City’s annexation grounds the Bird Man of Forsyth County

by Amy Kingsley

When Sylvester Burrow and his wife moved in 1996 to a modest subdivision south of Winston-Salem, they arrived with all the things they needed for their new life. Like 60 percent of Americans, those things included pets.

They were among the first of the new homeowners to relocate in the compact development, and they settled in – just the two of them and the aforementioned pets – in a house on a cul-de-sac. As the Burrows feathered their nest, so too did their pets, several dozen pedigreed performing pigeons known as Birmingham Rollers.

Burrow and his pigeons lived peaceably in Saponi Village, a collection of pale houses and naked saplings, until 2003, when the city of Winston-Salem announced plans to annex the development, which had until then rested in Forsyth County.

Burrow, a retired military man who’s been raising Birmingham Rollers since he was a boy in Petersburg, Va., knew enough to be worried for his birds.

“I’ve been around long enough to know you can fight annexation,” he said. “But it isn’t going to do you any good.”

The residents of Forsyth County put up a better fight than most, stalling the annexation with legal petitions until 2006, when the NC Supreme Court finally refused to hear their appeal. On Sept. 1, 2006, the residents of Saponi Village officially became a part of Winston-Salem. They joined thousands of others – the total number of county residents yoked by the city topped 17,000 – in one of the largest annexations in Camel City history.

Burrow, possessed as he is of fatalistic temperament, remained on the sidelines during the annexation protests. Which is not to say that he hasn’t formed an opinion of his new municipality.

“All I got from annexation was a trash can, a street light they haven’t finished building and a tax bill that’s twice as much,” he said.

And in June, Burrow received something else from the city: A note tacked to his door requesting that he call the zoning inspector. As it turns out, Burrow’s Birmingham Rollers, all 85 of them, violated a Winston-Salem ordinance regulating livestock within the city limits.

The law as it was written required a 150-foot buffer between any farm animals and adjoining property. The Burrows’ lot is a small one, one of the smallest in their development. The city was making them choose between their house and their pigeons.

Burrow can trace his Rollers all the way back to the late 19th century, to a mating pair owned by William Pensom, the man who introduced the British breed to the United States. All of his birds are banded, and each metal clip contains Burrow’s name, his telephone number and the birds’ registration number. Like any scrupulous breeder, Burrow keeps all the documentation for his animals.

Burrow belongs to a group of local enthusiasts, the Triad Flying Roller Club that recently hosted a national convention. The number of Birmingham Roller owners nationwide stands somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000, by Burrow’s estimation.

What makes the birds special – and utterly unique among avian species – is their ability to flip backwards during flight. Roller pigeons stop in mid-air and tumble groundward, recovering before they hit the ground.

“All of my neighbors around here love watching the birds,” Burrow said. “Everyone tells me it’s beautiful and nice.”

He exercises them every night, and manipulates their diet, a mixture of grain sorghum, wheat and Australian and Canadian peas, for high performance. The birds fly in groups called kits, and during the Roller National Cup, judges fly all over the world to measure how well the Rollers roll.

His neighbors noticed when Burrow’s birds disappeared last June. He’d divided his birds among the members of his club while he sorted out his problems with the city. Unwilling to surrender either his hobby or his home, Burrow called his council representative, Molly Leight. In mid September, he got a reprieve; the city told him he could keep his pigeons while they worked on a solution.

On Dec. 11, Leight invited Burrow to speak at the Community Development/Housing/General Government Committee. Burrow took the afternoon off from his job at Quality Oil, where he is a driver, and made his case for the birds.

“We’re trying to bend over backwards to figure out something that will work for Mr. Burrow,” Leight said.

Burrow’s case isn’t entirely unique, Leight said. The land outside the Darwick Road area, beyond the warren of suburban development, is dotted with horse barns. Most of the horse owners who’ve called own tracts of property large enough to comply with city regulations. Even so, the city council is considering changing the regulations to a 50-foot buffer.

The change wouldn’t help Burrow, so the committee assigned city staff members to study the problem and come up with a solution by February. They may write an exemption for Burrows, who keeps his pigeons in an enclosed building, or allow him to get a special use permit, Leight said.

“We’ll see what staff comes up with and where we end up,” she said.

Meanwhile Burrow is working on a plan to introduce troubled kids to Roller pigeons, something similar to the program he had going in Virginia. He’s talking to the bishop of his church, trying to see if there’s any interest.

“We brought people from all over the country for this three-day event that we had,” Burrow said. “They came here and spent money. We’re doing all the things they want us to do and we’re contributing to the community. That’s all I want them to know.”

There is another thing Burrow would like the council to know. The city classifies his Birmingham Rollers as fowl.

“But they’re really not fowl,” he said. “They’re descended from rock pigeons. They belong in the dove family.”

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