Fri, 12 Jun 2020
DID you know that racing pigeons follow motorways to find their way home?
Or that the most money ever paid for a racing pigeon was $1.5m?
No, nor me – there’s a lot more to pigeon racing than meets the eye.
The racing season started up again last week, six weeks later than planned, and was the first sport back after the coronavirus outbreak.
And that means thousands of birds that have been cooped up over the winter and spring are now back in action, racing back to their lofts from all parts of the country and beyond.
Around 150 of those birds belong to pigeon racer Kieron Marcham from Eling, near Hermitage, a member of the Didcot and Wantage RPC.
He explained: “The season is split into two parts – the old bird season which runs until mid-July and then the young bird season which goes on until September.
“All birds have a life ring on their leg. Different colours denote which year the bird was born and each have a separate number.”
The birds are also separated into breeding pairs and racers.
Breeders are successful birds that have finished racing and, like dogs and horses, they all have a pedigree.
Good club birds can fetch between £200 to £500, but in 2013 a five-year-old bird named Armando was bought by a Chinese enthusiast for $1.5m.
That’s a staggering figure, especially when you see the figures involved in club racing.
Marcham said: “Generally there’s a prize fund of about £50 per race – £20 for first place, then £15, £10 and £5.
“It costs about 80p to enter a bird in a club race and about £4 for an international race and I normally enter 20 to 30 pigeons in a race each week.”
The Wantage club usually races from the West Country and Marcham said: “I’ll drive the birds to Milton Town Football Club on a Friday night for them to be loaded into the lorry, then they are driven down to the release point and they are released on Saturday morning.
“There are normally between 300 to 500 birds for a club race and around 4,000 for an international race.”
How the birds find their way home is still one of the mysteries of the natural world.
Marcham said: “Some people believe that they follow landmarks and roads and other say it is to do with magnetic fields.
“But the birds definitely follow roads.
“As part of their training, I’ll take the birds to various points along the flight route and let them go to make their way home and build up stamina.
“We normally race from Yeovil, Exeter or Honiton and we know that when they see the A303 then they’ll follow it all the way home.”
Obviously all the birds have different finishing points, so the winners are decided by velocity.
Marcham said: “Each loft is pinpointed on an Ordnance Survey map and from that, you can get the distance from the release point to the loft.
“You then clock the time they return and work out the velocity from that.”
Food and weather conditions play a huge part in race performance.
Marcham said: “There are lots of different sorts of food for different types of racing.
“It’s not just bog-standard farm seeds these days – sunflower seeds, maize and so on can all add to a bird’s performance.
“And the wind direction is also vital.
“If a bird is flying to one part of the country the wind might be behind it, pushing it on, while those flying in the other direction will be into a headwind.
“You always lose some birds in a race.
“They might get lost or injured, but one of the biggest problems in recent years has been the increase in peregrine falcons, which prey on pigeons.”
Marcham is looking forward to the first international competition of the season on July 4, when the birds will be released from Fougères in Brittany.
But he is concerned about the long-term future of the sport.
He said: “It can be quite expensive and time-consuming and there are not many young people taking part in it any more.
“In years to come it’s going to become more specialised.”