Time for pigeon racing to home in on a revival
With birds going for as much as £1m, money can be made in this gentle sport,
To find Day, pathetically, I needed my sat nav. His birds have no such problem
The domestic pigeon racing season comes to an end in the next couple of weeks but since it started in April, every Saturday most us would have been unwitting spectators (or would have been had we looked up) to these races which have been going on in the skies above us, as thousands of birds have been locked on for home.
Of course, pigeon racing is not the world’s greatest spectator sport by any stretch of the imagination. It is even more fleeting than watching the peloton in the Tour de France go by from a roadside cafe, although the French seem to enjoy that.
Because they average 50mph, if you are there at the “liberation” – a good bird will beat you home every time – you will not be there at the finish, or vice versa.
After the Second World War pigeon racing was, however, one of the most popular participation sports in Britain, with half a million active lofts, which was remarkable given that, although the homing pigeon had been used for millennia as a messenger bird, it had not been developed as a sport until Belgian miners did so in the late 19th century.
But if you had spent all day underground, what better way to unwind than by looking up at the skies? Like a lot of pastimes and sports, it provided a service sold at great cost now as “mindfulness”.
Its huge popularity was due in part to the wartime heroics of pigeons becoming better known and partly because the railways started putting on pigeon wagons to far-flung outposts in Britain to take birds to the start. The last one ran in 1973.
In March, a Belgian pigeon called Armando was sold at auction to a Chinese fancier for £1million. The irony is that he can only breed from Armando not fly him, as once let loose he would set himself on a course for the Belgian loft where he lived.
Here, though, if pigeon racing is to survive another generation, it is relying mainly on immigrants from Pakistan, India, eastern Europe and Morocco – where the sport is still strong – to keep it going.
A terrific book, which explores the sport, as well as our own human concept of what home is, by Jon Day, a lecturer in English at King’s College, London called Homing (John Murray), may also give it a timely boost.
I would be surprised if it is not, at the very least, on the long list for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year when it is announced on Tuesday, so who better for my introduction to pigeons than Day and his 18-bird loft in Leyton, London.
To find him, pathetically, I needed my sat nav. His birds have no such problem but, although science has come up with the answers to many things, how a pigeon manages to find its way home is still hotly debated.
A compass is not much good without a map, says Day. For a compass they use a combination of the sun – they can still find their way on a cloudy day though – and the earth’s magnetic field.
The map is olfactory, the possibility that the wind has an odour which is constant, but which we cannot smell. For the last 10 miles it uses pilotage, using familiar landmarks.
Even though Ulysses, his best bird, is not fast, he is reliable (he did once go missing for six weeks but, like his namesake, who went missing for 10 years, he returned eventually). “Any bird still in the loft at the end of summer is ‘reliable’ in my book,” he points out.
We cycled up to Hollow Ponds on the edge of Epping Forest and let half a dozen, including Ulysses, loose opposite the Hitchcock Hotel. They were back home lapping the loft in the skies above by the time we were out of the park.
To be honest I am tempted; the pony racing is not going that well and it is working with animals. Pigeons could be my next project.
Day’s mantelpiece may not be groaning with trophies – his best finish was Ulysses’s sixth in Whitley Bay – but in a sport in desperate need of one, he is, in its own way, its champion.
Taking flight: Author Jon Day, who has written the well-received book ‘Homing’, shows off his 18-bird loft in Leyton, London