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,

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle - says Mar­cus Army­tage

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

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