OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A pair of charcoal gray Belgium pigeons huddle together on a bitter cold day in their loft, a cozy, wooden shed where they are instinctively and mysteriously drawn.
The birds _ mates for life _ care for their young, eat seeds and grains, and take baths in a tray of water in their home at the center of the country's pigeon racing culture.
The pigeons live at World of Wings, an educational center operated in Oklahoma City by the American Homing Pigeon Institute. The American Pigeon Racing Union, which has 11,000 members nationwide, shares the same building.
The Belgium pigeons' ancestors raced hundreds of miles to return to their lofts, sometimes traveling more than 50 or even 60 miles per hour _ faster than thoroughbreds or greyhounds. Sights, sounds, smells and possibly even the earth's gravity and the position of the sun help pigeons find their way home, said Deone Roberts, the racing union's sport development manager.
``This is nature's mystery,'' she said. ``Scientists don't know how they do it.''
The pair of Belgium birds are used for breeding because of their champion bloodlines. They are one of several breeding couples living at the center.
Fanciers, people who race pigeons for sport, travel across the country to choose the parents of their racing pigeons at the breeding loft. Breeding pigeons are worth up to $10,000, depending on how they've done in races. Their offspring sell for $250 each.
Fanciers can win thousands of dollars if their pigeon travels the fastest during a race. The top prize for a 200-mile race scheduled for July 4 in Oklahoma City is $3,000.
Birds entered in a race are driven 200 to 1,000 miles away from their lofts and released simultaneously after sunrise by a ``liberator.'' When a pigeon returns home, its owner immediately removes a capsule in the bird's ankle band that contains its race registration number.
The owner drops the capsule, called a countermark, into a special pigeon racing clock that records its arrival time on a roll of paper. Owners take the clocks to their local pigeon racing club, where the arrival times are retrieved and entered into a computer.
The computer gives each bird's speed in yards per minute. The fastest pigeon wins.
Electronic clocks in the loft and a computer chip attached to the bird's ankle can record its arrival time automatically.
But waiting for the pigeons to return home is the fun part, said Randy Goodpasture, a Guthrie man who runs World of Wings.
``It's got all the excitement of racing horses, but it's a lot cheaper,'' he said.
Birds start training to race when they learn to fly. At first, they're ``tossed'' a few blocks from home. Owners increase the distance until their pigeons are flying 100 miles to reach their lofts.
Racing pigeons that don't return home most likely take up with wild birds, Goodpasture said. Lost birds have been known to return home up to a year later.
Goodpasture, who started racing with his father at age 8, owns pigeons that traveled 565 miles from Brownsville, Texas, to their Oklahoma home in one day.
To participate in the union's national convention, owners send baby pigeons several months in advance to handlers in the state where the convention is held. Birds have to train there and establish their lofts.
Racing pigeons are descendants of the carrier pigeon, homing pigeons used for thousands of years to transport messages. The most famous carrier pigeon, G.I. Joe, is credited with saving the lives of at least 1,000 British soldiers during World War II. He flew 60 miles per hour to bring a message to the Americans that said Britain had taken over Colvi Vecchia, Italy, and there was no need to bomb it.
Oklahoma City has been the headquarters of the union since the 1950s. The union began about 1910 and meetings were held in members' garages for the next 40 years, Roberts said.
The union is trying to attract younger members, such as 4-Hers and Boy Scouts. The average age of members is 55.
Most every sizable town in the United States has at least one pigeon racing club, Roberts said. There are 20 in the Oklahoma City area and a handful more in Tulsa.
``It's a fun hobby, almost a sophisticated sport,'' she said. ``It's a family activity that can happen in a back yard.''