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22nd October 2006

Racing Pigeons

John Inglis was a keen student of racing pigeons and for many years kept a good number of them at the Inglis Newmarket Sales Complex in Sydney.   When he died recently the Maroubra Racing Pigeon Club, of which he was a member, had a minutes silence in his honour at their monthly meeting.

A couple of other Australian sporting greats who breed or have bred racing pigeons are cricketer Bill Lawry and rugby league legend Harry Wells.

Racing pigeons are beautiful birds and the following article and interview appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph on Wednesday October 11th, 2006.

This is an interview with one of the United Kingdom’s most successful fanciers, Chris Gordon from Pontefract.   It provides a most interesting story and insight into the world of pigeon racing.

This is what he had to say:

Image is holding the sport back.   Racing pigeons bear no resemblance to the ordinary birds you see in town centres.   Those wouldn’t race anyway.   Racing pigeons are beautiful birds, descended from rock doves, which used to live in cliffs.   They’ve been bred over centuries for speed.

The sprinters are bigger and heavier.   The long distance ones are bred smaller and with a light bone structure for flying up to 850 miles.   I am a florist by trade, but racing is my life, really.   The average fancier might keep about 80 birds.    I have about 200 in my loft at the back of the house, and they all need looking after.   You have to get them fit with lots of flying, perhaps round the shed or releasing them some way from home.   Each week I check my birds with a microscope for parasites in their faeces and in swabs taken from their crops.

It is reckoned pigeons use the Earth’s magnetic pull to find their way home but no one knows for sure.   Poor visibility and rain slow them down.   If the wind’s behind in good weather, they’ll go 60mph; against the wind, they’ll do about 40mph.   Before mobile phones started, hardly any pigeons got lost, but these days there’s something stopping them orientating properly.   There’s a definite trend.   No one knows how these radio waves affect humans.

Races from liberation to the home loft are decided by average velocity.   To calculate the winner, you put a rubber ring on the leg with a number registered to you and insert the ring into the loft’s clocking-in machine to register the bird’s return.   More sophisticated devices, similar to electronic bar code readers, are being introduced.   On a decent day you can guess to within a couple of minutes when they’re due to return.   For the longer races you might have to sit by the loft for an hour or so, all keyed up waiting.   In the big national races we have what’s called a ‘lib line’ to check by phone on the liberation time and conditions.   Outside the summer months, pigeons form 85 per cent of a peregrine falcon’s diet, and sparrow-hawks take a lot.   There was research at Lancaster University on the use of deterrents.   Eagle eyes – roundel transfers on the bird’s body – were tried, to scare raptors, but that worked only for a short time because the hawks got used to them, as they did with other deterrents such as bells and shiny sequins.

Pigeons might live until 15, though they only race until they’re three or four years old.   You start training when they’re about 13 weeks, releasing them a short distance away from the loft, perhaps five miles, so that they get used to returning.   Some buyers, usually Taiwanese or Japanese, pay a fair bit of money, GBP500 upwards, for a winning bird.   Their culture is mainly gambling, and they always try to buy the best.   Absolute champion pigeons for breeding can command GBP80,000 to 120,000.

One-loft racing, with all pigeons returning to one point, was tried by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association this year.   The race to Birtsmorton, near Malvern, offered GBP20,000 to the winner, with the release somewhere near Sennen Cove in Cornwall.   Among the fanciers were the former Tottenham and England footballer, Gerry Francis, broadcaster Gloria Hunniford and comedian Tom O’Connor.   The advantage is that the winner is known there and then, first past the post.   The fanciers can enjoy a bit of a party while they wait.   The problem is that if it rains, you can’t have the race.   The birds just sit on rooftops and won’t come quickly, if at all.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with this bird flu scare, won’t allow liberating in Europe, through fear of importing infection.   This is completely unnecessary because pigeons are totally resistant.   The ban has cost the sport millions in wasted infrastructure – underused lorry transporters, for example.

My interest began when I was a country lad at Old Snydale, a village near Pontefract, watching the birds fly around as I went to school.   I was 11 when I owned my first racing pigeon, and had a winner straight away.   I now average about 20 winners a year, and last year in a race in South Africa I won a car and about GBP3,300.

I hold the record for winning the longest distance race in the National Flying Club, 725 miles from Tarbes in France to Yorkshire.   The Queen is patron of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, and there are about 50,000 fanciers in the UK.   Pigeons have been used for centuries carrying messages in warfare, and quite a few won the Dickens Medal in the First World War.   One of those medals fetched GBP9,000 at auction.

This Article in part from The Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 11 October, 2006