It has been suggested that the first homing pigeon was the one that was released by Noah, but the sport of racing homing pigeons is from more recent times. Pigeons are sometimes cruelly branded as "flying rats", but when compared to the finely bred and highly tuned racing machine that is the modern racing pigeon, the basic pigeon that you see in parks and flying around city buildings, simply does not compare.
It is widely acknowledged that pigeons have been used to carry messages for centuries, but in the mid nineteenth century in Europe, a sport based on pigeons flying home, evolved. This sport was not about whether a bird could get home, but how fast it could negotiate the distance to get home. By the late 1800’s races were being conducted regularly in organised competitions in European countries such as Belgium, Holland, France, Germany and Great Britain. Many other countries soon followed the trend.
The modern racing pigeon has been specifically bred from a variety of pigeons and unlike the feral pigeons which plague most cities of the world, the racing homer is to pigeons what the thoroughbred racehorse is to horses. Racing pigeons are bred down from many generations of forbearers, from which certain attributes such as performance, stamina, intelligence, size and breeding ability have evolved.
The racing pigeon is reported to be the product of crossings of several different varieties of domesticated pigeons, which were then subjected to training and racing. From these varieties, evolved pigeons capable of being released several hundred kilometres from their home or loft. Pigeons can return home with average speeds of 75 to 90 kph, depending on wind conditions. It is very common these days for racing pigeons to be released shortly after daybreak some 800 kilometres from home, to orientate and then fly all day, arriving home before nightfall.
Most racing pigeons are pedigreed and can at times cost anything up to $5,000 with the odd exception where 5 or even 6 figures can be reached. Of course, such prices are a rarity, with average prices at special auction sales generally being $100 to $200 per pigeon, depending on the racing history of that bird or its family. Many good quality racing pigeon breeding stock are given to new pigeon racing enthusiasts, free of charge by established pigeon racing people, to assist the newcomer to get started.
How do racing pigeons find their way home? No one knows for sure. Research undertaken, indicates that pigeons which home, may have multiple facilities allowing them to determine the correct direction of home. There is little doubt that the sun is the primary orientation clue used by racing pigeons, but there have been experiments, which have developed night flying pigeons, thus showing that the sun is not the only available orientation reference.
In other experiments conducted, pigeons have been blindfolded and released some 90 to 100 kilometres from their home base and they have returned to within 20 metres of their home. It is understood that the same homing instinct is used by migratory birds which travel thousands of kilometres every year to the same breeding grounds where they began their lives and from there they go back to where they spend the winter, often in another hemisphere.
Some scientists believe that pigeons also perceive the earth's magnetic field and utilize it in finding their way home. Other scientists have opinions that pigeons may orient through a sense of smell or even through low frequency sound via their hearing. Research is still going on at several universities to try to learn the secret of this bird's ability to navigate distances of 1,500 kilometres or more to return to its home loft. But as far as breeders are concerned, the only way to discover if a bird possesses the required homing instinct, as well as athletic ability to do so quickly, is to race them.
Two race seasons are usually conducted every year. Birds bred in any given year are raced June to September in a series of races called "young bird races". These races usually start from distances of 150 kilometres and extend out to 350 kilometres.
The other season is early spring until early summer in which all birds hatched in preceding years are allowed to compete. These are the "old bird races", with some birds being raced through to three or four years of age. These races usually begin at 200 kilometres and may go out to 1000 kilometres, or even further. Very few 1000 kilometre races are flown today.
Pigeon racing is conducted by having at least five members in a club. Prior to the commencement of the race season, measurements are made from the entrance to the loft using a Global Positioning System receiver. The exact distance (to within three decimal points) from the entryway at the loft to each release point is calculated. In other words, each loft is flying a different distance. For example, in a 200 kilometre race, one loft's team of birds may be flying 185.001 kilometres from the release point while a competitor's pigeons may be flying 210.925 kilometres from the release point.
On basketing night at the local pigeon clubrooms, each owner presents with his or her team of entered pigeons, all of which have previously been banded with a special seamless registration band.
This band was placed on the pigeon’s leg when it was just a youngster of between five and seven days of age. Only birds with this registration band are eligible to compete in pigeon races. The owner also brings a special racing clock to the clubrooms. The entered pigeons are fitted with a special numbered rubber band on the unbanded leg and the number is recorded against the entered pigeon’s entry form.
The birds are then placed in travelling crates, which are later sealed. All the owners of entered pigeons are required to produce their racing clocks on the basketing night. The special clocks are set into motion against a standard time determined by a chronometer, following which the clocks are then sealed. The crates containing the pigeons are then transferred to the liberation truck or trailer for transport to the race point and the owners return to their homes to await advice of the impending release the next day and ultimately the arrival of their birds.
After weather conditions are checked, the birds are released and the participating owners of the pigeons can confirm the release time and weather conditions from a recorded message issued by the club or the racing association. At this point, many individual fanciers try to estimate when they think the approximate arrival time of their birds.
When a bird returns home, the race is not over for that pigeon until it enters the loft and the "rubber race band" that was fitted on basketing night is removed from the bird and then placed into the racing clock through a special slot. After turning the handle on the clock, the exact time that the rubber ring was placed into the clock is recorded, by imprinting the time on to a paper tape within the clock.
There is also new technology, which allows some new racing clocks to be paperless; and there are others, which use a special "scanner" band, instead of a rubber race ring. A computerised "scanner", similar to supermarket checkout scanners, reads the scanner band when the returning racing pigeon passes through a detector unit placed at the entrance to the pigeon loft. The latter allows the flyer to be somewhere else when their pigeon returns. The fancier can be at work, if necessary, or at his child's football game and still participate in racing his pigeons without having to make some hard choices.
After the race is over and at a predetermined time, there is the "turning over" of the clocks at the club rooms, at which all participants (those who have pigeons home that is), bring their clocks to be opened. The clocks are turned over against the chronometer once again. This way, it can be determined whether a clock is running fast or slow. The seals are checked to make sure there has been no tampering with the clock and then the clocks are opened. The rubber band is then removed from the clock and the number from the clocked pigeon is recorded with the exact time the bird returned to the loft.
Today, computers adjust the clock times based on whether they run fast or slow and then by calculating distance and time, arrive at the speed in terms of yards per minute. The bird with the fastest velocity in metres per minute wins a race, not the first bird home. A bird that homes at 12:56 pm at a loft 210 kilometres from the release point obviously flew a faster race than the bird that flew 197 kilometres and was clocked in at 12:55 pm.
In Canada there are several clubs spread across all provinces. Presently, most clubs run under their own sets of rules, but many come under the umbrella of a federation or combine, which could be loosely described as a co-operative of some sorts which has the prime responsibility for transporting the pigeons to the race point and releasing them on behalf of the pigeons’ owners.
A new trend is beginning to emerge in Canadian pigeon racing, which is a move by pigeon racing enthusiasts towards sending pigeons to fly in futurity races or more simply put, in one loft races.
Not only does the pigeon racing person breed young pigeons for his or her own racing needs, but they also breed special pigeons from their best breeding pairs. It is these pigeons, which are sent to the one-loft races. Generally one pigeon and a reserve pigeon are sent to the futurity loft as youngsters. These pigeons are cared for and trained by the loft management team, with all birds homing to this one loft. An entry fee is payable, which covers all costs and contributes to the prize money pool; under these schemes, the pigeons are racing for prize money. Use is made of Internet communication for informing pigeons’ owners of race results and any other issues.
There are several major one-loft races conducted each year, with probably the biggest and most famous being the Million Dollar Pigeon race in South Africa. Pigeons from throughout the world are sent each year to compete for one million US dollars in prize-money. In Canada, by far the biggest, longest running and most successful, is the annual LeTour des Maritimes, which is conducted from Bathurst, in New Brunswick through April to September.
Another trend is the growing practice of sending five or six pigeons to race with another pigeon racer’s race team in another part of the country. This is especially beneficial to those pigeon enthusiasts who for various reasons, are in a region where there are no pigeon racing clubs or for whatever reason competition is limited. There is one Canadian pigeon racer who lives in a pretty isolated part of Western Vancouver Island, where pigeon racing is no longer conducted, but he is still involved by breeding his own pigeons, which he sends to lofts throughout Canada, for others to race on his behalf.
Most pigeon racing enthusiasts breed their own racing birds from their established breeding pairs or stock birds. This breeding stock is usually made up of pigeons which have previously been successful racing pigeons themselves or they are from successful pigeon racing families. Generally, the breeding pairs produce about three rounds of youngsters each year. After being paired together, the female pigeon or hen, produces two eggs, which will hatch after 18 days of incubation. Both the hen and the male, the cock bird, share incubating duties. The young, when hatched are completely helpless and unlike baby chickens or ducks, the baby pigeons are totally reliant on their parents for food and warmth.
Both parents produce a liquid from their crops, which is described as "pigeon milk", but in reality it is a high protein liquid. Pigeons are the only vertebrate animal where both parents can produce "milk" for their young. As the youngsters grow, the "milk" becomes more solid, with the inclusion of soft grains, until at weaning age (26 - 28 days) the youngsters begin to eat and drink.
Pigeons, unlike chickens and ducks, are suction drinkers just like us. Instead of having to fill their beak with water and tilt their head back to swallow, as a chicken does, a pigeon can just immerse its beak into water and gulp it down.
As for food, pigeons eat a pretty wide variety of grains, but generally speaking, pigeon racing enthusiasts feed their pigeons a mixture of grain which can include wheat, dried peas, maize (or corn), barley, sorghum, safflower, rice and some small grains such as canola, millet and linseed. Everybody has different ideas about feeding and the choice lies with the owner.
Further information about getting involved in pigeon racing can be found by contacting the operator of this website. You will be directed to the nearest person who can help you. Good luck!