(Host) Today take a glimpse at a disappearing pastime: the sport of pigeon racing.
"What's with the birds?" Well they're messenger pigeons. I'm going to release them and whichever get home first I'll enter in the county fair." "Pigeons, huh?"
(Host) That's a clip from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even in the 1930s, Jimmy Stewart's trained pigeons didn't make much of an impression on the city folk. But all these decades later, pigeon racing is still alive and well.
On weekends, a group of Vermont enthusiasts pack up their birds and ship them off to distant locations in hopes they'll return home safely and swiftly.
As VPR's Steve Zind tells us, there's more to the sport than meets the eye.
(Zind) Tell Dick Zutell that his racing pigeons resemble the ones that you see begging for handouts in the park, and he'll give you a tolerant look.
(Zutell) "They look like the park pigeons, but they're not. We could tell you the pedigree and the lineage behind every pigeon, I mean back 50, 60, 100 years."
(Zind) Zutell and a few other racing pigeon enthusiasts have gathered in Williston with their birds in cages. They're being loaded into a trailer and shipped to New Jersey, where they'll be released to race back to their owners in Vermont.
These young pigeons were born in the spring - breeding them from proven racers is part of the art of the sport. All summer they've been pampered and prodded to fly fast.
Their race from New Jersey is the culmination of a summer of training that involves taking them out daily; first just a few miles from home and then further, to teach them to fly back to the roost. When they return, they're fed and coddled to reinforce the idea that coming home quickly is good, and chillin' with those pigeon n'er do wells in the park is not good.
(Zutell) "If they're going to sit down there and talk to their neighbors, no. We want them to race home."
(Zind) In the parlance of Zutell and his fellow pigeon racers, it's not just the birds who do the flying.
(Zutell) "I started flying in ‘47. I was 13 then. I belonged in a club in New Jersey. There was just a lot of flyers back then, there's not now. It's a dying sport and it's a shame."
(Zind) Zutell says there are just a handful of pigeon racers left in Vermont. Like him, many belong to the Champlain Valley Racing Pigeon Club. The sport probably reached its modern day peak in this country in the 1950s. The birds were used to carry messages during the Second World War and returning soldiers brought home an interest in racing them.
Peter Sapienza is a rare newcomer to the sport. Sapienza says he was attracted by the bond that develops between bird and flyer.
(Sapienza) "It's just a really full relationship with the birds who are coming back to be with you and to be in the loft. One of the things you need to work on is motivation."
(Zind) Motivation. That's where knowing a bit of bird psychology comes in. Pigeon racers fly both the male cocks and the female hens. In the hen, the maternal instinct is strong. Her desire to take care of her eggs makes Dr. Seuss's egg-hatching elephant Horton look like a slacker. To get a hen to fly home as fast as possible, interrupt her egg sitting duties and then send her off to race home.
Sapienza says flyers even try fooling the hen into thinking her egg is about to hatch.
(Sapienza) "People have been known to take little plastic eggs and put a fly in it and put it in the nest under the hen so that it rattles a little bit and will motivate her to come home."
(Zind) It takes about 7 hours for a good racing pigeon to fly the 250 or so miles from New Jersey to Vermont. For the victor, there's no prize money or trophy - just the satisfaction of having raised a winning pigeon, and the enjoyment of the sport
(Sapienza) "What we're out for is because we love the birds."
Breeding is one of the times of year when supplementation with vitamins and [pink] minerals can give definite benefits. Feeding youngsters places a big nutritional drain on the stock birds and, when dietary levels are marginal, deficiency can develop, leading to disease problems. Most commonly during breeding, this involves the mineral calcium. No matter how much shell grit the birds eat once paired, they cannot assimilate sufficient to compensate for the amount lost in pigeon milk production and in the hens' egg shell formation. The difference is made up from calcium stored in the skeleton before pairing. This is why it is so important that birds have access to grit for the entire year. The amount that can be mobilized from skeletal stores is self-limiting, and when this threshold is passed, a number of problems appear. Calcium is necessary for normal nerve and muscle activity, and so the birds may appear reluctant to walk, floppy, and weak or just quiet. The oviduct is a muscle and should act as a muscular tube pushing the egg down. With a fall in calcium levels, it loses this ability, leading to egg binding. Similarly, if there is insufficient calcium to supply the shell gland within the oviduct wall, rough or soft-shelled eggs may be produced. The quality of crop milk may deteriorate with reduced levels of calcium, leading to soft bones in the youngsters. This is often best assessed where the beak attaches to the head.
Vets' Tips for Fanciers, adds
A lot of calcium is necessary for the development of eggshells and this macro element is necessary for muscle activity, too. The musculature of the oviduct needs calcium to push the egg down. Calcium deficiency causes abnormal eggshells and/or weakness of the oviduct; the outcome is egg retention.
If egg retention is frequent among your pigeons, your flock management is incorrect - the diet is probably wrong.
The measure of performance is given in miles flown, but my experience is that it is the pace and hours on the wing which finds them out. Study the results of a few very fast races of over 300 miles or more and watch how quickly the velocities of the winning pigeons drop as pace takes its toll. Study any race where the winners are taking more than ten hours to do the journey and as a rule there will be empty perches at nightfall. It is pace and hours on the wing which bring exhaustion, and we will now consider what effect this has on the desires of the pigeons concerned as they plod on hour after hour. Physical exhaustion brings about an overwhelming desire for rest, so the fatigued pigeon stops flying. Furthermore, if my observations are correct, the next most desirable thing after rest will be water to drink. If the bird has found somewhere to rest and water to drink, a night's rest and the body's reserves will have replaced some of the losses, and the pigeon may resume its journey the following day, without having eaten any food. This raises the question of whether we prepare and condition our pigeons correctly to meet the task we set them, especially for the longer distances which perhaps involve a night out.
Adding apple cider vinegar, which is acetic acid, and other acids, such as citric acid, to the water is one of those older practices that at first glance seems like hocus pocus. However, they are of benefit and there is a scientific reason for their use. In health, the bowel is weakly acidic. This is because the normal bacteria found there produce lactic acid as part of their normal metabolism. With stress, [as in YB training & racing] these normal bacterial populations are disrupted and the pH within the bowel is altered. Harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella do not like acidic conditions and so anything that helps to maintain the weakly acidic environment within the bowel helps to prevent these organisms from becoming established. The usual amount of apple cider vinegar to add is 5-10 ml to 1 litre of water, depending on product strength and local water pH.
Interestingly; the commercially available probiotic preparations, because they contain the normal bowel bacteria, produce lactic acid and this is one of the ways they help to maintain bowel health.
Acclaim announces that it plans to use spray-painted homing pigeons to advertise Virtua Tennis 2 at this year's Wimbledon tournament.
Acclaim Entertainment, which last year saw fit to advertise Shadow Man: 2econd Coming on gravestones in the UK, has today announced that it plans to employ homing pigeons sporting Virtua Tennis 2 logos to advertise the game at this year's Wimbledon tournament. According to today's press release, around 20 pigeons branded with a Virtua Tennis 2 logo on each wing using a harmless water-based paint have been trained to fly in and out of the home of British tennis during the competition, the final stages of which will be played between June 23 and July 6.
"The Virtua Tennis 2 pigeon marketing campaign is highly targeted, as it brings awareness of the game directly to tennis enthusiasts," said Larry Sparks, VP of marketing international at Acclaim. "The Wimbledon tournament is famous for the occasional descent by pigeons onto center court, but our advertising pigeons are trained to go straight for the fans and flap their logos in front of them."
I visited this world famous fancier for the first time in 1929, and I was particularly impressed by his marvellous collection of pigeons. I must first of all give a slight impression of his magnificent loft installation. The building was of four storeys; the ground floor housed his cars, the second floor his grain, baskets and odds and ends of loft equipment; the third was the old bird loft for widowhood and natural racing; and the fourth his young bird lofts. M. Sion was a keen gardener and was mostly interested in roses and sweet peas; his other interests included game cocks (of a rather heavier type than we see in this country), sporting dogs (especially setters) and shooting.
During my first visit I was able to purchase a good stock pair containing the "Vieux Gris" blood - BCC 87646/25 and BBH 44284/26. From the first, this pair did well and were grandparents of winners up to Rennes, 545 miles, and Nantes, 608 miles, and 1st Open Dol.
After my second visit I bought his No. 1 stock hen, a blue 605142; she had bred many winners for M. Sion and she also did well for me.
Later I purchased red chq cock "Admiration" 605297/29 when he was a yearling. I selected him and was able to have him only because he had been shot in the leg when returning from his last race and was permanently lame. M. Sion rightly considered that his racing days were over. "Admiration" left at Tourcoing a youngster which was to be M. Sion's National winner in a future year from Morceaux. With "Admiration" I also bought mealy hen 82288 who was the dam of champion "Rouge Macot".
M. Sion considered "Champion Rousselet" and "Champion Rouge Macot" his two greatest pigeons. I was fortunate in making these selections and especially before the stock from them had won their spurs in the long races. They therefore justified my selection.
In later years I got to know M. Sion and his son M. Robert Sion much more intimately and we found many interests in common. I was able to help him with plants, gun-dogs and even game cocks!
M. Sion presented me with "Champion Rousselet" and up to the war in 1939 he gave me all the birds I required.
A short description of the great pigeon "Ch. Rousselet" might be given at this stage. His ring number was 28/517634 and he was well known over the continent as M. Sion's "Black Eyed Cock". He was a winner of forty prizes up to 900 kilometres and he was the sire of many winners for M. Sion, including his best bird in 1934. He was also sire of M. Paul Van Ecke's (Ghent) two great winners in the Paul National. "Ch. Rousselet" was a direct son of M. Sion's "Old Grey" stud - of the "Vieux Gris". He was described by M. Sion as "one of the greatest glories of my loft". "Ch. Rousselet" in type was a perfect pigeon, of medium size, good head and black eyes (rather to my mind a dark shade of blue), beautiful body and wings. He was a strawberry mealy. In addition he was like "Ch. Epinard" and other great pigeons, quiet and tame, and easy to work with. He was one of the foundation stones in building my present Sion family.
"Le Rousselet" Red Mealy Cock, 28.517634, bred by M. Paul Sion and well known in Belgium and France as M. Sion's "Black-Eyed Cock," and is winner of over 40 prizes up to 900 kilos. He is sire of several Aces including his best bird in 1934, also of M. Van Ecke's two Sion Cocks (nest-mates) which put up wonderful performances in 1933 National races. "Le Rousselet" is described by M. Sion as follows: "A direct son of my old Grey Stud Cock which is one of the greatest glories of my loft. This bird alone will found a loft."
The birds enumerated and several others from the same source and from M. Robert Sion (his son) were the original stock from which my Sion family came.
They are essentially a hardier type of pigeon than the Stassarts and stand up to feeding their youngsters even as prisoners. They shine in difficult head winds and are courageous and reliable. They are also, as Dr. Bricoux and M. Stassart proved, a very reliable cross almost with any strain.
In 1946, after the war, and at M. Sion's request I sent him two pairs of my best Sion blood to help him to re-establish his loft. I have recently heard from his son, M. Robert Sion, that these are now in his loft and I am sure they will give a good account of themselves in future races. I am of the opinion that the son will worthily uphold the name of Sion in the pigeon world.
A few notes with reference to the origin of the Sion pigeons and regarding M. Paul Sion's methods should be of interest. The birds go back to a son of M. Gris Dugniol's (Paris) champion mealy cock who won consistently in the long races for ten successive years. This cock was of the strain of M. Kikkens of Antwerp - a family as well known at that time as that of Wegge or Cassier, etc. This cock was mated to a mealy hen of the Red Vekeman blood (Wegge) and produced a blue hen with "black eyes" which proved to be a champion in all the races. She was later mated to a cock of the blood of Pynen and Delathouwer. From this mating came the famous champion "Rouge Sion," who was a great winner and breeder of winners. Many of the latter were mealies which were strongly black ticked like the original old Dugniol cock, their grandfather. M. Sion conserved and cultivated this family for between thirty and forty years - the birds became his famous "Vieux Gris". M. Sion used a suitable out-cross occasionally - he was not a confirmed in-breeder.
His successes were phenomenal at all distances and especially when conditions were adverse. The birds were game and at all times dependable. I was impressed, in my numerous visits to the loft, by the uniform quality of the birds - he had always a preponderance of reds, red Cheqs, and mealies, and all these were of the same type. The young bird loft was occupied by a magnificent team. M. Sion never seemed to have a bad breeding season. Some of the birds were above medium size, but all without exception were robust and muscular. M. Sion was a champion racer and an outstanding breeder, two qualifications which are very seldom got at the same time. On inspecting and handling a pigeon typical of the Sion family I was always impressed by the fact that although the bird looked more than medium size he was seldom heavy and he appeared smaller in the hand. On the average the Sions are definitely bigger than the Stassarts or the Bricoux birds. They are good racers and good breeders. M. Sion was also a generous feeder and in his dietary used beans and vetches very largely. Both systems of racing were practised, natural method and widowhood. Success above the average was achieved by both methods; he did exceptionally well with his hens, but I think he preferred the system of widowhood and he practised this method with all the great enthusiasm of the expert. He was one of the greatest exponents of that game.
In his training of his youngsters he was an exacting taskmaster. They were thoroughly selected for physical fitness before being subjected to training and all came under starter's orders.
The Sion strain was very fashionable abroad and was introduced into many of the best lofts, e.g. by M. Stassart, Dr. Bricoux, etc. M. Ernest Duray who won the Pau National in successive years with "La Plume Blanche de Pau" was another fancier who set great store by the Sion family. His great winner was three-quarters Bricoux and One-quarter Sion.
A study published by two University of Iowa researchers in the March 31 issue of the Journal of Vision found that pigeons recognize a human face's identity and emotional expression in much the same way as people do.
Pigeons were shown photographs of human faces that varied in the identity of the face, as well as in their emotional expression -- such as a frown or a smile. In one experiment, pigeons, like humans, were found to perceive the similarity among faces sharing identity and emotion. In a second, key experiment, the pigeons' task was to categorize the photographs according to only one of these dimensions and to ignore the other. The pigeons found it easier to ignore emotion when they recognized face identity than to ignore identity when they recognized face emotion, according to Ed Wasserman, Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology, and graduate student Fabian Soto, both of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology.
There is a small black fly that lives in the pigeon's feathers. This fly is very dangerous because not only does it carry disease but it drinks the bird's blood. When crushed between the fingers, the fly bursts and appears to be full of blood. The pigeon's strength is sapped if an infestation of these flies occur. The young birds seem to be affected more than the old birds. The "Fly Season" is from September to November. When the youngsters are flying the long races (300 miles) and futurity races, they cannot perform at top capacity if infected with flies. Although there is no known deterrent to these insects, the three-week strip changing program usually keeps them under control. When the cold weather arrives, almost all of the flies disappear.
WHEN Eduardo Urbina’s pet pigeon disappeared from his apartment in Spanish Harlem three summers ago, he suspected something nefarious.
Mr. Urbina, a street vendor who sells hats and watches along Third Avenue in the East 80s, recalled having seen a burly man with dreadlocks scooping live pigeons off Third Avenue with a fishing net, then depositing them into the back of his van. Mr. Urbina, who knows that pigeons are not in the habit of wandering off on their own, says he believed that the man with the dreadlocks had taken his bird.
In a town where pigeons have long been relegated to the status of pest, Mr. Urbina is part of a loose cadre of New Yorkers who see the birds as gentle, misunderstood creatures worthy of protection from human cruelty and indifference.
The problem of pigeon netting has continued unabated, and over the summer, organizations like the Wild Bird Fund, a local group, and In Defense of Animals, based in California, offered thousands of dollars in rewards for information leading to the arrest of netters, as the bird-nappers are known. A few months ago, an official of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals met with local pigeon protectors to discuss effective ways to address their complaints.
But Mr. Urbina worked alone.
He had been given this pigeon by a building superintendent when the bird was still tufted in yellow baby fuzz. He raised it to adulthood inside his apartment, feeding it seed through a straw and, later, from a dish, then released the pigeon outdoors — a routine he has followed with other rescued birds. Even so, the pigeon returned every morning through his apartment window for breakfast. One day, it did not.
“I loved that animal,” said Mr. Urbina, a soft-spoken 60-year-old who immigrated to New York 28 years ago from Peru. “So beautiful. So smart.”
He had heard rumors that netters lure the birds with food, then spirit them away to mysterious destinations. Many bird lovers believe that the pigeons become living targets at private gun clubs in Pennsylvania. Others say they end up in voodoo ceremonies, in the hands of pigeon breeders, at live poultry markets where they are sold for human consumption or at restaurants, particularly in Chinatown. And while catching wild birds like pigeons on the street is a violation of state environmental law, one New York police sergeant said that as a practical matter, enforcement is a low priority.
After Mr. Urbina’s pigeon vanished, he set up his own sting operation at Third Avenue and 103rd Street, near his apartment. A bakery on the corner discarded large bags of old bread that attract flocks of birds, and Mr. Urbina suspected that the birds would in turn attract the netter. Every morning for two months, he waited on the corner from 6 until after 7, his camera in hand.
According to Mr. Urbina’s account of what happened next, early one morning in late August, he finally saw his target driving north in a white truck. Along the way, the man would stop to park the truck, climb out and go after his prey with a long-handled net. Mr. Urbina pursued him, snapping photos as he went.
AFTER the netter sped off, Mr. Urbina hailed a taxi and sped north for six blocks, where he saw the netter scooping up more birds. Mr. Urbina leaped from the taxi and took photos of the truck, on the bed of which rested a portable pigeon coop. Turning away from the birds, the netter approached Mr. Urbina from behind, snatched his camera and drove off.
At this point, a police officer named Jon Stueckenschneider entered the case.
“I always refer to this case as my great pigeon caper,” said Sergeant Stueckenschneider, who at the time was an officer with a detective unit at the 23rd Precinct station house on East 102nd Street. He had been assigned to the case to investigate not the netting but the theft of Mr. Urbina’s camera.
The officer’s search for the thief ended the following February, when he got a call from police officers in the Bronx who had found the man in question. Subsequently, according to court records, a man named Dwayne Daley, now 49, pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and was sentenced to the day he had spent in police custody. According to Mr. Daley — who identified himself in a telephone voice message as “the birdman” — the case was dismissed.
“My take on Dwayne Daley is he just wants to do his thing,” Sergeant Stueckenschneider said. “He might have felt Eduardo was invading his space by taking pictures.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Daley said he had been fascinated by pigeons ever since he was a child trapping them in shoe boxes in Brownsville and East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhoods where he grew up. He now lives in Bushkill, Pa., near the Delaware Water Gap, where he keeps hundreds of birds, but he occasionally visits New York. He uses the birds he nets to interbreed with his own birds, he said, or sell at auction, where some can fetch more than $100.
“It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong with them,” Mr. Daley added. In his opinion, it is the birds’ defenders who do the real harm, by giving the creatures food that is meant for humans and that subsequently attracts rats.
Mr. Urbina never again set eyes on his 6-month-old pigeon, which he had named January, after the month he adopted it. But he did get back his camera, along with copies of the photographs he had taken. Exactly who had made the copies is unclear, but the final image showed Mr. Daley in the driver’s seat of his cab, wearing sunglasses and a half-smile.
I have two young bird lofts adjoining each other, with a small sliding door between the two. I give my youngsters, as soon as they are strong on the wing, a toss of a few miles any time and in any direction. I generally start training seriously about three weeks before the first race and keep them at it whenever possible until they have reached the distance I want them to go. About a week before the first race, the sexes are separated and exercised separately for half-an-hour morning and evening.
At noon on the day of basketing for the first race I lift up the sliding door and allow both sexes to go together, and if so inclined, to make a fuss of each other. Separate them again the day following race (after a good bath) and carry on on same lines for second race. The third week I put in both lofts some small loose nest boxes and find that both sexes claim them. At noon on basketing day I again let them go together and find them very keen on getting a mate to the box they have claimed. Same method adopted for the fourth week.
The fifth week, nest bowls and nesting materials are given them two days before the race, but birds must not be allowed together until noon as in previous races. This will be found to again be an incentive and has suited me. I have not had a young hen lay for years.
I ought also to add that in the above races birds that have been to races are fed very lightly Saturday and Sunday; in fact, never get to real hard feeding until Tuesday evening's meal. Food generally being a good mixture of peas, tares, maize, and a little wheat at the evening meal. The morning meal being groats, rice, hemp, canary and rape. Only the morning meal on basketing days.
Teach your youngsters anything you think will be useful to them and you will find in after life they won't forget it. Get control of them and keep it. I find talking to them better than whistling or tin rattling. Pigeons have very often more sense than we who keep them, if given a fair chance to display it.
Over crowding is the single most important cause of loft stress. Twenty-five racing birds or six pairs of stock pairs in a loft section with a height, width and depth of 2 m is the maximum recommended number of birds to maintain health.
Taken from The Flying Vet's Pigeon Health & Management
When we first started racing widowhood it was customary to darken the loft partially when the birds were inside. Many lofts still do it, but we no longer do. We feel the sun does more good and we find that if we pull the blinds down only when the other birds are outside so the widowers will not be excited that this is sufficient. We are, however, pulling the blinds down in the evening. This is after they have exercised and are fed and had sufficient opportunity for drinking. This darkens the loft.
This family was founded by M. Charles Wegge of Lierre, near Antwerp, and is generally considered to be the greatest of all the old original strains.
The foundation birds came from M. Schewych of Antwerp and from the schoolmaster at Vrembe. This combination produced birds of outstanding brilliance, among them 1st Mont de Marsen.
Later he introduced birds from M. Vekeman of Antwerp which were procured at the latter's dispersal sale. He also exchanged birds with M. Gits and M. Pletinckx.
He practised inbreeding to a marked extent, but was always very careful in the selection of suitable birds. He must have been a foremost figure in the Sport in its early days. (M. Jules Janssen, one of M. Wegge's oldest friends, considered him to be the greatest fancier of all time).
M. Wegge had his own methods of making his selection and preferred to be alone when arranging pairs in M. Janssen's loft, a duty he performed for many years prior to his death in 1897.
For stock he favoured birds over medium size, and in his inbreeding he did not lose size and managed to keep to type. Pearl and red eyes were common among the birds, heads were well developed and strong. They showed little cere or wattle. Feather was silky and rich. The keel was often strong and inclined to be long and well developed.
In his select colony he had a large number of mealies, reds and blues. At his dispersal sale in 1897, record prices were made, and the birds were eagerly sought after and distributed to many of the best lofts in Belgium.
They excelled in structural qualities and in addition were courageous "heavy weather" flyers, particularly in adverse winds. They proved an idea cross in many fanciers hands.
Among his greatest pigeons may be mentioned: "Le Vieux Pale", brother of 1st prize Bilboa and from a sister of "Vendome", "Le Vieux Rouge", "Le Rouge Vekeman", "Le Vendome", "Mont-de-Marson", "Le Petit Noir", etc.
The Wegge blood is found in many of the foremost strains, as, for example, the Red Check Cock of M. Jules Janssen which produced so many winners and helped to found the loft of M. Stassart and others.
The Baclenes which did so much to establish Dr. Bricoux's loft were also Wegges, and the Sions contain much of the same blood. Also in the old Stanhopes the blood is represented by the Vekeman family. For example, the red Calf hen is a progenitor of the famous "Excel", etc.
The name Servais is also prominent in the old Stanhope pedigree, and in an old record I note that this family was composed largely of the Wegge-Ulens combination of blood.
The Wegge blood was recognised as of value when crossed with the Van Schingens, as in the famous Janssens stock pair already described.
The pupil is surrounded by the sphincta muscle. This is the darkish almost black ring before you reach the iris. We have noticed this reacts to light or dark very quickly, in fact instantly. The very next time you ring (band) your youngsters, take the baby in your left hand and look at it's pupil, not close up, around eight inches will do. Now shine a light directly into its eye, if nothing happens put a cross against the baby, the pupil must close very quickly. Likewise it must open up the second the light is taken away. It is my estimation that the baby will not see its first birthday in your loft if its pupil does not respond to light or dark. It might win minor prizes on dull days but on bright sunny days it will surely be blinded, therefore it would not be able to orientate.
The clever fancier has to outsmart the pigeon and get him to eat in spite of himself. Instead of throwing in more food, hoping he will eat it, he cuts it down to practically nothing so that the bird is really hungry, then he will eat. In the morning, he is fed only a few grains, not enough to be satisfied. By evening he well come to meet the fancier and will eat a cropfull.
In my striping years (as now) I was extremely sensitive about my lack of knowledge concerning pigeons. To hide this lack, I was most studious in aping my seniors in the sport, always being so very careful to duplicate each action I observed. They felt for muscle; I felt for muscle. They examined the wing and so did I. Although I knew nothing about eye sign, I was careful to give this feature its due so as to be very sure that there were neither more nor less of these vital organs that might be expected. Now, one of the gestures I constantly observed I didn't understand at all, (although I was most careful to duplicate the action I saw). I refer to a step in the bird inspection ritual of so many old time flyer's, that of lifting one wing and peering intently beneath it. They did it - so did I. To have done otherwise would have made me suspect, a callow youth, unworthy of the company I wished so desperately to keep.
I may have fooled some of my associates of those early days, but I didn't for a moment fool the late Adolph Van Houtte. "Do you know what you're looking for kid?" he asked one day when it came my turn to inspect one of his champions. Shamefaced, I confessed that I did not. With this he took the bird I was handling, lifted its wing and directed my attention to three very short and very square-tipped feathers growing out of the bird's body at the base of its wing. "According to the 'experts,' the shorter and more square-tipped these three feathers, the better the bird is supposed to be," I was told. He then went on to point out that more than three feathers might well be found in this cluster, but that only the larger three would "count." Having made sure that I had absorbed this new knowledge, he drew me close and whispered that now he was going to show me a far better way of picking out a good pigeon. I am sure that I expected some privileged and very useful information - and quite possibly I received just that. Continuing in a conspiratorial tone, he told me, "Always look at the year on the bird's band. The older it is, the better its chances of being a good one!" What matter Dolph's laughter at my expense - I at long last knew the secret of the greats! And if you didn't know before, good reader, you do know now.
Try the three feather test on your own flock and you'll surely find that the known good ones will have three very short, very broad and very "chopped off" looking feathers at the location described. When you find this feature on a young bird (which you rarely will) I'd be willing to bet a year's free supply of eel eyes and bat wings from my bag of nostrums that you're looking at a future good one. Sounds silly? Of course it's silly, but that's the way it seems to work.
A pigeon flyer of no little renown once offered what may be a satisfactory explanation for the "square feather-good bird" correlation that seems to exist. He had noticed (he said) that the more intensely inbred the subject, the slimmer and more pointed would these three feathers be. He saw this as a clear sign of diminishing vigor and when he found these feathers becoming too narrow in his own inbred flock, he know that it was time to begin looking for a suitable outcross.
Seeming to bear out this "vigor" thesis most of the Trentons that have come my way in recent times have been from intensely inbred families. All have had slim. "spikey" feathers at this location and to be bluntly honest, none have raced satisfactory. However, when crossed into my own line bred family, the result has been the "chopped" feathers that all right-thinking fanciers desire - and suitable race day performance!
Still, if this "vigor" thesis be true, how would one go about explaining a man who has become a legend in his own time? I refer to one Jerry McBride of Seattle, whose inbred family has for some 40-odd years been a-building. Most of the McBride birds I have inspected would flunk the "vigor" test by reason of long, slim under-the-wing feathers and yet, year in and year out, these self-same birds continue to wipe out all comers on race day.
So? The next time you see a fellow fancier peering intently behind a pigeon's wing, you'll at least know what he's up to. Just a word of caution here - smile if you will, but don't laugh aloud! Some of we more dedicated fanciers take the matter of the three feather test for bird quality very seriously indeed.
Taiwan leads the world in pigeon racing. Nowhere else in the world comes close in terms of financial reward, devotion and innovative ways of increasing the speed and endurance of its flocks
The life of a racing pigeon in Taiwan is spoiled, competitive and short. The bird is pampered for its first four months and is subsequently forced to exceed the limits of its strength in a series of progressively faster and longer races, to either become the champion and breed to its heart's content in avian luxury, or lose and end up on the barbecue.
It could be argued there is no bigger or more lucrative sport in the country, as there are hundreds of thousands of pigeon fanciers, up to 500 races a week and a bird can earn more in one race than a baseball player can in a season.
No other country comes close to Taiwan in terms of the amount of money involved, the number of birds and races and the fervor with which the sport is followed.
But pigeon racing in Taiwan has a shady reputation, not only because of the extraordinary lengths to which breeders will go to win, but also because of the sport's deep connections to gangsters, especially through gambling.
In other parts of the world where pigeon racing is practiced, the birds are viewed more like pets and national regulations curb illegal gambling and help prevent burnout and loss of bird life. Here, there is less space for sentimentality.
"We hear a lot about how Europeans can't believe the money and racing here. They are very jealous," said a man surnamed Du, during a recent interview. Du is a senior official in one of the 15 pigeon-racing associations registered in Taipei County and, like other people interviewed for this article, requested his full name not be used, for fear of attracting police attention.
"Pigeon racing is serious business. it's much more difficult than keeping a pet. There is the nutrition, management, breeding lines and racing arrangements, so many things," Du said.
"There are so many variables that it's impossible for there to be one winner all the time. So, as a sport, it's very open."
Signing up for the big time
As Du checked off two baskets of pigeons brought into his office so their ages could be verified for an upcoming race, he talked about how he has been raising pigeons for 30 years and racing them professionally for 25.
He gauges the age of the birds by examining the color of their wings, measuring them, looking at their eyes and checking for other age-defining signs. He also closely examines the ring on one of each pigeon's legs, which is supposed to give the birth date of the bird, the name of its owner and other information.
All birds are logged no later than three or four days after birth, but occasionally the tags are broken off or tampered with and replaced with another ring to enter a different bird for a race.
On this day there are no problems, and when Du is certain the bird is who its owner claims it is, he stamps its wing with a large red seal. The pigeons coo as if pleased at all the attention in the expert hands of their handlers. They are all sleek, well-bred and healthy creatures.
One of Du's colleagues in the association, who has been listening to the conversation, puts down his motorbike helmet and says that pigeon racing must be taken seriously. "We test our birds to the limit," he says.
He explains that the birds begin training at a young age with small, private races that lead to three or four time trials in which they must perform well to enter the big races.
Few pigeons make it to compete in the main races -- the ones with money at stake -- and only the top three or four win big prizes.
"After six months, the birds are picked for breeding, or sold, or barbecued," Du says, as his friends joke about how tasty pigeon meat is to eat. "Of course we don't eat our own birds. We have a relationship with them," Du adds.
Full-grown pigeons can fly at speeds of up to 150kph and cover over 1,000km in a day. Due to Taiwan's relatively short size of 400km north to south, most races are short-distance flights using young, immature birds that fly about 70kph to make the race more competitive.
For longer races, the birds are taken by ship to points as far as 350km into the East China Sea, north of Taiwan, and are released. Judges calculate the exact distance from the launch point to each pigeon master's loft and the winners are the birds that maintain the fastest meters-per-minute speed.
To fly the distance back home, pigeons rely on their highly tuned senses. A pigeon's eyes can see over 40km, its ears can hear winds whistling through mountains hundreds of kilometers away and it has an acute sense of smell, as well as being able to detect the earth's magnetic fields.
Nevertheless, many birds don't make it back.
"Sometimes the birds get blown away or get lost and fly to China. Sometimes there is a bad forecast, or it is too late and nearly all the birds are lost," says Du, referring to a case two months ago when pigeon fanciers in southern Taiwan considered suing the central meteorological center for the loss of their birds after 90 percent of entrants in a race were wiped out by a typhoon off the coast.
Competitions within associations culminate in Five-Race championships. To make it to the championship and win, a bird will have to fly home about 15 times within three months or less, covering about 4,000km at an average speed of about 73m a minute.
Each association runs three, maybe four, series of races a year and there are two main types of races, one for young birds of four months or so -- more common in the south -- and other races for birds about six months.
Other dangers lurk below
Even if a pigeon avoids bad weather and predators, it may still be brought down by guns or by people seeking to kidnap the birds by catching them in huge nets hung off the mountains.
A senior member of the association, surnamed Zhang, said bird-napping pigeons for ransom was a particularly severe problem during preliminary races. The bird-nappers, Zhang said, usually send an identifying ring with a ransom demand that can range from NT$2,000 to NT$100,000.
"It's easy money to make and it's useless to ask for help from the police. So usually you must settle in private, or else," Zhang said, making a face as if to say a bird would be in trouble if money wasn't paid up.
Occasionally, robbers raid lofts, either to steal the pigeons or put them out of action. In response to the threat, some owners have set up elaborate security systems, while others have 24-hour security guards. Before a championship, the security arrangements can be even more rigorous, sometimes even employing armed guards.
A so-called "Pigeon King" can be worth up to NT$3 million through its breeding rights and prize-winning potential, which makes it worth protecting.
A bird will reach "Pigeon King" status if it wins or is likely to win a championship, the prizes for which can run up to NT$100 million, but which more commonly top out between NT$1 million to NT$4 million. Prizes take the form of cars, or motorbikes, to avoid taxes.
Prize money is raised through the association by pooling the race entrance fees. In a common race, leg rings for 15 birds cost NT$5,000, with 200 participating members that bring the pot to NT$1 million.
There is, however, no standard race format. Larger competitions obviously create larger prizes and races sometimes pit 14,000 birds against each other. Race rings can cost up to NT$45,000.
There are over 150 official pigeon-racing associations in the country as a whole, in addition to the estimated 400 unregistered associations and unknown numbers of private individuals who race pigeons between themselves. As for the total number of pigeon fanciers in the country, estimates range from 100,000 up to half a million.
With gambling, the amount of money washing around a race, in what are termed "under-the-table" payments, are by most estimates three to four times as large as the total prize money.
Not surprisingly, gambling draws gangsters into pigeon racing and they are said to control many aspects of the sport.
What also allows gangsters to operate in the sport is the lack of central government regulation. Authorities, for the most part, turn a blind eye to the gambling, as long as it doesn't generate bad publicity or rampant lawlessness.
Doping in racing pigeons, is also common. Many pigeon lofts have an array of medicines and liniments that put a pharmacy to shame. Even ordinary birds can be made into champions by slowing the molting process, providing stimulants, enhancing muscle growth and increasing their metabolic rate. Steroids, cortisone, hormone growth agents, even gene therapy is utilized to develop the ultimate feathered racing machine.
"Anything and everything is possible," Du said, looking over his glasses and rolling his eyes, as if to emphasize the fact that he has seen it all.
If gambling were either legal in Taiwan, or the prize money were less, pigeon racing would likely lose its popularity. Betting on pigeon racing is legal in Europe, the US and elsewhere, but, because races are so open, the odds are long and punters stand little chance of winning. This reduces the prize money and with it the motivation for gambling.
Though Taiwanese are avid gamblers abroad and through on-line betting sites, stringent regulations against gambling within the country remain in place without any likelihood of changing soon. Last year, for instance, the British Internet betting company Sportingbet was prevented from setting up local operations, and a referendum on legalizing gambling for casino operations in Penghu on Dec. 27 was inconclusive, due to a derisory 21-percent turnout.
Despite its seamy reputation, most pigeon-racing adherents are average citizens who genuinely love their birds. They were either brought up with them, or have found companionship through racing and joining clubs.
Most pigeon fanciers, even professionals, don't strike it rich with their birds. And like any other sport or business, progress requires investment and overhead can be high.
First, there is the price of pigeons. Though some birds cost as little as NT$1,000, at least 15 pigeons are needed to participate in a registered association's race. Top breeding pigeons fetch upwards of NT$50,000, with the most expensive birds coming from Belgium, Holland and England. The most expensive racing pigeon ever bought was Invincible Spirit bought by Louella Pigeon in 1992 for 110,000 pounds (NT$6.7 million).
"If you keep losing you have to buy pigeons from abroad," Du said.
For that, people can turn to weighty weekly and monthly publications filled with catalogues of local and international birds and which provide full breakdowns on their breeding histories, weights, racing statistics, plus streams of advertising from the pigeon-rearing supplies industry.
On top of this are the association registration fees and race ring fees. Associations will often make interest on the fees and take 5 percent of winnings to cover rent and utilities and pay a full-time official and a secretary. Other overhead includes boat-operation fees, transportation, drugs and veterinary bills.
Living in the city
In cities, pigeon lofts are banned near airports and in densely populated residential areas. The restrictions have forced many owners to pool their pigeons in one loft and pay a manager to save money and improve conditions. The fee paid to the loft manager sometimes includes a percentage of the winnings, therefore providing an incentive to take better care of the birds.
"Some of the young guys are in it for the lottery money, it's true. But they know it's a long shot," pigeon loft owner Wu said.
Despite the low odds, there is no lack of avid pigeon-racing fans willing to take their shot.
Currently, pigeon racing in Taiwan is unique for its financial reward, the devotion of its financiers and the innovative ways of increasing the speed and endurance of its flocks.
There isn't an international championship for pigeon racing, but if there were, Taiwan would almost certainly be the gold-medal winner.
(Translation of the Federation Colombophile Internationale report from Lille, France, supplied by Col. W. R. Hubbard, Dover, Florida.)
June 1971 the racing pigeon federations of Holland, Belgium, and France sent an S.O.S. by radio, in the press, in favor of the lost pigeons. Thousands of pigeons from each of these countries did not answer the call. What happened on the 5th, 6th, and 7th of June, 1971?
We thought an inquiry should be made. Could we discover an exceptional atmospheric phenomenon which could have hampered or disordered the orientation sense of pigeons?
The quick emotion caused by these disasters has again brought forth the old theories - theories long ago belied by facts and experience. All the great human inventions, in their time and order, have been accused of disturbing the extraordinary and mysterious faculty of orientation in the pigeons; electricity, then wireless, atom bomb, and last - radar. [could we not today, include cell phone technology]
It seems useless to answer all these suppositions, because when atmospheric conditions are good, in spite of all these inventions, the pigeons keep their bearings as well, if not better, than when we used candles for lighting. Radar is most blamed in spite of serious and precise experiences accomplished.
We went by plane personally, on a Sunday morning, to watch over and around a very powerful military radar post. We have seen numerous flights of pigeons, Belgian, Dutch, and French; no deviation, no hesitation, no reaction. The pigeons kept on following exactly the line of flight they had adopted. Radar has no influence on our pigeons.
This inquiry was decided upon by the ministerial concourses of the Poitiers branch of the first region. Fourteen concourses liberated 8,000 pigeons on the early morning of June 7. It was eight days before all the prizes were claimed. The first prizes were won at a very low speed, about 4 to 5 hours later than normal.
Are we to blame the "solar wind" which our scientists claim is the source of magnetic perturbations on the ground, like "aurora polaris" and magnetic storms? The mechanism which transfers energy from solar wind to magnetosphere is not yet known. In these conditions let us not rush in study of that science at its start, the said science cannot bring us any practical utility, for up to now, it is impossible to foresee and avoid these perturbations.
This is not the first inquiry into abnormal disasters. The first inquiry into the August 2, 1964, disaster brought us to the conclusion of the presence of a phenomenon we have not seen since. During three days in 1964, our pigeons were as "deboussoles" (lost their compass), not receiving waves, unable to get bearings, and the weather was not bad. Orientation was disordered. After the third day, brutally, the birds returned in great numbers; orientation had come back.
In 1968 the cause of the disasters was the bad atmospheric condition. Our convoyers took some risks, unfortunately it turned out for the worse.
1971? We have asked the administrative services of France and Belgium for an important work. At the beginning of June, we sent a form to each pigeon owner who lost a marked bird which asked him to inform us where and when his pigeon had be released, and when it should have homed. 565 questionnaires were sent, of which 143 went to the Dutch and of these no answers were received. Answers were received from the Belgians and the French, but not as many as we had desired. A large number of answers is always indispensable if one wants to draw serious and indisputable conclusions. We can say, however, that a majority of pigeons marked by the concourse of Poitiers were found south of the Loire, not very far to the east, northeast of Poitiers; some more to the east, as far as Germany.
We received numerous letters from French fanciers with some information which was more or less useful, on what they had seen, telling how and what they had done to save the lives of our birds in peril.
Study of Concourse Results: We thank the Administrative Services of the Royal Belgian Colombophile (racing pigeon) Federation and the French club presidents who passed on to us an important number of results for the races held on these three dates. These results when studied, were invaluable.
All the races of that period, French and Belgian, flying from north to south, east to west, west to east, or south to north, were very distressing. In many cases it took as long as two days for all prizes to be claimed, even for the short distances.
Meteorological Bulletins: We have them all - from all the weather stations of the French airports. This same information is furnished to convoyers before their decision to liberate and is in addition to information received by radio or telephone from convoys stationed at other points of liberation.
We will not discuss the Dutch race from Orleans with 28,000 pigeons liberated on June 5. After two days only 1,400 returned. These were certainly heavy losses.
The Belgian races from Brive were hard, but not as murderous. The pigeons were liberated at Brive after the fog had cleared. The weather was cloudy, intermittent showers, visibility improving during the day. Although this was a hard race, it could be called successful despite the bad weather.
On June 6, weather continued cloudy, visibility insufficient in the morning due to fog. The fog rose slowly allowing a few flights but speed was reduced. Classifications were at a nominal speed of 800 meters per minute, which is still bad. The races beyond Paris lasted for two days when normally they are only 30 minutes!
Numerous races were held over to June 7 as official weather forecasts were better for that Monday. In Paris and north of Paris, visibility was improving and by eight o'clock, was 8 kms., in spite of cloudy weather; morning fog was lifting, varying according to location. As soon as visibility was sufficient, flights were started at various points. All were hard races and lasted two days.
Fourteen concourses from the north of France released at 6:10 from Poitiers. It was a drama - the mist rose and thickened in the morning. No pigeons could escape. In such mist the pigeons are taxed to the extreme limit of their strength, with feathers wet and turned into sticks. The first to return was four hours later than normal. On that particular day, the weather bulletins from Poitiers were not conducive to release at 6:10.
A convoyer should know what the weather is on the first 50 kilometers of the line of flight.
There were two other releases from Poitiers that day, one southward toward Bordeaux at 25 kms., and this ended the night of the same day; the other, northward toward Argenton 230 kms., none returned on the day.
Finally, for the information of those fearing that the days passed in the baskets could be fatal, 400 pigeons scheduled for release on Sunday, June 6 for Rouen 600 kms., were liberated Friday, June 11, when visibility had come back. Results were perfectly regular, ending on the following morning.
Conclusion: The bad atmospheric conditions in 1971 were responsible for the disaster. Visibility is essential to achieve a good release.
The number one enemy for the orientation and the flight of the pigeons is dense and widespread fog.
Well, I have been a lover of this great sport of ours ever since I was old enough to toddle into my Father's loft. I am 48 years of age now but still remember very well winning my first race - that was in 1919. One thing I was told by my Father was, "Don't let it get to your head. First thing is, learn how to lose."
Bred by Noel PEIREN, Imported by Claude Rothgiesser, Son of "Red Pau Cock" which scored 3 times in Pau (600 Miles) Nationals and daughter of "Barcelona 136 Cock" who scored 5th Barcelona National. Good breeder including 1st Open Matheson Y/L, 4th Longlac, 3rd Latchford, 4th Smooth Rock Falls, 4th Open AU Band Race Y/B Smooth Rock Falls, 3rd Burks Falls, 2nd Estaire, 1st Matheson, and 1st Latchford