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Beginners Guide To Racing Pigeons

Introduction

Pigeon racing is a sport involving the release of specially trained racing 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 animals 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.

The winner of a pigeon race is the bird with the highest velocity, that is, the distance flown divided by the time taken. Races can often be won and lost in seconds, and to counter this, many different timing apparatus 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.

Clontarf Pigeon Club releasing racing pigeons in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

Clontarf Pigeon Club releasing racing pigeons in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

While there is not definite proof, there are compelling reasons to think the sport of racing pigeons may go back as least as far as 220 AD or possibly earlier. 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 recent years, possibly due to the rising cost of living, aging fanciers, and a severe lack of public interest.

One recent development in the sport of pigeon racing is "one loft racing", where birds are raced against each other under the same training regime, in an effort to test the best birds rather than the best trainer.

History

Pigeons have been domesticated for thousands of years. 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

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 and 1000 km in distance. In the United States flights of up to 1800 kilometres have been recorded.

Provided it survives the many hazards associated with racing, a single pigeon could compete from about 6 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.

To compete in a race, it must wear a permanent, unique numbered ring or band that is placed on its leg at about 5 days of age. For a race to be conducted, the competing pigeons must be entered into the race, usually at the organisations clubhouse, and taken away from their home to be released at a predetermined time and location. The distance between the birds home loft and the racepoint 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 as in some leagues there are 2 divisions. One for the young birds (usually yearlings in their first year of competition) and another for the old birds.

Traditional timing method

The traditional method of timing racing pigeons involves rubber rings with unique serial numbers and a specially designed pigeon racing clock. The ring is attached around the birds 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 and is recorded as the official time that the competing bird arrived home. From this timestamp an average speed is measured and a winner of the race can be found.

Inside an older pigeon clock

Inside an older pigeon clock

Although serving its purpose, this method has proved somewhat problematic for a few reasons: The pigeons "official time" is not the actual time it arrived, it is the time the ring was removed, placed in the clock and recorded, which could be many vital seconds later.

Some old style pigeon clocks use thimbles.

Some old style pigeon clocks use thimbles.

Exceptional pigeons may arrive home first on multiple occasions; knowing it is going to have the ring removed speedily, which may be uncomfortable, the pigeon could be reluctant to enter the loft for the trainer.

Electronic timing method

The latest development and preferred method for timing racing pigeons is the Electronic Timing System. The birds arrival is recorded automatically. When using an electronic system, the pigeon fancier doesn’t 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.

Benzing Electronic Timing System (ETS)

Benzing Electronic Timing System (ETS)

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”.

One-loft racing

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 many other pigeons.

For Links to One-loft racing in Ireland and UK, click here.

Training

Racing pigeons are housed together in a specially designed dovecote or loft. From about five weeks of age until the end of its racing career, the racing loft is the pigeons home and this is where it returns to on race day.

Selective breeding and rigorous training has led to birds such as this Australian winner. Young pigeons are usually trained progressively for at least six months before being allowed to compete in a race event. A racing pigeons initial training involves familiarising it with the loft and its surroundings and training it to use the various features of its home (e.g. entry points). It is also this critical time that the birds learn commands, such as entering the loft when the trainer whistles.

After a few weeks of initial training and "homing in", the young birds are allowed outside for the first time. This is usually before they can fly strongly so as to prevent an overzealous pigeon from flying away before it can find its way back home. As the birds grow older, they become stronger and smarter and are therefore allowed to fly further and further away from their home loft. When a few trainers fly their pigeons in the same area, these loft flying kits (as flocks of pigeons are called) can number in the thousands. This "loft flying" familiarises the birds with their home area and builds fitness. 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 is like the format of a real race, however on a much smaller scale and it is usually not timed in the same way as a race. This practice of loft flying and tossing continues throughout a pigeons career.

Training methods are as varied as the pigeons themselves. Some fanciers believe their system is the secret to their success and guard these hard learned lessons closely. Most fanciers will explain their basic strategy but some may be reluctant to share the details of their success. One of the most popular systems is widowhood. This system uses 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 programs.

For racing pigeon training DVDs, click here.

Hazards

The Peregrine Falcon is a major predator of racing pigeons. 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 of killing birds of prey such as falcons.

The Peregrine Falcon is a major predator of racing pigeons.

It is thought that racing pigeons rely on the Earths magnetic field to find their way home. Some evidence has surfaced indicating that mobile phone towers may be interrupting the birds navigation. No published research has investigated this theory.

Breeding

Pigeons are sexually mature at about six months of age. However, fanciers will often wait until the pigeon is a few months older before breeding. The hen lays two eggs 36 hours apart. The first egg isnt incubated until the second egg is laid to ensure both eggs hatch at the same time. The incubation period is 18 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 1600 km away and flying at speeds in excess of 130 with a tail wind but average 80 km/h on a calm day km/h. Hens are often capable of laying upwards of 12 eggs per year, and squabs usually leave the nest at approximately 4–6 weeks of age.

A pair of young racing pigeons, 9 days old.

A pair of young racing pigeons, 9 days old.

Europe

UK

The first regular races in Great Britain in 1881. The British Royal Family first became involved with pigeon racing in 1886 when King Leopold II of Belgium gifted them breeding stock. The tradition continues to this day, with a bird of Queen Elizabeth II even winning a race in 1990. The sport is declining in the UK with membership of recognized 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 Pigeon Racing is regulated by 6 independent organisations.

Irish Homing Union (IHU)

North of England Homing Union (NEHU)

North West Homing Union (NWHU)

Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA)

Scottish Homing Union (SHU)

Welsh Homing Union (WPHU)

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 MP is supporting fanciers to have the ban lifted. Labours MEP Brian Simpson, from Golborne, believes that it is unfair to allow concerns about avian flu to throttle the fanciers sport. Mr 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."

Belgium

The Janssen Brothers (Louis, Charel, Arjaan and Sjef) are a famous and very successful pigeon racing family from Arendonk, Belgium.

Louis Janssen, born 1912, is the last of the Janssen Brothers still alive.

Descendants of their pigeons can be found racing all around the world.

Romania

Pigeon racing in Romania is one of Europes hot spot in the sport. Many pigeon breeders join the National Association 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 high prizes and bets. A high collaboration with pigeon fanciers from Belgium, Holland, Germany and so forth is also observed.

Turkey

The sport is popular in Turkey. In May 2008 a nine part, 1,150-kilometer pigeon race from the town of Manisa to Erzurum was organized with participants from many pigeon associations across the country.