Griffin’s lifelong love is for the birds.
Posted July 2004
The wind is sharp but the sky is bright blue and Bill Griffin is in his element, right here on the roof of his used Ford dealership with 40 pigeons in a noisy, toy-sized coop.
“She. Is. A. Honey,” he coos to bird No. 0745, a blue-gray beauty with feathers as soft as silk flowers. “This bird, we’re going to breed her and race her. But not beyond 300 miles.”
By day, Griffin (Economics ’52) sells cars at one of his three dealerships in Greenwich, Conn. When he’s finished for the day, he drives his navy blue 2004 Explorer, complete with orange detail and “WAHOOS” license plate, to his dealership on the other side of town. And the site of his true passion: a low-ceilinged, white-walled pigeon coop on a wind-swept roof.
“It started as a kid and it gets in your system,” he said.
When he was 13 or 14, he can’t remember, he raised a baby crow to a full-fledged pet. The bird nested on a perch outside his bedroom window and followed him to school, from telephone pole to telephone pole, every single day. The bird was famous — w ell, pretty well known — in his hometown of Pelham, N.Y.
“Jimmy the Crow,” he mused. “He was the talk of the town.”
After that, he got into falconry with his twin brother, Peter, and then graduated to racing pigeons.
Racing homing pigeons isn’t as simple as just getting a bird, feeding it and setting it free. Racing a pigeon means you have to invest time — and money — into housing and training it. Nowadays, racing also involves complex electronic devices to clock a pigeon’s racing time and mark the exact moment the bird comes back to the coop.
During his time at the University of Virginia, he gave the pigeon hobby a break. But as soon as he got married, he started back up again.
“You have to marry a girl who puts up with it,” he said.
His wife of 49 years, Ellie, pretty much deals with it, he said, although he can’t remember the last time she stepped foot in the coop.
How the pigeons — he mostly races Van Riel and Pepperman breeds — find their way home is a matter of debate. Research at England’s Oxford University suggests that pigeons follow roads and motorways, not the direction of the sun, as was popularly believed. In 2001, scientists in Japan claimed that pigeons get their homing instinct from traces of iron in their inner ear.
Either way, Griffin’s birds come home. Mostly. Sometimes they arrive bloody, victims of telephone wires, strong winds or hawks. Sometimes they don’t come home at all.
There are losses in this sport. But it’s part of the cycle.
Just don’t even think of comparing his sweeties to the riff-raff in city parks.
“That’s what we call the junk,” he said.
The popularity of racing pigeons is slowly declining. It’s too expensive and time-consuming for most youngsters. A local bird can cost up to $500. Some prize-worthy birds bring in $5,000 or even $100,000, Griffin said.
What you look for in a racing pigeon: strong lineage (official papers back up the bird’s pedigree) and sharp eyes.
What exactly to look for in the eyes is not plain to see. But those in the know simply know.
There are other things Griffin knows.
A male pigeon (how he knows it’s a male, again, not apparent to those not in the know) struts his stuff inside the chicken-wire enclosed part of the coop.
“He’s showing off for his girl,” Griffin said. “They grab each other by the beaks and that’s how they kiss.”