A racing pigeon is a competitive homing pigeon.
Published March 14, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Racing pigeons: though they don’t have the prestige of horses, these birds are the thoroughbreds of the sky.”
2014 Update: Explore http://www.pigeon.org. Steve Dermer and his racing pigeons were mentioned again in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 18, 2012.
By Barb Gorges
It looked like a normal gathering of men on a snowy Saturday morning in February, up at the Laramie County Sheriff’s Posse building on Yellowstone Road. They were wearing the usual jeans, jackets and embroidered ball caps, except they had white smudges on their shirt fronts. And they were attending a basket show. Baskets full of racing pigeons.
You may have thought pigeon racing was as archaic as an Andy Capp cartoon, but it is alive and well all over the world, though less visible in Cheyenne.
This particular morning Cheyenne was host to the winter basket show and auction for the Northern Colorado Flyers, a group with its roots in Nunn, Colo. Along with sacks of pigeon feed for raffle prizes, shallow crates, or baskets, were stacked up around the room. Most baskets were metal or plastic and a few were actually wicker. All were full of pigeons waiting for the judges visiting from Oklahoma, Colorado and Utah.
Bill Hill of Tulsa, Okla., was the senior judge for this event. He explained, “There’s 28 classes, starting with 100 mile young cock and young hen (birds that have flown at least one 100 mile race). We look for conformation, muscle tone, feather quality. We try not to let beauty sway us–until the end.”
Steve Buehler of Lakewood, Colo., was the eye sign judge for this show. He and many in the pigeon business swear the way a bird’s eye looks is predictive of racing success. He looks at color, the circle of correlation around the pupil and other attributes, though he said some pigeon breeders think it’s all foolishness.
Other pigeons were on display, waiting to be auctioned. Their admirers were examining their pedigrees and making their own judgments. Experienced flyers were taking the birds in hand and feeling the heft of well-developed pectoral muscles that power the wings, making a racing pigeon capable of flying 40 miles an hour for hundreds of miles without stopping.
Rick Brown, who flies his birds east of Greeley, Colo., said his list of attributes includes “conformation, condition, including health, how soft the feathering, how complete the feathering, racing attributes, balance, fullness of the wing and how feathers are formed.”
Pigeon breeders learn genetics, said Stan Freeman of North Platte, Neb. Although the emphasis is on breeding for racing ability, some breeders play with color. “It’s a given, a blue cock and a red hen, of the young, the blues are hens and the reds are cocks.” White is not a very common color, said Freeman, due somewhat to natural selection. White birds are more often taken by hawks when flying because they contrast with the landscape so well.
A basket show, though a nice chance to visit with other flyers, win ribbons and buy new birds at auction, is not the proving ground that a race is. And just as in horse racing, there’s prize money to be won.
Everyone at the Cheyenne show pointed out the most successful flyer present.
Francisco Hernandez of Denver, Colo. has been an extremely successful breeder, even though he considers his loft of about 75 birds to be small by most standards. “I send for special races, 40 birds a year. I don’t buy birds. I fly ones that do good in 300s (miles).” He sends birds to races in Mexico and all over the U.S.
The way winnings are paid out is rather complicated, but recently three of Hernandez’s birds brought in $131,000.
Pigeon racing, unlike horse racing, is not limited to the rich. Doug Donner of North Glen, Colo., and Phil Calerich of Brighton, Colo., remember that as boys in the 1950s, they could afford to fly their birds from as far away as Glasgow, Mont., or any train station in between.
“We’d fly out of Cheyenne, Chugwater, Wheatland, Glendive or Glasgow,” said Donner. The boys would put their crate of birds on the train in Denver with $5 or $10 in an envelope for the stationmaster at a particular station, who would then take the crate off the train, feed and water the birds and release them in the morning. He’d ship the empty crate back to Denver, where the boys would be waiting for their birds to fly in.
Wally Sabell of Arvada, Colo., got into flying pigeons at a young age and used his hobby to drive his ambitions. “I started at 9 and I’m 72 now. It helped me go into business. My stepfather said I had to pay for the feed so I went out and got a job and became an entrepreneur to pay for the pigeons. Money helps. It can be a rich man’s sport, it can be a poor man’s sport. I know every pigeon I’ve got. I’ve got 500. (I decided) when I have all the money I want I can have all the pigeons I want. So far my wife’s let me have all the pigeons I want.”
Summer is the usual racing season, but the balmier U.S. climes allow for winter racing. SaBell was just back from the Million Dollar Race World Flight in Sun City, Ariz. He also enjoys a 400 mile race in Florida. Recently he entered races in China and Africa.
Pigeon racing is a peculiar sport. The birds’ owners frequently send their birds to the starting point of a race without attending themselves. Club members will meet the night before to ship the birds out on specially designed trucks and check and synchronize their clocks. Then they each take their clock home and wait for the birds to arrive so they can clock each of them in.
The home loft of each pigeon serves as a finish line. The carefully measured and calculated distance, from the start of the race to the loft is divided by the time it takes the bird to fly home. This allows comparison of each bird’s speed. The fastest is the winner.
But the fastest bird won’t win until it actually enters the loft and someone can take the off the special rubber band called a counter mark put on its leg at the beginning of the race, and clock it in and seal it for inspection by race officials.
Modern technology has benefitted pigeon racing. The latest is snap-on scan bands, explained Freeman. “It means it doesn’t take two people to train pigeons,” one to release and one to be back at the loft. The bird just walks over a plate and is scanned right into the clock and computer. “When your bird gets home you don’t have to be there.” He said it works well for a friend who works for the railroad. Now when he’s on a run, his wife doesn’t have to wait all day looking for birds.
Only two club members at the Cheyenne show were women. Donna Case, from Nunn, Colo., and her husband Steve mark their baskets with the name of their loft, “Flying Nunn.” She explained her presence at the registration desk. “I write the best so I have to take care of the money and the concessions and go for anything they need. I go with Steve when they drop the birds. The last 4 years we’ve gotten involved in it quite a bit.”
Dixie Rapelje and her husband Dan have the Double D loft, also in Nunn. She was pouring coffee in the kitchen. “I do a lot of helping out. My husband, he inherited his loft and the rest just kind of evolved. His father had pigeons for years.”
In October, Denver will host the 2002 convention of the American Racing Pigeon Union, including races. The AU, as it is commonly referred to, is one of several national clubs. How do flyers enter their birds in national races when their loft may be on the other side of the continent? How did Sabell enter his birds in races in China and Africa?
For the Denver convention, three of the flyers attending the Wyoming show, Sabell, Calerich and Buehler will be loft handlers. For an entry fee of $100 per bird, pigeon flyers from all over the world will send teams of six young birds sometime in March, April or May.
Birds only 30 days old have not yet imprinted on their natal lofts. Denver will become their point of reference as they are trained over the summer. One bird from each team will be in each of the six lofts. Three thousand birds from all over the world are expected.
Their breeders will arrive in October to witness the 300 mile race. The five best birds from each of the six lofts will be auctioned to pay race expenses.
A winning breeder could buy his bird back. But what do you do with a homing pigeon trained to home in on someone else’s loft? Sometimes birds come home when they aren’t supposed to. Jay Welden of North Platte, Neb. said “I sold birds to Dallas and two of the three of them came back (to North Platte),” because someone inadvertently let them loose.
Something similar happened to one of Hill’s former birds. It escaped and flew 1300 miles back.
The record, said Welden, is a bird in India that flew 7,000 miles. He himself has entered a bird in an Orlando, Fla., race which takes the birds three or four days to fly 1500 miles. Birds won’t fly at night, he explained. On long races the clock stops half an hour after sunset and doesn’t start until half an hour before sunrise.
“Nothing (is) better or more pleasing than to send a bird 600 miles and then see it come in the loft,” said Welden, especially considering the obstacles: shooters, wires, storms and hawks.
Experienced birds rarely get lost. Most losses occur in training, allowing the survival of the most fit.
And racing pigeons are fit. They have as much in common with plain old street pigeons as marathon runners do couch potatoes. Winning birds owe their success to their breeding as well as to their training. Their owners think of them as athletes.
Calerich said, “They can fly 6-8 years, depending on the season,”–how battered they are by weather and obstacles. “Common pigeons live one to three years, racing pigeons live as long as 20 years in breeding capacity.”
Good training, good health and good loft ventilation and any loft can win.
Homing pigeons have a long history of working for mankind. Records of their domestication go back to 5000 BC. The first Olympic athletes brought pigeons with them to the games and released them when they won so the folks back home would get the good news.
The famous Rothschild fortune was built on getting information on the stock market ahead of everyone else–by pigeon. With the ability to travel 40 – 50 miles an hour, pigeons were far speedier messengers than horses. The telegraph ended this type of airmail, however, there are situations in which homing pigeons are still of use.
Pigeons were very successful in carrying messages during World Wars I and II. Ed Eaton of Colorado said the American military doesn’t use homing pigeons anymore, but pigeons were found in enemy trenches during Desert Storm.
Pigeons are used in rescue work, said Eaton. “They train birds to see orange in the ocean.” The birds fly with a search and rescue pilot, but with their superior eyesight they can see the life raft first, and will peck at a release mechanism.
Eaton said a Ft. Collins rafting company uses pigeons released from remote locations to return clients’ rolls of film for processing.
Steve Dermer, a Cheyenne flyer, was responsible for local arrangements for the show and auction. The day’s responsibilities had him moving almost as fast as a prize winning pigeon, which some of his birds were at this event. Out of the 205 birds present, three of his won blue ribbons.
The auction was a success. The donated birds brought in $5000, said Dermer, covering the cost of bringing in the judges and other club expenses. One bird went for a high of $550. The average was $158, a tidy sum, but not as much as the thousands of dollars paid for birds in some circles.
Now about those smudged shirt fronts. Pigeon feathers are coated in a very fine powdery white talc-like substance called plume that gets on everything. When these pigeon lovers handle their birds, they use a firm, reassuring grip and hold them close, physically and mentally.