Homing Pigeons

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Human trainers have referred to homing pigeons as the "race horses of the sky" or "poor man's race horses."

If you have a love and fascination for birds, the patience to train and nurture them, and are ready to make a commitment, you may be well suited for this hobby!

"It's all about a fancier's admiration and love for this athlete of the sky," says Jim Slaughter. He has been racing homing pigeons in the U.S. for almost 60 years.

"It is the only breed of pigeon that has the ability to be taken hundreds of miles from its home, over terrain that it has never seen before, and after being released in a strange place, over strange terrain, it will find its way home at an average speed of 45 miles per hour."

That is exactly what the hobby of homing pigeons is all about. Pigeons are trained as youngsters by their fanciers to be released from anywhere and find their way home -- hence the name homing pigeons.

Pigeon keepers are known as "fanciers." They each have a loft where the pigeons are kept.

Young pigeons start out flying short distances, but as they get older, they can fly as far as 550 miles, for as long as 10 hours, and as fast as 50 miles per hour.

Each pigeon has an electronic band on its leg, which is coded. During the races, an antenna picks up the code. This is how the pigeons are clocked for time.

Races occur at the local, national and international level. They can cost anywhere from $20 to $1,000 per entry. Winners receive trophies, prize money, and most importantly, bragging rights among other fanciers.

Prize money can vary as well, depending on your level of competition -- anywhere from $200 to $600,000 (in places like Florida and South Africa).

Homing pigeons got their start as far back as the great empires of Egypt and Rome. Emperors used them to deliver messages in the most remote areas of their lands. Pigeons traveled great distances at a speed that no man on a horse could match.

In fact, Caesar made use of homing pigeons during his conquest of Gaul.

Much later, homing pigeons were still used during the World Wars and the Korean War. "The United States military used the homing pigeon to carry messages to front lines and during rescue operations, thus the misnomer, 'carrier pigeon,'" says Slaughter.

"The pigeon section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps was disbanded after the Korean War. The birds that survived were returned to the civilian fanciers, who donated their birds for wartime purposes."

Getting Started

It's quite easy to get started as a pigeon fancier. First thing you need even before you decide to get your pigeon is a loft. It should be easy for the bird to access, dry, warm and stocked with food and water.

Most fanciers will build their lofts themselves, like Leo Turley. He is an Australian fancier with 45 years of experience.

"It is no longer acceptable to build a chicken coop and expect to be successful or expect to be accepted as a responsible pigeon fancier in a modern community," says Turley.

Lofts are important. If your loft is inadequate and the bird is not comfortable, the experience will not be rewarding for you or your pigeon. You must create a home that pigeons can't wait to fly back to for food, water and care.

People with disabilities may have trouble participating in this hobby. To train the birds, you must be very mobile and able to do some lifting.

"A fancier should have enough strength to lift one of the baskets that the birds are being taken out on the road in for a training flight, or a sack of feed which usually comes in 50-pound bags," says Slaughter.

"You can also wear a car right out training those birds. You need to be able to rely on a car for training."

The next step is a pigeon clock or timer that operates very much like a bar code scanner in a supermarket checkout. The cost for these can vary from $300 to $1,500, depending on the caliber of timer you expect to use.

Some older fanciers use an old wind-up clock to time their birds, but most modern fanciers buy electronic bands that are coded and picked up by an antenna. It is also important to buy carrying cases to transport your pigeons.

The last and most important investment is the pigeon itself! Turley recommends spending as much as $320 per bird. But he says if you are close to the pigeon fancier community, it might not cost you anything.

"Most fanciers will breed a few to get you started. But it needs to be said that new fanciers need to show a level of keenness and willingness to put the time and effort into their birds before a fancier will hand over free youngsters," says Turley.

"Most of us care for our birds too much to see them neglected or abused in the hands of a novice or five-minute wonder."

Training the birds is difficult. Most seasoned fanciers suggest beginners find a mentor to teach them how it is done. Many new fanciers lose valued feathered friends from making mistakes that could have been avoided with a little guidance.

Tom Barnhart is a fancier with 40 years of homing pigeon experience. He also owns Barnhart and Son Lofts. He suggests you start out slowly.

"We are dealing with a long distance athlete here and training is important," says Barnhart. "This does require road work, starting at five to 10 miles and then going all the way out to 50 or 100 miles before they race."

Be wary of hawks during training, as young birds and some older birds are targets. Target shooters use wayward or training pigeons to perfect their aim.

Weather is also an important consideration. Fanciers suggest not letting your birds fly in questionable conditions, like high winds.

"We do occasionally lose some pigeons," says Barnhart.

"Sometimes we will get a report that one of our birds has been found dead after hitting a wire or other object. That is why it is so important to check weather advisories before releasing birds either on races or training flights."

This hobby generally doesn't lead to a career.

The careers that people are most likely to enjoy or excel at after working with pigeons may be zoology, animal physiology, ornithology, or animal training and husbandry.


American Racing Pigeon Union


The World of Pigeons
Learn about their interesting history, characteristics, and other fun facts!

Pigeon Breeds
The homing pigeon is just one variety in the breed. What are some others?

21 Amazing Facts You Didn't Know About Pigeons
Do you know why pigeons bob their heads?

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