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Photos by ARIEL HANSEN/Times-News Calder Zarkos of Ketchum is fascinated by an uncommon hobby that has a long and venerable history. The 14-year-old started keeping pigeons last summer and looks forward to his first pair hatching a clutch of eggs soon.

KETCHUM — Rats with wings? Dirty birds? Calder Zarkos doesn’t like it when people refer to his pets that way.

“These pigeons are cleaner than the city birds,” said the 14-year-old Ketchum boy, who has been raising pigeons for about nine months. They even love taking baths, he said. “I put bowls of water in their aviary, and they go crazy for it.”

It’s not a normal hobby for a teenager — or many Idahoans of any age. But keeping pigeons has a storied history, said Martha Andrea of Bellevue, who has helped Calder fill his coop.

“There was a time when it was much more popular, and it’s considered kind of unusual now,” Andrea said. In addition to the birds, she collects wooden pigeon decoys and original paintings of European champion pigeons from the turn of the last century. “In England, pigeon racing is a very highly regarded sport.”

Pigeons have been bred for characteristics, much like dogs — some are the homing type and are raced across hundreds of miles to see which gets home fastest; some are bred forbeauty; and others, likeCalder’s, have developedexceptional maneuverability over the generations.

Most of Calder’s are “roller” pigeons: When released, they fly in tight formations like Blue Angel pilots, then tumble backward together in a move that looks almost like a somersault.

“It’s a maneuver to avoid being eaten” by birds of prey, Calder said. “I read somewhere that it’s like a seizure, but I don’t believe that, because they seem to control it.”

Calder is a font of information about pigeons, mostly tidbits he has learned from researching them on the Internet, as well as his own observations. A few facts he’s quick to share: They’re descended from rock doves; they eat grains, corn, beans and peas; they can withstand temperatures of up to -20 degrees Fahrenheit; and both parents share the duties ofegg-sitting.

“He’s done a lot of research to become familiar with the birds and know how to take care of them,” said Calder’s mom, Jody. “It’s helped him grow older and more mature; taking care of another (living) thing tends to do that.”

Although the family has had other animals — including some that were officially Calder’s — this is the most responsibility for a creature that the teen has ever taken on.

“It’s given him a passion and an outlet that’s all his own,” Jody said. And Calder has even admitted that the math he’s learning in school can be useful, as he constructed a plywood coop for the birds. “I’d never heard him say anything like that about a class before!”

Although Calder has kept pigeons for less than a year, he has shown his commitment to the hobby, caring for them daily before and after school, even through the dark, cold winter.

“Each time I see him, he seems just as excited, but even more knowledgeable,” Andrea said. “It’s been fun for me to see a young person get excited about pigeons.”

What really gets Calder to grin is being out with the birds.

His hand-built coop has an attached aviary so the birds can be in the weather but protected from predators. The aviary has a Plexiglas door so selected birds can fly when he opens it, and a one-way hatch lets birds back into the coop but doesn’t allow cooped birds to escape.

Calder has only let a few pigeons out to fly two times, and it was nerve-wracking.

“You’re not sure if they’ll come back,” he said. But he’s done his research — before flying the pigeons, he limits their food, so they come home for dinner. Once they’ve had a few hungry flights, they can be fed more regularly, as they’ve learned the routine. “I think they’re pretty smart; you just have to train them. It’s really food-driven.”

Calder is looking forward to flying the pigeons more this summer, but in the meantime, he’s satisfied to spend time in their coop, admiring their colors, learning their pecking order and waiting for his first clutch of eggs to hatch.

Ariel Hansen may be reached at ahansen@magicvalley.com or 788-3475.

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