Despite gentrification and generation gaps, the Giant Runt Club’s annual show-pigeon competition rules the roost.
“The hens are a little bit more curvaceous, and they stand a little better. It’s almost like they’re modelling. You see her? See how she’s standing?” Manny De Medeiros pointed out the finer attributes of a tan-coloured giant runt pigeon, who regarded him dispassionately. “She” was one of 70 chicken-sized pigeons that stood in their pens, shook their feathers, and mostly ignored the men who filled the Ontario Giant Runt Pigeon Club’s Bloor West clubhouse on a drizzly Saturday morning for an annual competition.
Canadian, Portuguese, and Azores flags dangled from the walls. Stacks of cages atop milk crates lined the floor, which was littered with corn kernels and fresh pigeon droppings. Golden pigeon-topped trophies filled the shelves. An enormous pig hung from the ceiling to be auctioned off later. “We’re raising money to put in an escalator,” joked one man, as he descended the basement stairs to bring up another contestant.
The crowd was predominantly older men in toques and boots, trade-union badges and jean jackets. They greeted each other in Portuguese, slapped backs, and sipped bottles of beer. “There are people [here] that I’ve known all my life,” said De Medeiros, who founded the Giant Runt Club of Canada (this chapter has been around since 1993). He grew up in the Bloordale Village neighbourhood, and the club’s legacy extends even farther than that. “Our dads had birds back in the Azores,” he says of the Portuguese islands.
“Everything okay? Young males! White young males!” hollered Duarte Correia, the club’s president, as he announced the first category. “White cocks!” The judge plucked the first bird from the cage, felt its musculature and fanned out a wing to see the feathers. He pulled on the runt’s feet and scrutinized its gait. They’re judged for their shape, stance, and colour. Some birds protested, skittering to the backs of their cages, but for the most part, the docile breed tolerated being held.
The judge spent a few seconds mulling over his decision, then said, curtly, “One, two,” pointing at the winner and runner up, respectively. Most of these show pigeons don’t have names, and are instead identified by a number stamped on their leg bands. The judge’s decision is final. “Whatever he decides, this is good. You have to respect it,” said Correia. Onlookers applauded each judgment.
While the club was bustling this particular Saturday, its social function is usually more low-key: “To sit around, talk pigeons, have a few beers.” For this club, it remains to be seen what will transpire in the next decade. In the United States, special prizes have been instated as incentives to attract young people to giant runt breeding. That is not the case here. “When all these old guys are gone, [the club] will be a lot smaller than it is now,” said De Medeiros. “Hopefully, some of these guys that have kids will get them involved and try to keep it going, you know?”
By-law restrictions have also made it increasingly difficult to keep birds in the city. They must be kept in a coop at least 15 feet from residential property. Encroaching gentrification brings new neighbours who don’t always see the value in breeding the birds; they assume these “filthy rats of the sky” will be slaughtered and eaten. “And I’m trying to tell them ‘No, it’s a show bird,’” said De Medeiros. “We are crazy about this. I spend thousands of dollars a year to go to shows all over North America. I’ve been to Europe. I’ve been all over the place, just because of friggin’ pigeons.”