Mile-a-Minute Pigeons Thrill Millions in Races Against Time (Jun, 1936) (Jun, 1936)

This is insane. I had no idea that anyone raced pigeons, let alone thousands of people in races that often exceeded 1,000 miles! Apparently people still race them. Check out the American Racing Pigeon Union.

Mile-a-Minute Pigeons Thrill Millions in Races Against Time
By Edwin Teale

STREAKING through the skies with the speed of crack express trains, feathered racing champions, trained by amateur pigeon fanciers, are shuttling across the map on amazing flights. In recent years, the sport of pigeon racing has spread rapidly. In the United States alone, upwards of 10,000 amateurs own lofts, and each year the American Racing Pigeon Union sends out half a million numbered aluminum bands that go on the legs of newly hatched “squeakers.” As this is written, all over the East and Middle West fanciers are grooming their prize birds for the Chattanooga National, the Kentucky Derby of the air. This annual event, held about the middle of June, sometimes attracts as many as 1,700 entries. Last year, a one-year-old male pigeon, which had never won a contest in its life, carried off the prize. It averaged almost fifty miles an hour for the 535 miles from Chattanooga, Term., to its home loft at Washington, D. C.

Picture the start of this race, a few weeks hence. In special crates, the birds arrive at the southern city. They come from country estates, small back yards, farms, city roofs. Farmers, millionaires, mechanics, bookkeepers—almost every walk of life you can mention is represented among their owners.

Just at dawn, you hear the crack of the starter’s pistol. Officials fling open the doors of the crates. From each opening pours a torrent of wings. In a great cloud, the pigeons whirl over the field in widening circles. Then you see a bewildering demonstration that represents a great unsolved mystery of nature. The cloud breaks up and, in small bevies, the birds scud away —some north, some south, some east, some west—each heading unerringly for its home loft at least half a thousand miles away!

The birds rarely fly in a bee line. Instead, they take the easiest course, often following valleys where wind resistance is less. Mile-a-minute speeds are common, and one fleet-winged American bird averaged seventy-one miles an hour over a 300-mile course. Storms may delay them, hawks may swoop down upon them, hunters may fire at them. But, if they escape, they fly on. During the World War, more than ninety percent of the U. S. Army Signal Corps birds reached their destinations.

A few years ago, a Signal Corps pigeon, the “Topeka Hen,” set a distance mark, winging its way more than 1,200 miles from Topeka, Kans., to the government loft at Fort Monmouth, N. J. It had been sold to a Kansas fancier and had escaped from its new owner.

Another remarkable instance of the homing instinct of these birds is reported from eastern Canada. A racing pigeon, long given up for lost, fluttered down at the home loft near Montreal. It apparently had dropped exhausted into a yard during a race, had been captured and had had its wing feathers clipped. Waiting for weeks until the feathers grew out, it escaped and flew home. Sometimes, birds put in an appearance after months have gone by. A pigeon on its first training flight in California took four months to get home, and another was away for a full year.

Queerest of all tales about the feats of these remarkable birds is the experience of a West Coast fancier. He presented two racing pigeons to a friend who lived a couple of miles away. The new owner trimmed one wing of each bird and placed them in a pen with his show pigeons. Three hours later, the original owner was astonished to see the birds walking about in his own back yard. Unable to fly, they had walked the whole two miles home! Incidentally, if you find an exhausted or injured homing pigeon, copy the number on the aluminum leg band and report it to the American Racing Pigeon Union, 214 Congress St., Jersey City, N. J. This organization will get in touch with the owner. The bands are placed on the “squeakers” when they are five days old, and the legs grow and hold the rings solidly in place where they remain as long as the birds live. The same pigeon carries the same number throughout its life.

As early as the time of King Solomon, 3,000 years ago, the sport of flying homing pigeons was well established. During the Golden Age of Greece, news of the Olympic Games reached outlying cities through use of these swift couriers of the sky. For more than a century, there was a regular pigeon post at Bagdad, and when the knights of the Crusades rode to the Holy Land they took falcons to intercept messages carried by the homing birds of the Saracens.

Messages, letters, and even whole newspapers were photographed on thin collodion film during the Franco-Prussian War and thus sent out from the beleaguered city of Paris by pigeons. A single bird, in this way, could carry as many as 30,000 words. And it was homing pigeons, winging their way through smoke and shellfire in 1918 that brought help to the Lost Battalion in the Argonne.

JUST a century before that, in 1818, the first great pigeon race, the classic Belgian Concourse, was held at Brussels. This annual competition, in which the birds fly 500 miles starting from Toulouse, France, is now a national institution comparable to Derby Day in England. In the United States, the sport received fresh impetus in 1910 with the formation of the American Racing Pigeon Union. From coast to coast, clubs affiliated with this national body hold races for old and young birds and for distances ranging from 100 to 1,000 miles. In one New Jersey race, last year, 5,000 pigeons competed. During the last quarter of a century, American pigeons have won cash prizes totaling $94,000.

There are several ways you can get into this fascinating sport. You can buy old birds and raise your own young ones. You can buy eggs and hatch them out under ordinary pigeons. Or you can purchase the squabs, or “squeakers,” and raise them to maturity. The prices of racing pigeons run from $5 to $200 a pair. The highest price ever paid for a single pigeon was $1,086. The sum was given by a fancier from Louisville, Ky., for an English race winner in 1921. In another instance, a racing pigeon fan traded two descendants of a prize-winning bird for a large block of valuable oil stock.

Unique among these Hying money makers is “Old Nick,” a four-year-old racer which is putting its owner, young Leonard H. Murray, through college!

Some years ago, Murray found a stray pigeon with a band on one leg. He got in touch with the owner and through him became interested in the hobby of breeding racers. He now has a loft of nearly forty fleet-winged birds, among which the most consistent winner is Old Nick. The prize money collected by this bird alone has been sufficient to put Murray through a year at the University of Minnesota. In the early days, pigeon racing was a haphazard sport. Now, it is scientifically conducted with the aid of a dozen ingenious mechanisms and devices. Training is a matter of infinite care, and pigeon breeding is a lifetime work.

Special racing rations, containing corn, Tasmanian peas, vetch, and other grains, put the birds in tiptop condition. They eat about a pound of food each week, plus about fifteen percent of the food weight in grit. Sometimes, during the racing season, the birds are given a special relish of canary seed and a little hemp seed before their regular feed. Occasionally, table rice is added. During the moulting season, one or two percent of flaxseed is included in the diet.

To keep his birds in racing trim, one noted Canadian fancier gives them little bricks to peck at. He makes the bricks by crushing up egg shells, white millet seed, a block of magnesia, pieces of cuttlefish bone, a red building brick, and oyster shells. Adding anise seed, air-slacked lime, and iodized table salt, he sprinkles the mixture with water until it forms a mudlike paste. Then it is molded into small. bricks and baked for sixty minutes in an oven. A fresh bit of the material is supplied the pigeons each day.

The nests where the young squeakers hatch from the eggs are usually bowls filled with shavings, straw, or tobacco stems. Cedar shavings are best. One of the first problems is to keep the breastbones, or keels, of the young pigeons straight. In its early cartilage form, the breastbone is easily bent or deformed. During the first eight or nine days, however, a deformed keel can be straightened by massaging it with the hands.

The ideal racing pigeon has a broad skull, a long face, and a V-shaped bill. A full-grown male pigeon will weigh from fifteen to eighteen and a half ounces; a female from thirteen to seventeen. The birds are at their peak for racing when they are three years old. Some are still strong contenders when they are seven or even ten years old, and one 1,000-mile champion owned by an eastern fancier is still flying at the age of eighteen!

Even before the young pigeons have tried their wings, they are taken from their parents and their training begins. Through association with their favorite foods, they are taught to walk from the landing board into the loft. As soon as they take to the air, training begins in earnest. The first trip away from home occurs on a clear morning, before the birds have been fed, and they are released a mile or so from the loft. At the end of this and every other training trip, they find food awaiting them. Gradually, the distance of the homing flights is stretched to twenty, thirty, eighty miles. Then the birds are ready for a 100-mile race, then a 300-mile race, and finally a 500-mile competition, with perhaps the 1,000-mile marathon as a final test.

Oftentimes, to save expense, a club will hire a truck and take hundreds of birds together on a training trip to some distant point. However, the “single toss” method, in which each bird starts for home by itself, is considered the best training for youngsters. Some fanciers paint the roofs of their lofts a distinctive color to aid the birds in recognizing more easily their home destinations.

In addition to colored roofs, the mobile lofts of the U. S. Signal Corps have distinctive combinations of lights to guide night-flying homers. Such birds, developed by carrying the training hours later and later into the evening, would be of great value in warfare, as they could slip over the battlefield unseen in the darkness.

To get their pigeons accustomed to rain, many fanciers drive them from the loft during showers and make them fly under all the conditions they are likely to meet in an actual race. One expert makes it a practice to chase his birds around inside the loft to develop their wind in preparation for a big contest. He got the idea some years ago when his homers made a particularly fine showing in a race; a cat had got into the loft, the week before, and had chased the birds for nearly an hour before it was discovered.

In selecting birds to compete, some trainers not only take into consideration the experience and appearance of each bird, but also check up on its rate of respiration and its temperature. Only the pigeons that are in prime condition ride in the wicker crates that carry birds to the starting point of a big race.

At the end of every training flight, the birds are taught to trap themselves. That is, they walk into cages containing food, by pressing against wire bars which fall into place behind them. No matter how fast a racing pigeon may be in the air, if it is a poor trapper it is of little value in a competition. To understand why, let’s watch the final, exciting moments of a big race.

You take your place in the loft beside the owner. Because the returning birds are tired and nervous, you have to keep out of sight or they may not land. One famous fancier, A. Heuvelmans, who has been racing pigeons for forty-five years, has a special compartment in his Forest Hills, L. L, loft equipped with blue-glass windows through which he can see out, while the birds cannot see him. Here he awaits the return of his entries.

A distant speck in the sky grows larger, second by second. At a mile a minute, the homing bird is speeding toward you. The exact distance from the starting point to each loft has been figured out in yards and the winner is the pigeon making the highest yards-a-minute speed. Thus, differences in distances are taken care of in the computations.

The instant the bird drops to the loft and enters the trap, the owner goes into action. Reaching in, he grasps the pigeon and strips from its leg the rubber band which carries its racing number. This band was placed on the bird by officials at the starting point. It contains a key letter as well as a number and, inside, printed I in special ink, a second secret number. The same two numbers and key letter appear on a folded piece of paper that the officials keep. At the end of the race, unless numbers and letters on the band and on the paper tally, the bird is disqualified. Slipping the band into a small folding metal capsule, the owner quickly drops it through a hole into a sealed timing mechanism and jerks a handle. This automatically stamps the time on a strip of paper and moves another tiny compartment under the opening ready to receive the band of the second pigeon to arrive. In this way, the bands and arriving times of all the birds reaching a given loft are filed and recorded. Then the mechanism, still sealed, is turned over to the judges. Most fanciers own their own “clocks,” which cost in the neighborhood of fifty dollars apiece. Before a race, they are all set and inspected by the officials. No bird has finished his race until his leg-band is in the timing mechanism. Hence, the importance of having the pigeons trap themselves instantly on their arrival.

A couple of years ago, Edward Barnes, Secretary of the American Racing Pigeon Union, entered a fleet-winged but erratic bird in the Chattanooga race. It came scudding toward the loft at top speed, circled it twice and then dropped down on a neighboring roof where it perched for more than an hour before it entered the trap, by that time hopelessly out of the running.

To speed birds into the traps as soon as they settle down, many trainers “walk them in” rapidly by means of a short pole. However, there is always the danger that the high-strung bird may become frightened and take to its wings before it is safely caged.

One of the latest developments in the homing-pigeon world is the use of these mile-a-minute birds as carriers of news films. Several metropolitan dailies have put pigeons on their staffs. One New York newspaper uses them to bring undeveloped films of photographs of celebrities from incoming steamers. Almost before the liners dock, the papers containing the pictures are on the street. Similarly, pigeons carried pictures of the Rose Bowl football game between Stanford University and Southern Methodist University last fall, covering the distance between Pasadena and Los Angeles, Calif., in record time. Carrying light-proof aluminum capsules attached to their legs, the birds winged their way over a maze of buildings and with unerring instinct alighted on the one that was their destination.

HOW did they find their way? How do these marvelous birds cover vast stretches of country they have never seen before ? What guides them through the sky?

In answer to those questions, science is silent. The homing instinct is still an enigma of nature. One Belgian investigator advances the theory that the pigeons fly in a state of self-hypnosis. Another expert declares they have eyesight so superior to ours that they see distant details that humans miss and so follow a trail of tiny landmarks. Other scientists believe they are guided by the magnetism of the earth, following lines of magnetic force as a mail-plane pilot follows a radio beam.

Not long ago, a fascinating series of experiments revealed that radio affects the homing ability of pigeons. Research men released flocks of the birds near a broadcasting station while it was on the air, and again when it was not operating. When no radio waves were given off, the pigeons headed away for home in twenty seconds. When the station was on the air, however, it took them as long as three minutes to find their direction. Once, 169 birds were liberated at the same time. More than half of them, after repeated failures to find their direction, alighted near the station from which the radio waves were coming.

Just how the homing pigeon finds its way along the invisible skyways remains an unsolved riddle of science. But the speed and skill of these fleet-winged birds is providing thrills and pleasure for an increasing number of Americans.

2 comments
  1. Jim Dunn says: May 2, 20075:54 am

    I actually have a little bit of knowledge about racing pigeons. When I was a teenager, a family moved close to us, and the father raced pigeons. Before that, I also had no idea that people raced them but man, did I get an education from him. (In case he reads this: Hello, Mr. Davis!)

    Judging from what I saw, pigeon racers are fanatical about their sport. Mr. Davis spent about two hours every. single. day. working with those birds, doing everything from cleaning out their lofts to feeding, watering and medicating them.

    It was interesting to me that racers have to have two lofts. One is a brood loft, and the other is a racing loft. The brood loft is used to house pigeons the racer bought from someone else, and they can never be let out to fly. If they do, they’ll fly right back to where they were born. The pigeons in the racing loft get exercise every day, wheeling and diving around their loft. It’s pretty cool to watch.

    Once, I got to take off a bunch of young pigeons Mr. Davis was getting into shape so they could race. We took a cageful (about four or five pigeons, if I remember correctly) five miles or so away, then turned them loose. They took off, circled around a couple of times (I guess to get their bearings) then headed off for home.

    Like I said, it was pretty cool stuff.

  2. Toronto says: June 13, 20106:50 pm

    Shelly – watch “Birdy.”

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