By Ezra Lee Kohli (email@example.com)
Secretary, Ohio-Penn Racing Pigeon Federation
The Great Polish American Champion
2008 Gulf Coast Classic Winner
2009 Gulf Coast Auction Winner
2010 OB Champion Loft, Unit 10
Cleveland, 1998. After competing for 26 years against the likes of Vic Miller, Bobby Krzewinski, Ziggy Wisniewski, Frank Gerris, Stanley Biesiadecki, Mike Gallo, Mike Gima, Henry Zebrowski, and Alex Sosnowski, a far-sighted Andy Kowalewski organized a complete dispersal sale, and sold an exceptional family of Desmet-Matthys pigeons that he had been grooming since 1972. His winning record in Cleveland’s Polish American Club, East Side Combine, Independent Homing Club, and OCH Club had made him a prominent figure in Cleveland racing pigeon circles.
Along with the great Bobby Krzewinski, he had even succeeded in getting himself boundaried out of the once prestigious IHC club. But now, just retired from Ford Motor Co., there was no time lost in looking back. He was headed for big-time pigeon racing in Springhill, Florida. The future looked bright with new challenges and excitement. He and his wife couldn’t wait to get down there.
I was in that crowded auction room in 1998, and I was lucky; I got out of there with two birds. In the 13 years since, much of my own good fortune in pigeon racing has included the potent blood of Andy Kowalewski’s Desmet-Matthys stock somewhere in the lineage.
It was from that experience that I came to realize that there was something extraordinary about Andy Kowalewski and his pigeons. Then, in 2008, Kowalewski won the GHC Classic, the most prestigious young bird race in America, against 2227 birds. That same year, he won the Unit 10 Auction race. He followed that up with a GHC Auction win in 2009 with an entry of only 3 birds. In 2010, Kowalewski won again, this time in the FSI Auction race. Having last visited him at the AU Convention in 2001, I decided it was time to catch up on just what exactly he was doing down there. Perhaps you can benefit from what I learned.
“Tough Times Don’t Last. Tough People Do.”
Today in America, some say our excessive living over the last 40 years has contributed to a lack of drive, sacrifice, stamina and toughness in the American psychic, and a near collapse in work ethic. I don’t know myself. I’ve always worked too hard. We’ll leave it for those over-paid and under-worked sociologists to figure out, but life wasn’t all that easy for Kowalewski, who emigrated from Poland.
Andy explained. “At the conclusion of World War II, the majority of the Polish people were imprisoned in either Germany or in Russia. Many Polish families decided not to return to Poland, or to chance living in a country that had not known freedom, or to chance being caught once again in a different kind of ‘prison camp’ setting. My father was taken by force to Siberia by the Russians, where he was lucky to survive. He later joined the Polish Army Corps that was organized in Russia. His transition began from there as he journeyed through Africa, Italy and finally to Britain. From England, he decided to come to the greatest free country in the world, the USA.”
“The majority of Polish people coming to America were young in age, but rich in experience. They formed Polish social organizations, and began looking for ways to reunite with the families they left behind. I remember like yesterday. It took me 18 years to emigrate from Poland to the USA to see my father for the first time. God bless his soul. I miss Poland. It’s a different country now, but I never went back.”
He goes on. “When I was a young kid in Poland, there was no chance for me to participate in the pigeon racing sport, but Poles are very serious racing pigeon competitors on the world stage. Polish pigeon flyers place much more emphasis on yearlings and old birds than they do young bird racing. The important thing to remember is that there are good birds and bad birds all over the world. I do happen to have a son of the world famous “Polish Prince” that was given to me as a surprise gift by my dear friend Mikolaj Mlynarczuk of Philadelphia, who was visiting the day we won the 2008 GHC Classic race. It was the biggest thrill of my life to have him in my home on such a special day.”
Palm Trees, Swimming Pools, Mosquitoes and Gators
Springhill, Florida, 2001. Kowalewski had finally arrived in full battle gear ready to race pigeons. With 25 premier late hatches rolled over from the Cleveland stock and stabled at close friend, Fred Robles of Tampa, the anticipation had really surged. The blood line included Desmet Matthys, Calia Janssens, Haveniths and Vanbruaenes, and he expected them to be very competitive in Florida. Twelve years later, only the original Desmet Matthys blood remains. To the mix have been added Houbens, Van Dyck Janssens, and Vandenabeele’s from Alfonso Polanco. “In Cleveland, I had concourse and federation winners in my loft, and some were big. You don’t see many big pigeons in Florida.”
Kowalewski learned early in life to be a good listener, and he found lots of flyers in both the Gulf Coast Homing Club and the Unit 10 Club to be helpful and friendly. One of the first was Harry Shipholt who took nearly a whole day with Andy and his wife, reviewing maps, driving the roads and showing Andy where best to train relative to his location on the long end of Unit 10. Saki Becarevic, an occasional training partner, taught Andy better feed formulating. From Earol Emerson, Andy learned how to improve and adapt his overall health program to Florida’s challenging heat. Andy credits much of his early success to the advice, generosity and patience of these three kind gentlemen. Surrounded now by flyers that have competed for 50 years or more, he is still almost overwhelmed by the vast knowledge and prominence of the men that are his club-mates. “My fellow Florida flyers have always been extremely helpful to me, and I will always appreciate them for that kindness.”
Today, Hernando County’s Gulf Homing Club in Springhill, having both north and south sections for awards, is the largest and most impressive racing pigeon organization in Florida. The large facility is air conditioned, includes guest areas, and has a kitchen that any golf country club in America would kill for. According to Andy, “Food is prepared by a cast of wonderful auxiliary ladies every shipping night.”
The Unit 10 Club also has a new clubhouse, and boundaries of only a few miles. The Unit 10 Club is affiliated with the IF, has an excellent trailer, and flies races on Wednesdays from 100 to 300 miles, a number of which are 300 mile specials. In 2001, the Unit 10 club hosted the IF Convention.
“Both clubs are very healthy and growing steadily, with many young flyers joining. Everyone comes here to compete and win against the best, so the competition is tough, and getting tougher. The younger flyers, of course, are very energetic, which makes the work on the older guys that much more demanding. It keeps us young. You have to work much harder in Florida than in other areas to be on top.” He goes on, “There are no zoning problems, and property values fell here like they did everywhere else in the country. I’d move to Florida again in a minute. The climate is unbeatable.”
Emphasis on Young Bird Racing
Much to the disappointment of his friends in Ohio and Pennsylvania, who stay awake at night thinking about championship old bird racing, the demanding Florida young bird regimen has taken its toll on the 72 year old Kowalewski. “I’m no longer as serious about old bird racing. It’s a long season here in Florida, and young birds demand so much of our time. But, old bird racing down here is considered big when we fly the Federation races. In Ohio, I flew old birds on widowhood, and that’s the easiest way to fly old birds. The loft must be set up properly for cocks, and the hens must be housed separately. Then everything must be done on time; feeding, training, loft flying, showing hens, and darkening the loft. If you mess up a few times, you’re done for the season.”
The Gulf Coast Classic Win, 2008
One of the greatest achievements in a great career, was Kowalewski’s win of the 2008 Gulf Coast Classic. It all started when 78 year old Archie Kimberlin, of Yorktown, Virginia, (757-876-3871) sent in a nice looking blue Super 73/Hekkenklak (1/8) cock, 479 AU 08 ARPU. Kimberlin is retired military, and flies a family of Van Loons purchased from Jim Gabler. He was also 17th overall in the same race with a bird from his longer distance Huskyen-VanReil family. “I did a little research on the situation down there. I wanted a flyer on the long end that was honest, communicated well, knew the business, and would truly give my bird an honest evaluation. Kowalewski was absolutely perfect. We have become great friends,” Kimberlin said.
After surviving all of the numerous obstacles that a seasoned, championship young bird team goes through, the youngster was raced 100/125/150/200, then stopped, followed by a large number of 20 to 25 mile short tosses. Like a great, hot-wired thoroughbred, the young cock was then allowed to rest for just four days before going into the 300. “He seemed to get especially motivated flying to hatching eggs, so that’s what we made sure he was setting on,” said the experienced Kowalewski.
At the release in Louisville, Georgia, the weather was clear; the wind from the north, and the temp was 43 degrees. At the Kowalewski home front, it was clear, with north winds at 5 to 7 mph and 73 degrees. The distance was 321 miles. In a racing environment that usually sees nano-seconds between contenders on the first sheet, the great young cock-bird won the race by 1 minute and 44 seconds, flying 1364 ypm, whipping 2227 birds in the process. “Words cannot describe the incredible feeling. The experience was thrilling and unforgettable for me. Every pigeon flyer in the country dreams of winning the Gulf Coast Classic. By every measurement, the Classic is the most prestigious pigeon race in America.”
The greatest prognosticator in the sport, Ad Schaerlaeckens provides sound advice when he writes in his new (2011) book, “When you want to strengthen your breed, let yourself be guided by results, not by names.” From that viewpoint, it is interesting to review Kowalewski’s formidable track record performing in two of the country’s most elite clubs, despite surviving in the midst of it all, a serious bout with colon surgery just three years ago.
OK. So, How Does He Do It?
The first thing you figure out about Andy Kowalewski is that you can learn a great deal more if you just shut up and listen. He likes that, too, so that’s what I did. I battened down and concentrated on my note-taking.
In his own words, he started off, “First of all, I stay with my system which I choose at the beginning of the year, no matter what kind of distance they fly. Sometimes I get frustrated when the plans aren’t going the way I want, but like they say, the work you love never makes you tired. Regarding my own stock, I usually raise only 30, and I send a lot of them out to other auctions across the country. I separate youngsters from their parents when they are 20 to 24 days old. They then go on 17 hours of light. I teach them how to find feed and water. About 3 days later, I move them all to the aviary so they begin to see their surroundings and can begin to learn how to take a bath. I vaccinate them for PMV and Pox. I give them vaccinations one time. As yearlings, they’ll get a booster. From then on, I let them spend lots of time in the aviary, but no bathing is allowed for 4 more weeks. For Adeno problems, which we all suffer with, I use Adeno Zap.”
“My time-frame for accepting Classic entries is March and April, and that’s when the headaches start. I will usually take only 50 or 60 of them. You can imagine the cast of characters; different sizes, shapes, colors backgrounds and health problems. This is when the real work begins. The first order of business is to get friendly with them. At the same time, I am noticing sex, health and temperments. Once again, the entries are poxed, pmv’d and wormed. I know they are feeling at home when they begin to pick their own perches. They continue to spend lots of time in the aviary.”
“We start by teaching the birds to use the clocking stalls. After a few days, I open up the aviary and let them begin to explore things on their own. I make sure to do it before the evening feeding. I also cross my fingers. Settling the birds is much easier in my neighborhood because I am the only flier, unlike those in Unit 10, or shorter. After I notice that the youngsters have started to route, and I don’t see them for a while, I begin also to train them lightly, in the basket. Starting at 2, then 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 miles, I repeat the distances each time, until the birds head for home without circling. A great deal of patience is required. Success at this point is not measured by how fast I can get them down the road, but by how well they break. I have to keep reminding myself of that. By June 1st, I am usually out to about 25 miles. Then I quit training.”
“For six weeks, the birds are locked down, giving them time to cycle through a good moult. During this important time period I just watch them, learning their personality traits and looking for health problems. Close to the end of August, I start training the team again. By this time I know them pretty well, they have matured, and I am full of confidence that they can continue on down the road without getting lost.”
“The new loft is only for young birds flying in the money races, and is 12’ x 24’. It has a double floor, meaning that the birds are on welded wire, 12” above the plywood floor. The floor has been constructed with 36” openings on the lower front of the loft so that, with a long scraper, I can reach clear to the back wall and pull droppings toward me, and into my wheel barrel. The front walls are 12 feet tall. The back walls are 10 feet tall, so the roof has a 2’ pitch from front to rear. The ceiling is open between the rafters for easy air movement. There are 2 turbine air vents.”
“The front wall, below the aviary, is completely open, and covered by ½” wire mesh. The front of the building is also equipped with curtains that can be lowered when necessary to keep the loft dry. The landing board is 4 feet wide and 36” deep. Aviaries are 24 feet long and 3 feet deep, separated, with doors so I can put in bath water, or separate the sexes.”
“All birds enter the loft through the middle section on race day, or for training. The floor plan includes 4 sections, each with sliding doors, and each section having enough space for 20 birds, plus droppers. Two sections have nest boxes and perches. Two sections have perches only. The nest boxes are strictly for motivation. A front 4’ hallway extends 24 feet from one end of the loft to the other.”
“All birds are fed on trays. In Florida, the first and last consideration when designing a loft is ventilation. We want as much air as we can get without ending up with drafts.
“After establishing a family of birds, I try to breed essentially from those family members that have respectable flying records. Long distance birds are bred only to long distance birds; middle to middle; sprint to sprint. I give my breeding pairs plenty of time to show me something, even up to 3 years. I am not afraid to re-mate them. A fancier with 3 good pairs of breeders is a lucky guy.”
“I am focused only on consistency in performance from week to week, and believe me, from that standpoint, color doesn’t mean anything to me. I want balance in every category. Big muscles, a big chest, big lungs, a good heart, a strong back, a healthy keel bone, and tight vents gets it done for me. I like to see a large roomy throat with a closed palate in my breeding hens. In distance birds, I like to see a ½” step between the primaries and secondaries. I also like to see space between the last three flights, and I want them to look like steak knives.”
Feeding and Supplements
“Feed in Florida is very expensive because it has to be trucked in. I top dress my feed with a 9 oil mix that includes Australian Poly seed oil. I use a lot of Pigeon Boost Pro-Vital. This formula has everything that pigeons require. Twice a week, I put apple cider vinegar in the water.”
At the beginning of each racing season, as a part of the overall plan to set up the team for the year, Andy arbitrarily decides whether the birds are to be fed on a once-a-day, or on a twice-a-day, feeding program. Once that decision is made he sticks to it all year. The decision is based on a number of subjective factors; his comfort with the birds’ early season condition, the perceived difficulty of the upcoming schedule, the number of races each bird on the team is targeted to participate in, the long term weather forecast, etc. It is all a part of the chemistry that championship level trainers are intrinsically good at. “I have a regular routine, but I change it every day” once said the tough flying Bobby Krzewinski of Cleveland. In his day, Krzewinski (pronounced Shavinksy) was considered to be the closest thing to a professional pigeon racer that Cleveland ever produced. He was a close confident of Kowalewski, and obviously influenced Andy’s management in the loft.
“I feed 15% protein.
On the once-a-day program, the birds eat all they want. On the twice-a-day program, I feed only one
ounce per bird up to 150 miles. After
we have passed that race point, I add one ounce of feed for every five
birds. Of course, when you parcel out
feed like this, it is absolutely critical that you have adequate feeding space
so that the feed is spread evenly, giving all birds equal opportunity to get
their share. If you don’t, you’ll have some
falling back in fleshing because they aren’t getting enough to eat, and it will
obviously affect their race condition.
It is a common sense thing. Nor,
do I believe that feeding light to heavy is right for my team. I want them to have protein right after the
exertion of racing (see the good Dr’s medical book), which is when they need
it. Toward the end of the week I
migrate toward cereal grains to increase the carbs.”
“On shipping day I always feed at the same time depending on distance. For 100 and 150 mile races I feed at 9:00 AM. For distances of 200 miles and over, I feed twice a day, at 8:00 AM and 1:00 PM. For races that exceed 250 miles, I feed at 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. If my regular feeding program is to feed only once a day, the birds to be shipped get fed at 11:00 AM. For drink, the birds are given red cell in the morning and clear water in the afternoon. Upon arrival after the race, glutamin powder is put in the water. I also use Home Art products from Bob Koch.”
“Most flyers I have known tend to over medicate, in my opinion. There is too much to choose from on the market: 4 in 1; 5 in 1; 10 in 1; all in 1. Why don’t they just come up with a product called 24-7? It is almost ridiculous, but it is great for the gossipers that surround us. The typical pigeon flyer believes everything he hears without subjecting much of it to the stink test. I like to see guys come along that are good listeners, have some common sense, and are smart enough to listen intently to successful trainers that have proven that their systems work.”
“The best health care advice I could give anyone is to buy Dr Colin Walkers Disease book. I live and die with it. I use it in-season and off-season. No serious pigeon flyer should ever be without it.”
Take another good look at Andy Kowalewski’s picture. It is the face of a risk-taking, long lasting, hard working champion. It is also probably safe to say that 65% of all the flyers in America are close to Andy’s age, or older.
We all want the sport to grow and to continue to improve into the future, but we have to recognize that some of our very best flyers, and the bulk of our numbers, are getting considerably older. How many of them will be flying in 2022? I hope the AU and IF have started their rough planning for those years not all that far ahead. When these great, aged stalwarts drop out of the sport, or reduce their participation, a lot of our competition, and a lot of our learning goes with them. The declining level of participation in most areas of the country will test us like nothing we have ever faced.
While it is not possible for many of us to up-root and move to a pigeon racing hub like Springhill, Florida, you have to be significantly impressed by what they have accomplished there. It is encouraging to see what immense things can be done when constructive minds come together, and persist. And then, you have to ask, what parts of the Springhill experience can be duplicated in other parts of the country. What makes their sense of comaraderie so strong? Where does their creativity and energy come from?
Every one of us can assist in furthering the sport by doing something good in between our periods of robust second-guessing and complaining. Every one of us has something unique to give. Most just don’t give anything. Introspectively, we should demand of ourselves that we do just one thing constructively every 12 months to further the sport. It might be something as simple as subscribing to, and supporting, the sports only national magazine, the Digest, but every single one of us should be doing something, other than minimizing the efforts of others, if this great past-time is to have meaningful survival.
These essays are written, not for recognition or compensation, but because our group has made the calculation that (1) these articles will increase enthusiasm and participation by rewarding and motivating flyers, and (2) in our writings, little nuggets of truth are logged of what these great champions do when at the top of their game. It is a time consuming effort to promote and protect what has been learned through trial and error by these great competitors. The pigeon racing environment is fertile ground for the yarn-spinners, snake oil salesmen and gossipers, and there is way too much time lost re-inventing the wheel. Perhaps a little informative reading can help manage that problem, or get the rest of us a little closer to a Springhill-type experience.
Andy Kowalewski is one fortunate pigeon flyer. He took a chance late in life with his move to Florida, and it has all worked out. “My wife loves Springhill. I love Springhill, and we have always been active socializing in the Florida pigeon sport, all year round. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again, and I have to say that none of this would have been possible without the courage and support of my beautiful wife, Julie. She has been the biggest plus in my racing career. When I was sick, she did all of the loft work, and she did it well. When I am tired and groggy in the wee hours during the training season, she is the one that pokes me in the ribs and hustles me out of bed. A pigeon flyer couldn’t have a more inspiring wife, and I really love her for all of her support through these many years. She’s a beautiful woman.”
Those of us that know Andy and respect him are very proud to call him one of our own. Through all of his success, he has never forgotten his old friends in Ohio, and is still active in his support of the highly popular GNEO and OCR Futurity races. He has become a great Gulf Coast Champion. He is also a great Polish American Champion.
His formula for succeeding in this sport is very simple. “Winning pigeon races, anywhere in America, involves setting goals, concentrating intensely on genetics, training, conditioning, and motivation, and then not slacking off. You can’t lose your focus. Add a little luck, add a little patience, and in time, things work out right.”
We agree, and the next thing you know, somebody will show up at your doorstep, and ask to write about your unusual racing achievements. Being bold enough to imbibe in a little risk-taking at retirement age doesn’t have to be part of the deal. If you need some pigeon racing vigor, or some fresh ideas, Andy can be reached in the off-season stretched out by his swimming pool in sunny Florida at 813-929-0761. Good luck exploring, and in your going forward.
(About the author: Ezra Lee Kohli is Secretary and Publicity Officer for the Ohio-Penn Racing Pigeon Federation. He is a 3 time Overall Winner of the Ohio-Penn Federation 400 and has been 2nd Overall, a fourth time. He is also a 9 time Section Winner in the Ohio-Penn Federation, has a BS Degree in Poultry Science from the Ohio State University, and owns and operates a 100 year old General Store, and 2 pizza shops in Ohio’s Amish Country with his wife and step-son. Kohli is a certified life-time fanatic of the sport. His articles are dedicated to the memory of his boyhood friend, the great pigeon racer Steve Schnitkey, of Archbold, Ohio.)