Pigeon racing is the sport of releasing specially trained homing pigeons, which then return to their homes over a carefully measured distance. The time it takes the animal to cover the specified distance is measured and the bird's rate of travel is calculated and compared with all of the other pigeons in the race to determine which animal returned at the highest speed.
Pigeon racing requires a specific breed of pigeon bred for the sport, the Racing Homer. Competing pigeons are specially trained and conditioned for races that vary in distance from approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) to 1,000 kilometres (620 mi). Despite these lengths, races can be won and lost by seconds, so many different timing and measuring devices have been developed. The traditional timing method involves rubber rings being placed into a specially designed clock, whereas a newer development uses RFID tags to record arrival time.
While there is no definite proof, there are compelling reasons to think the sport of racing pigeons may go back at least as far as 220 AD. Furthermore, it is recorded in the Mishnah that pigeon racers are forbidden from bearing witness. The sport achieved a great deal of popularity in Belgium in the mid-19th century. The pigeon fanciers of Belgium were so taken with the hobby that they began to develop pigeons specially cultivated for fast flight and long endurance called Voyageurs. From Belgium the modern version of the sport and the Voyageurs which the Flemish fanciers developed spread to most parts of the world. Once quite popular, the sport has experienced a downturn in participants in some parts of the world in recent years, possibly due to the rising cost of living, ageing fanciers, and a severe lack of public interest. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis caused by pigeons is also a reason why some people are leaving the sport.
One recent development in the sport of pigeon racing is "one loft racing", where birds are raced against each other under the same training regimen, from the same location. The principle being to find the best individual race bird irrespective of the race trainer. This will determine which bird is then the most successful.
Pigeons are the oldest domesticated bird. The predecessors of modern-day racing pigeons were pigeons bred for their homing ability, primarily to carry messages. "Pigeon posts" have been established all over the world and while mainly used in the military, some are still in service today. Modern pigeon racing originated in Belgium in the mid 19th century. Racing pigeons were first developed in Belgium and England at the same time. They are the result of crossing of a number of other breeds, primarily the Smerle, French Cumulet, English Carrier, Dragoon, and the Horseman (now lost). From the high-flying Cumulet, the Homer received its endurance and its ability to fly for hours on end without tiring. From the Carrier, it inherited the ability to find its way home from great distances.
The sport was aided by several new technologies of the era. The advent of the railroad permitted pigeons to be sent to distant release points quickly and at modest cost. In addition, the creation of mass-produced, sophisticated timing clocks brought accurate and secure timing to the sport. These clocks were designed with special compartments where an entry band, removed from the returning race bird was placed. When struck, the clock recorded the time and also placed the band in a compartment that could only be opened by race officials.
The importance of homing pigeons in the centuries before electronic communications, such as the telegraph and telephone, is seldom recognised. However, the Reuters News Agency, the world's largest information provider, began as a pigeon service carrying closing stock prices between Belgium and Germany, basically between the western and eastern terminus of the telegraph in Europe.
The most expensive pigeon ever sold was "New Kim" which was purchased for $US1.9 million by a bidder from China in November 2020.
Pigeon racing has been described as the "sport with a single starting gate and a thousand finish lines." In short, competing birds are taken from their lofts and must race home. The time taken and distance are recorded and the fastest bird is declared the winner. Races are generally between 100 kilometres (62 mi) and 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) in distance. In the United States flights of up to 1,800 kilometres (1,100 mi) have been recorded.
Provided it survives the many hazards associated with racing, a single pigeon could compete from about six months of age and still be in competition at over ten years of age. Such feats are uncommon, however, and the average racing career rarely exceeds three years. Hazards can also come from weather conditions on the day of the race. Pigeons can become grounded and disoriented, and therefore not finish the race.
In the early days of racing, paint was used to identify birds for owners. Belgium then developed a ⅛-inch brass leg band, that was sent to racers in America to use. Since then, to compete in a race, it must wear a permanent, unique numbered ring or band that is placed on its leg at about five days old. For a race to be conducted, the competing pigeons must be entered into the race, usually at the organisation's clubhouse, and taken away from their home to be released at a predetermined time and location. The distance between the bird's home loft and the race point is carefully measured by GPS and the time taken by the bird to return is measured using one of the two acceptable timing methods. Sometimes in some leagues, there are two divisions: one for the young birds (usually yearlings in their first year of competition) and another for older birds.
The traditional method of timing racing pigeons involves rubber rings with unique identification numbers and a specially designed pigeon racing clock. The ring is attached around the bird's leg before being sent to race. The serial number is recorded, the clock is set and sealed, and the bird carries the ring home. When the first bird returns, its trainer removes the ring and places it in a slot in the clock. The time that the ring was placed in the clock is recorded as the official time that the competing bird arrived home. From this time stamp an average speed is measured and a winner of the race can be found.
Although serving its purpose, this method has proved somewhat problematic for a few reasons:
The latest development and preferred method for timing racing pigeons is the Electronic Timing System. The bird's arrival is recorded automatically. When using an electronic system, the pigeon fancier does not even have to be at the loft to clock the birds as they return. Birds are fitted with a band that has a tiny RFID chip in it which can be read when the bird comes home. At the home loft the electronic scanning records the pigeons' arrival. The pad or antenna is placed at the entry point to the loft entrance and as the pigeon crosses it the electronic band is scanned. The clock is attached to the antennas. The serial number of the transponder ring is recorded along with the time of arrival. This is very similar to transponder timing systems used in human races.
In February 2008 the members of the Penygraog Homing Society Racing Pigeon Club in Wales won an award to fund a new electronic timing device. The club was able to obtain the device thanks to funding from the All Wales award initiative. Club secretary John Williams said: "The electronic timer certainly makes it a lot easier for us".
With the advent of electronic timing system recording birds’ arrival has never been easier. The ETS technology is developing year on year and it is taking over the pigeon world, changing it and making it fit for today's conditions. As a result of this new way of registering a bird's arrival, several loft management software have been created in the last 10 years to help fanciers with record keeping, pigeon pedigree, publishing race results or keep track of treatment and vaccination records.
One-loft racing originated from local futurity races. Futurity races are when the birds race home from the racing station to their homes. The difference between regular racing and futurity races is futurity races has prize money involved. Usually, the prize is used for a bragging right more so than to win the money. The process of racing could be a bit complicated as handlers of their racing pigeons compete with one another. Some handlers could be better than some when it comes down to racing. Therefore, one-loft racing was created. One-loft racing is the process of training birds bred by many different breeders in the same loft, under the same trainer and in the same conditions (as opposed to trainer against trainer in their own lofts and usually with their own birds). It is thought to be the fairest method of proving which bloodline or breeder is best and usually provides the highest amount of prize money. Pigeons are recorded by electronic timing systems scanning the birds as they enter the home loft with winners decided by as little as 100th of a second. The birds are all taken to the same release point and they return to the same home loft, so therefore it is the fastest bird to complete the journey from A to B. One-loft racing is now becoming very popular all around the world with fanciers able to compare their bloodlines on an equal basis against the best breeders.
Racing pigeons are housed together in a specially designed dovecote or loft. From about four weeks of age until the end of its racing career, the racing loft is the pigeon's home and is where it returns to on race day.
After 22 to 28 days in the nest (depending on the owner's preference) the young birds are removed and placed in a section of a large loft or in a smaller loft built for the purpose. After a few days of learning how to locate the water and eating by themselves they are allowed to wander out of the loft and peck around in the garden, while doing this they are constantly observing their surroundings and becoming familiar with them. At about age six to seven weeks the birds will begin taking off, flying in very small circles around their loft and owner's house. As their confidence grows they gradually wander farther and farther from home until they are out of sight and can remain so for as much as two hours before returning. When a few trainers fly their pigeons in the same area, these flying "batches" (as flocks of pigeons are called) can number in the thousands. It does not, however, help them much in relation to finding their home from long distances away, a fundamental of pigeon racing. As confident flyers, the young pigeons are taken on progressively longer 'training tosses', driven a distance away from their home and released. This method of training is a way to condition the birds mentally and physically to prepare them for the races. This practice of loft flying and tossing continues throughout a pigeon's career to keep their homing instincts sharp.
One of the most popular training systems is widowhood. This system uses the birds' desire to reproduce as motivation to try to give the bird a sense of urgency on race day. The use of widowhood is usually begun by first allowing the racer to raise a baby in their nest box. After the baby is weaned the hen is removed and often the nestbox is closed off, from then on the only time these birds are allowed to see their mate or enter the nest box is upon returning from training or a race. This conditioning is one of the key elements in a lot of racing programmes.
Due to advancements in technology researchers have been able to use small Global Positioning Systems to track the flight paths that their birds follow.
As pigeon racing takes place over great distances in the sky, instead of on a racetrack, there are many hazards that could befall a pigeon during racing as well as training. The main hazard encountered by racing pigeons is predation by birds of prey. The killing of valuable pigeons by wild predators has led to some pigeon fanciers being suspected and prosecuted of killing birds of prey such as falcons.
Another hazard that racing pigeons encounter is flying into objects they sometimes cannot see, mostly when flying at high speeds or in darker weather conditions. The most common obstructions are electricity pylons or TV aerials. Pigeon fanciers will often have one of their pigeons return home with wounds or missing feathers from the belly or flanks region.
It is thought that racing pigeons rely on the Earth's magnetic field to find their way home. Some speculation has surfaced indicating that mobile phone towers may be interrupting the birds' navigation, although no published research has investigated this theory.
Pigeons are sexually mature at about six months of age. However, fanciers will often wait until the pigeon is at least a few months older before breeding. A hen bird will usually only lay two eggs in a clutch, laid every other day, after which incubation begins. The incubation period is 17 days. Pigeon breeders are careful in selecting birds to pair together so as to continue improving the breed and gain a competitive edge. It is this selective breeding that has given rise to the racing pigeons of today, capable of finding their way home from over 1,600 kilometres (990 mi) away and flying at speeds in excess of 130 kilometres per hour (81 mph) with a tail wind but average 60 kilometres per hour (37 mph) on a calm day. Hens are often capable of laying upwards of 12 eggs per year, and squabs usually leave the nest at approximately three to four weeks of age.
Doping in pigeon racing is the practice of giving performance-enhancing drugs to avian racers. The drugs are used to produce similar effects to those found in human athletes, building up muscle tissue and opening the respiratory tracts. In addition, corticosteroids can be used to delay moulting, allowing a bird to race late into a season.
In October 2013, blood samples from twenty Belgian pigeons were sent by the Pigeon Fanciers Association to South Africa for testing. This was the result of an exchange visit by the association to the National Horseracing Authority of Southern Africa. While tests in Belgium had not found traces of any drugs the South African laboratory discovered that six samples contained unusual substances. Five samples were found to include traces of acetaminophen (paracetamol), a widely used over-the-counter analgesic (pain reliever) and antipyretic (fever reducer). The sixth sample was erroneously reported in the press as having shown indications of cocaine use, but the lab reported that it was indications of caffeine usage. As the samples were sent anonymously no action could be taken against the owners of any of the birds.
In 2001 a series of raids across 80 homes led to the confiscation of large quantities of illegal performance-enhancers. Currently, all race winners are tested and over 100 samples were collected and tested in 2013.
In 1995 the Belgian Ministry of Health mandated drug testing in order to protect the welfare of the birds. The sport's governing body was looking at the possibility of implementing new anti-doping rules for the sport prior to the commencement of the 2014 season.
The "Brazilian Pigeon Racing Grandprix" is the biggest pigeon race in South America. The Sergipe's Pigeon Racing Association and the government from Aracaju organise this event.
The sport of pigeon racing has increased in Canada with Pigeon Clubs and Ladies Auxiliary popping up in cities and towns. The CRPU, the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union, is an organisation that is dedicated to the growth, preservation and support of pigeon racing in Canada.
The Canadian Pigeon International magazine is a monthly publication dedicated to the sport of pigeon racing
The sport was introduced into the United States about 1875, although regular racing did not begin until 1878. The sport of pigeon racing is well established in the US, and growing. According to the American Racing Pigeon Union, one of two large accrediting groups, there are 15,000 registered lofts in the U.S.
The sport was banned beginning 1 January 2004 in Chicago, but there have been a number of attempts to amend the ban since then (by making exemptions to the ban for members of a national professional organization). Alderman Gilbert Villegas of the 36th ward introduced the newest legislation June 2018, on behalf of the Polish constituents in his ward, saying the sport is deeply loved in Poland and a number of residents want to reintroduce the sport to Chicago.
Pigeon racing was particularly popular throughout the twentieth century in the New York City area, particularly in Brooklyn/Coney Island and in Hoboken New Jersey, where it still has devotees.
Pigeon racing is becoming increasingly popular in parts of Asia, especially Indonesia, India, China, Pakistan, Iran, Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh there are three pigeon racing associations which look after the sport and organize many races. There are thousands of registered pigeon fanciers in Bangladesh. Pakistan also has many pigeon clubs. Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore and Sargodha are leading in good quality racing pigeons. The heart of the sport in India is Chennai, the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu.
Taiwan has more racing pigeon events than any other country in the world, and can point to between two and three million birds. Nearly 500,000 people race pigeons on the island, and each year, prize money for races reaches the billions of NT dollars.
The largest racing organisation in Australia is the Central Cumberland Federation. The state of Queensland also has a number of clubs and organisations. The biggest of these is the Qld Racing Pigeon Federation Inc (QRPF). Located in Brisbane, the QRPF has a long history dating back to the Second World War. Each year the QRPF organises pigeon races for its some 80 members. These races start at approximately 145 kilometres (90 mi) in distance and continue on a gradual basis out to distances of over 1,000 kilometres (620 mi). A specialised transporter is used to transport the birds to the release points. This transporter enables the birds to be fed and watered en route before mass release at a predetermined time for their flight back to various home lofts. Many thousands of pigeons compete in races each weekend during the winter months.
In Western Australia racing is conducted by the Pigeon Racing Federation of Western Australia (Inc) and the West Coast Racing Pigeon Federation (Inc.).
An innovative new one-loft race is the Australian Pigeon Punt Race held in Victoria, Australia.
The sport of pigeon racing has been declining around Sydney with pigeon club members gradually dying off as fewer younger people take up the sport. The high cost of feeds and fuel have also contributed to the decline.
The Janssen brothers (Louis, Charel, Arjaan and Sjef) were a famous and successful pigeon racing family from Arendonk, Belgium. Louis Janssen, born 1912, was the last-surviving of the famous brothers. He died on 16 April 2013, at the age of 100. Descendants of the brothers' pigeons can be found racing all around the world.
Another famous and successful pigeon fancier is Karel Meulemans. Karel, born in Retie, also lives in Arendonk.
Pigeon racing in Poland is overseen by Polski Związek Hodowców Gołębi Pocztowych (the Polish Pigeon Breeders Association), which has over 40,000 members. The first local association of pigeon breeders in the Polish lands under occupation was established in 1905 in Zabrze. After Poland regained independence in 1918, several such organisations were established and in 1926 the first nationwide breeders' association was established: Zjednoczenie Polskich Stowarzyszeń Hodowców Gołębi Pocztowych na Rzeczpospolita Polska (Unification of Polish Pigeon Breeders' Associations for the Republic of Poland). The breeding of racing pigeons was banned during the Nazi occupation, but after World War II the Polish Pigeon Breeders Union was recreated on 1 April 1946 in Kraków.
Pigeon racing in Romania is one of Europe's hot spots in the sport. Many pigeon breeders join the National Federations every year, triggering more and more competitive challenges. Another aspect is the image that has changed in the last decade in regards of pigeon racing, since nowadays it stands for a fine art within the country, with symbolic prizes and bets. There is a high collaboration with pigeon fanciers from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
In Romania, the competition organized by Best Pigeons, more exact, the Madona National Maraton, in 2019 had the highest number of pigeons ever registered on a Romanian competition. Over 19,000 birds and over 1,000 breeders.
The sport is popular in Turkey. In May 2008 a nine part, 1,150 kilometres (710 mi) pigeon race from the town of Manisa to Erzurum was organised with participants from many pigeon associations across the country.
The first regular race in Great Britain was in 1881. The British Royal Family first became involved with pigeon racing in 1886 when King Leopold II of Belgium gave them breeding stock. The tradition continues to this day, and a bird of Queen Elizabeth II winning a race in 1990. The sport is declining in the UK with membership of recognised clubs and federations falling by about five per cent annually.
The National Flying Club is a British pigeon racing club, and open to anyone in England and Wales.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland pigeon racing is regulated by six independent organisations.
In 2007 the British Parliament banned pigeons racing from the mainland of continental Europe to Britain because of the risk of bird flu. A British MEP supported fanciers to have the ban lifted. Labour's MEP Brian Simpson, from Golborne, believed that it was unfair to allow concerns about avian flu to throttle the fanciers' sport. Simpson said, "But what is clearly apparent now is that pigeon are low-risk in regards to avian flu and the decision to ban continental pigeon racing was wrong."
Apart from the sport of racing against each other, fanciers also exhibit racing pigeons at organised shows and have a judge decide who has the better bird. British Homing World holds a show each year where all profits from the event are donated to both national and local charities, including Help the Aged and the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.
South Africa is the home of the richest one-loft race in the world, the Million Dollar Pigeon Race. The Million Dollar Pigeon Race involves 4,300 birds from 25 countries with a prize fund of $1.3 million. The runners-up win cars and smaller monetary prizes, while the overall winner receiving US$200,000. Sun City's one-loft race, sees birds from across the world air-freighted to South Africa as squabs, months before the race, and trained to orient to a single loft. Then on race day, after being released 550 kilometres (340 mi) out on the South African veldt, the birds all race back to the same destination. The first race was in 1996 and attracted 893 pigeons. The race broke even after five years.
In February 2008 a pigeon fancier paid a South African record R800,000 for a racing pigeon at auction. The auction, where he bought several other birds, was held after the Sun City Million Dollar Pigeon Race.
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