In the animal world, cat ladies, dog people and horse whisperers
are common cliches. Gilroyan Russ Angulo, on the other hand, is a
pigeon person. He got one tattooed on his ankle in 1992
– two weeks before marrying his wife, Debbie.
Without telling her.
In the animal world, cat ladies, dog people and horse whisperers are common cliches.
Gilroyan Russ Angulo, on the other hand, is a pigeon person.
He got one tattooed on his ankle in 1992 – two weeks before marrying his wife, Debbie.
Without telling her.
“We’re all kinda freaks about the pigeon thing,” he joked, speaking on behalf of pigeon enthusiasts everywhere.
Emerging from a coop on his property in south east Gilroy off Pacheco Pass, he carefully cradled a 2-day-old, feather-less chick slightly bigger than a golf ball. With zero feathers and bugged-out, purple eyes, the frail, naked thing resembled a miniature Thanksgiving turkey.
Not letting her husband off the hook, Debbie added, “he didn’t tell me he was thinking about getting a tattoo. At all.”
Nineteen years, 150 birds and seven lofts later – one loft is 90-feet-long – the couple runs Nor Cal Lofts: An eclectic side-business specializing in ceremonial dove releases. Launched as a modest means of supplemental income in 2004, the concept germinated from Russ’s longtime involvement with pigeon racing. His birds have flown distances of 600 miles for the sport, which has an active chapter in San Jose. The Angulos won’t schedule releases farther than 100 miles, however, as isn’t cost effective.
While “dove release specialist” seems synonymous with obscure vocations like “snake charmer,” the couple receives varied requests for a gamut of occasions.
Their downy friends have fluttered away at weddings, funerals, Memorial Day at Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy and special events set against scenic landscapes at beaches and wineries. Packages range from $200 to $300, and include options designed for varying events. In “The Shepherd,” for example, twelve white birds are released in representation of angels. A family member then releases a lone bird, symbolizing the “departed spirit making his/her final journey home.”
The birds fly up to 50 mph, and return to Gilroy in a couple of hours.
Which wouldn’t be possible, by the way, if they were doves.
“It’s symbolic,” Russ explained, of using the term “dove” instead of “pigeon.”
A dove represents love, peace, unity and fidelity, he said.
This is carefully laid out for customers who visit Nor Cal Loft’s website, which explains “only reputable dove release businesses will use white homing pigeons, as doves let out in the wild do not have the ability to go back home, and cannot fend for themselves.”
It makes you wonder if that iconic white “dove” deployed by Noah in hopes of finding dry land after weathering an apocalyptic flood was, in fact, a dove.
High-profile clients including movie producers and the San Francisco 49ers have also come calling, but the latter was turned down.
“We didn’t have enough birds for a stadium,” lamented Debbie.
“Mike Tyson has been out here, though,” added Russ.
Russ became chummy with the former world heavyweight champion when the two crossed paths at the annual Pageant of Pigeons in San Bernardino.
As it turns out, Iron Mike has a soft spot for pigeons.
In fact, the avian aficionado “threw his first punch when a neighborhood bully killed one of his beloved pigeons and threw it in his face,” according to the Animal Planet’s website. In the network’s original show, “Taking on Tyson” – which documents the beefy, retired fighter’s long-time passion for raising pigeons – he’s quoted as saying, “the first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon.”
“This is one of the things Tyson likes – flying the birds,” said Debbie, craning her neck toward a clear, azure stratosphere. “He says it’s calming for him.”
Russ opened a second coop. A feathery mass streamed upward, circling the canopy of a sprawling oak tree. When a group of red-, white- and black-colored pigeons split from the flock and spiraled together in a tight cluster, it looked like a cloud of allspice zipping through the sky.
Soaring over a field blanketed by a late afternoon sun, the Angulo’s doted-on flock juxtaposes the average pigeon’s stereotype as a germ-carrying scavenger.
Contrary, these birds are sleek, attractive and eye-catching as they coo from their perches in “shantytown,” as Debbie jokingly calls it. The range of handsome feather tones spans creamy palomino, copper, silver gray, pearl, pinto, almond, caramel and milky white. Russ says his oldest bird has been around since 1997.
Just 9-years-old when he rescued his first pigeon after it fell out of its nest, Russ has been breeding his own birds for 35 years and has paid between $100 and $2,500 for a new pigeon depending on lineage, conformation and homing ability. Desirable racers can auction for an arresting $200,000 or more, he said.
The flock is fed a special diet and kept on their toes – or, wings. They’re released in various locations from San Francisco, to Monterey, to Carmel.
“I’ll beat them the first time, but once they figure it out, they’re pretty smart,” said Russ.
As the sun began to set, his feathery family returned from their airborne joyride and lined up atop the coop.
Russ said he frees the pigeons for several hours a day, but shortens recreation time April through August.
“That’s hawk season,” he said, scanning the horizon. “The hawks pick them off like potato chips.”
Occasional loss is a minor but sad side note associated with the job.
For every five, long distance releases, the Angulos calculate an average loss of two pigeons to birds of prey, telephone wires or barbed fences.
Recalling a small, family service for a baby who got sick and died, Debbie admitted bookings at funerals or memorial services tug on the heartstrings.
“It’s not always easy, but we concentrate on what we gotta do,” said Russ.
Happier gigs turn into vivid memories, like a release performed at the marriage of an Indian couple. Debbie recalls the white birds making a gorgeous contrast against the bright, hot-hued clothing.
Refiguring his initial pigeon populace to somewhere between 150 and 200, Russ said he tries not to keep count.
“Otherwise, I’m like, ‘what am I doing with that many birds?'”
The most impressive fact, on that note?
The number of times Russ has been pooped on.
“Not that many.”
White dove releases from Nor Cal Lofts
– The dove lofts are located in Gilroy near Pacheco Pass
– Visit www.norcalloft.com to view release packages and prices, which range from $200 to $300
– Call Russ Angulo at (408) 313-1180 or Debbie Angulo at (408) 313-6520