written by festival-goers tied to their legs, to be returned to sender via standard mail.

Two tents over, Ricardi’s birds weren’t going anywhere. Ricardi rehabilitates and releases 50 to 60 birds of prey a year with the help of veterinarian Robert Schmitt of the South Deerfield Veterinary Clinic, but these two are beyond full rehabilitation and now part of his educational exhibit. The screech owl is blind in one eye and the great horned owl has a crippled wing.

The screech owl, by far the smaller of the two, perched on the hands of curious children and adults, where the small bird sat and obligingly screeched.

Conway resident Jessica Recore, 9, said this was the first time she had held an owl, although her mother Naomi said they come to see the birds every year.

Jessica was also meant to dance with her class from Karen’s Dance Studio, but the show was rained out. The group marched in the parade instead.

“I was pretty sad about it, but the parade was really fun,” Jessica said. Holding the owl, she said, was awesome.

Rain washed out a few planned events, but organizers didn’t seem dispirited.

Food, crafts, music and children’s activities all featured alongside the birds, parade and race, letting the 52nd annual Festival of the Hills live up to its rain-or-shine promise.

“The bottom line is people come out for the festival,” said festival board chairwoman Michelle Harris.

“People still show up and they drink a lot of hot cider,” said board member Kate VanCort. They also ate a lot of fried dough and doughnuts; Harris said they sold 450 fried doughs and 16 dozen cider doughnuts, and the morning’s foot races saw a record number of runners.

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