THE SPORT

 

 

In the Beginning:     

     Here is the Sport that has a single starting gate, and a hundred finish lines. The "Uncontrolled Competition".  

    It is an aerial race with thousands of competitors, and no spectators.  It is a sport with one of the worlds most amazing creatures and one of mans oldest feathered friends, the Homing Pigeon.

    Like many of natures creatures, doves and pigeons have innate abilities to return to their nesting places from great distances.  For centuries this has permitted them to fly far from home in search of food and return to their young.  What makes the pigeon unique is how comfortable they are with humans.  Whether one accepts a Biblical or scientific bases for life on earth, pigeons predate man.  In the Bible, Genesis has them created by God on the fifth day, man on the sixth day.  By evolution pigeons are at least 30 million years old, significantly older than humans.   

    The words dove and pigeons describe the same family of birds.  Before recorded history they lived with man.  In early history they were a source of food and their droppings provided fertilizer for the fields and later on their droppings were used to make gun powder.  Their gentle ways and soft cooing  made them a symbol of peace and love.  In the Bible the dove are a symbol of the Love and the Holy Spirit.  But pigeons grew to fill another roll, man discovered the bird could carry messages home.  This instinct made the birds essential  to civilization as early as 5000 years before the birth of Christ.  Noah's dove flew over the horizon to find land and by its nature it returned to Noah after it found the olive tree.  Ancient Egyptians developed a special paper to permit the birds to carry more information.  Athletes at the first Olympics carried  pigeons from their villages to the games.  If they won they would tie a strand of the finish line to the birds foot, it's arrival home signified the local athlete's victory.  The release of pigeons is still a part of the opening ceremony.  In the 12th Century the Sultan of Syria had dove lofts built across his realm, and this early air mail system brought messages to Baghdad.  

    After thousands of years of selective breeding, pigeon keepers have developed many different types of pigeons.  There are now almost 300 breeds of pigeons, all of them thought to ascend from the Rock Dove.  The sizes shapes and colors of these fancy pigeons in a modern pigeon show, are a far cry from the little gray dove that made its' nest along the rocky cliffs of Ancient Lands.  And while these birds are bred for their beauty, the rather ordinary looking homing pigeon is the one that serves man most.

    As fast messengers they were important to Ancient Military and business leaders.  The horse and rider galloping at top speed could only cover a few miles an hour.  A pigeon could carry a message as much as fifty miles an hour, flying over rivers, mountains, and possibly even the enemy down below.  For thousands of years they were used for much more than food or fertilizer, they were the worlds' fastest means of communication.    

    In the business centers of London and Antwerp it was common for bankers and traders to maintain their homing pigeons, used to deliver secret messages from distant cities.  One of the first was the great financier Nathan Rothschild, who's intelligence network included the homing pigeons.  In 1815 a Rothschild pigeon flew home to London carrying the startling news that Napoleons' grand army had been crushed at Waterloo.  Information like this arriving by pigeons many hours and even days before it was known to others was invaluable.  Combined with the Rothschild's family astuteness and finance, it helped them to create one of the greatest financial institutions in Europe.

    During the siege of Paris in 1871 Prussian troops surrounded the city. Homing pigeons were carried in hot air balloons pass enemy lines.  Then using microdot photography, to record hundreds of messages on a tiny piece of film, letters as far away as London were carried back into Paris by the birds.  During the four month siege, the pigeons carried home over a million different messages.

    By the late 1800's the pigeons were often used for means of fasts communication.  Birds delivered stock prices from one city to another.  A key part of early news agencies used them to carry news.  Government run pigeon post became common in many parts of the world.  The birds racing today are the descendents of these messengers.  For when businesses could send messages faster by new inventions called the telegraph, the pigeon carriers became obsolete, BUT the Sport of Racing Homing Pigeons had already began being developed.

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The Sport Fundlementals:  

    A race begins when the pigeons are released from a distant point, this is the Starting Gate (release station).  These releases are from a standard location and named for the nearest town.  The birds race home.  The distances from the release station to each individual pigeon loft are calculated by special surveyors.  They compute the flying distances down to the 1000th of a mile or kilometer.  By the turn of the century special clocks were invented to time the birds arrival.  Before the race a numbered rubber band called a counter mark is placed on each pigeons leg.  The bird is officially home when this countermark is placed into the clock and the timing handle on the clock is turned.  When the clock is struck (kicked) the exact time is recorded down to a 100th of a second.  The counter mark enters a sealed chamber that cannot be tampered with.  This makes it impossible to time a race bird before it actually arrives.  It also means getting a bird home first does not necessarily mean it will win.  A trainer has to make sure that the racer comes inside quickly so that the counter mark can be removed and placed in the clock.  With thousands of competitors in a race, seconds may make the difference between 1st place and 50th.

    The equation is simple mathematics.  Distance divided by time equals speed.  With an exact flight distance and flying time, the birds average speed can be very precisely calculated.  Because the competition is so keen, this speed is figured down to the yards flown per minute.  The winner, as in any race, is the bird with the fastest homing speed.  Today, quartz clocks and computer systems make the complex calculations.  In much of the world the new generation of clocks are connected directly to a main computer.  As each trainers arrival time is entered, the standing for the races change until all the information is in.

 

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"G.I. Joe":

    Although they became obsolete for most business communications homers remain crucial military tools.  In both World War I and World War II homing pigeons provided a reliable means of delivering messages.  They were used in the desert, over Artic terrain, and in the densest of Asian jungles.  They were often released from behind enemy lines from airplanes and from ships far out in the sea.  Many a downed Airmen owes their life to a pigeon he let go as he bombed into a tiny rubber raft in the ocean.  An American pigeon "G.I.Joe" is credited for saving over 1,000 British allies during World War II as he carried a message twenty miles in twenty minutes, just in time to keep our aircraft (that was on the run way to leave) from bombing a city that the British troops had just over run.  "G.I.Joe" was one of thousands of pigeons used during war time.  Their loyalty at heart resulted in birds delivering vital messages in spite of mortal bullet wounds, missing eyes or feet resulting from enemy gun fire.  Pigeons were so reliable they were often the only way messages were sent without being coded.  And in the five years of World War II, military birds successfully delivered an increditable 98% of hundreds of thousands of messages.  

    Today only the Swiss, French and Israeli armies still use the reliable couriers (and that may have changed, information like that is not really leaked out to everyone.)  But the birds delivery skills have also resulted in their continued use to fly blood samples from remote areas and to carry industrial data across crowded urban highways.  

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The Marathoner:

    Released in a town they have never seen before, rising from the ground hundreds of miles away from home, these racers take only minutes to get their bearings.  Then one pound of flesh and feathers hurdles home at speeds of fifty miles an hour ( they have been clocked at 94 mph {Texas-Rick Smith-400mile race}).  They can fly from sunrise to sunset.  In terms of a marathon there is no match  for their stamina.  And no level of competition can match  the thousands of wings that fly to achieve the fastest speed.  

    The race is not only to the swift, it is to the one who is among the first to determine the correct route home.  It's to the leader who never falters, the bird who never stops.  And on arrival, goes immediately into the loft.  

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The Marriage and Family:

    For all the unique traits of a champion, each pigeons life starts as any other.  The lengthening days of spring spark the hormones of both male and female.  The courtship habits of pigeons is marked by a level of love and devotion seen in few other birds.  The larger swaggering cock birds strut their stuff to any and all female birds that will listen.  The deep melodious cooing comes from the males throat as they inflate their crops.  For every strutting cock there is in the pigeon world a coy hen.  And while at first ignoring the strutting cock or walking out of his bulldozing advances, sooner or later the lady will succumb.  The mood changes, the male pretends  to preen, the hen does the same.  As they draw closer the magic builds.  They exchange a quivering first kiss.  The chemistry of this moment is important, love and mutual attraction are vital, because these two birds will remain forever together.  Nature has made pigeons love life a satisfactory experience for both parties.  

    Like many birds, pigeons are gregarious.  A modern breeding loft looks like a small apartment complex.  But the birds gregarious nature does not include its own nesting box.  Nothing in the universe is more important than the little piece of real-estate they call home.  Pigeons will fight almost to the death to defend this space.  This is the place that the male will call his mate to nest.  Quite cooing fills the pigeon loft, and these birds of peace also affectionately start messaging each other by gently opening and closing their beaks.  You will see them petting each other on the head.  

    A week after their first kiss the hen will retire to the nesting box to await the first egg.  She will not set on the first egg until the second egg is laid, two days after the first.  Like a seed without soil or moisture the spark of life in the egg will only begin at 82 degrees.  The birds instinctively know that by waiting and then start incubating both eggs together, they will hatch within hours together.  This means that the baby in the first egg is not older thus stronger than the other.  This gives them both an equal chance to survive.  Now comes a peaceful two weeks in their married lives.  Both male and female take turns incubating the eggs.  

    As the 17th day approaches the baby starts stirring in the egg, and with the aid of a sharp point called the egg tooth on its tiny beak, it circles the inside of the shell with a line of cracks.  Once weakened the top (big end) of the shell yields to the final great pushes of the tiny pigeon as it enters the world.  It can take over a day for the baby to break out of the egg.  Hatching within hours of each other, the slightly older youngster sometimes helps its exhausted nest mate by removing the shell from its head.  Their eyes are closed and without their parents they are helpless.  This birthing process takes place beneath its parents warming breast, and after a period of rest, a tiny head wobbles up for its first meal.  

    Like few other birds on earth, both parents develop a milky secretion inside their crops.  For the first five days of the babies lives this rich pigeon milk as it is called will nourish the young birds.  At three days their eyes are opened, their body weight has doubled.  At a week feathers appear and again they have gained weight rapidly.  They now weigh five times as their amount at birth.  The equivalent of a human baby achieving three years of growth in seven days.  Before they grow too large they are banded with a seamless metal or plastic coated ring.  Slipped over their tiny feet this registration band carries the year they were born, the club they will race in and an identification number that is each birds alone.  No pigeon can race without this band.

    At two weeks they are flapping and noisy youngsters.  This is the time they receive their nickname "Squeakers".  They are constantly making the noise when it is feeding time.  When full grown, these birds will carry almost 10,000 feathers.  None more important than the long subtle flight feathers which make up the birds wings.  

    Between the second and third week, the youngsters undergo another growth spurt.  Now they are ready for the transition from parental care to a life on their own.  A youngster is considered ready to leave the nest when the growth of feathers under its wings covers the last portion of exposed skin.  For three weeks the youngsters have eaten, slept and apart from banding had little contact with man.  Now at approximately 28 days this is time for a change.  This is where they begin to learn that one goal is apparent, to come home as quickly as possible.  They have to learn how to eat and drink on their own.  Unlike a lot of birds, pigeons swallow water like a horse.  Out of the nest and on the floor is where the youngster begin noticing everything around them and absorbing all the happenings in their loft.  With the last of the downy feathers on them they are placed out on the lofts landing board to see all their surroundings.  Pigeons somehow imprint their locations of home.  Part of their training for this is to see, hear and smell the outside world and view the open sky.  The next step is to learn to fly.

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YOUNG ADULTS / RACE TEAM:

    As their wings grow rapidly the young birds experience with lift off.  Like little children nothing can prepare them for what's to come.  One of the joys in raising these young birds is watching them take off and land in the beginning.  Though they will become expert flyers, the beginning stage is worth a thousand pictures.  Like new drivers these early days are a comedy of tail spinning take-offs, near mid air collisions and missed landings that can look like tumblers.  

    The ecstasy of flight is apparent in these young flyers.  Their uncoordinated early effort soon gives way to the singular and most beautiful sight in the pigeon flyers eyes.  The tight maneuvers of a team of birds freely wheeling over the country side.  This is a moment where the birds freely flying is a part of their education.  A flock of young pigeons fueled by boundless energy will disappear for hours at a time while they roam to any point of the campus.  Now a bond with their trainer begins to form.  By keeping just the right edge to their diet, the birds will return to feed.  It is vital for the birds to see the trainers as their master for food.  By whistling or ringing bells every time you feed, you teach the birds to come into the loft for their food and water, and on race day you will see how well you have trained.  This lesson taught time and time again in the spring will be a key to victory when the young bird races come in the fall.

    As a product of natures superb aeronautical  engineering, the pigeon comes close to perfection.  The air frame is made up of hollow bones whose interior is permeated by tiny air bubbles.  Making them half the weight as the same amount as our human bones.   This hollow skeleton plus numerous air sacs provide reservoirs of oxygen to augment the birds lungs.  This efficient system oxygenates tremendous amounts of red blood cells which in turn powers the muscles.  The fuselage is tapered to the finest point.  A beak made of caridone, pound for pound the strongest natural substance on earth.   A pigeon can make as much as 10 complete strokes with its wings in a single second.  

    This is natures version of the perfect marathon machine.  Designed to reach peak velocities in seconds.  Then incredibly hour after non stop hour to sustain a tremendous pace.  At rest the birds heart beats 200 times a minute.  When it takes to flight it shoots to 600 beats and remains there as long as it flies, even as long as fifteen or sixteen hours covering over 500 non stop miles in a single day.

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Training?:

    No matter where they will fly in the world or how far they will compete, the basic training for the homing pigeon is the same.  In the early days of training the young racers are taken several miles from home and taught to return quickly for the tastiest grains.  At first they are released as a group, but to give them more experience and self confidence, a trainer will often release them to fly home solo.

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Scientific Research:

    Despite years of intensive research, the homing ability of birds, animals and insects remains as one of natures best kept secrets.  The Racing Pigeon is providing data that some day may explain this fascinating ability of creatures to find their way over vast distances.  Since 1967 Cornell University in New York State has been conducting experiments with racing pigeons in an effort to understand their homing ability.  Data gathered here combined with researchers in Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Italy reveals how nature has blessed these birds with senses far sophisticated than human beings. The experiments point to a possibility that the birds use a combination of senses for clues to find the route home.  Each bird has a very accurate internal clock and able to tell north and south by sensing the suns position in relation to the time of day.  If the sun is obscured by clouds it seems likely that the pigeons can sense the earths magnetic fields.  In addition to their clock and campus they have visual senses that allow them to see ultra-violet and polarized light, possible aids to determine directions.  Backing all this up is a sense of  hearing that is so sensitive to low frequencies that they can perceive intra sounds un-audible to humans.  Scientist believe they can actually hear certain noises such as the wind blowing over the Rocky Mountains from several thousand miles away.  That's not all that makes up their on board computer system.  Pigeons can also smell so well that some bird researchers believe they may use odors to find their way home.  Exactly how they know so well to pick the correct route home remains a mystery.  Whatever the answer these quite sensitive creatures live in a world of sights and sounds and smells that is much different than our own.  

    The modern man on the street thinks that pigeons are a nuisance or the butt of jokes.  In our high tech society the thought of pigeon messengers and pigeon racing is laughable.  These earth bound humans are oblivious to the marathoners in the sky.  

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FANCIERS:

    There are certain people who know that the Homing Pigeon is in a class by theirselves.  The Fanciers who breed and train them are woven into the fabric of theses creatures as the trainer of any race horse or the breeder of any blue blooded Grey Hound.  Unlike horse racing, the sport of Kings and the Princely Incomes, pigeons racing is a sport that attracts all types of people.  From every walk of life and every income level.  Through out the world at least a million people keep Homing Pigeons. As many as 40 million birds.  And the people who care for them are Glass men, carpenters, doctors, Captains of industry, and Coal Miners, lawyers, doctors, and well, just about all walks of life.  While money may make things easier it doesn't buy success in the Pigeon Racing World.  

 

 

    I would like to credit this page to the Video

"MARATHON IN THE SKY"

Written and Directed by James Jenner

Narrated by: MICHAEL LANDON

Anyone who has not seen this video should put it on the top of their list

To buy one and have a copy on hand.

YOU WILL WANT EVERYONE YOU KNOW TO SEE IT!