“Call them a poor man’s racehorse,” jokes Bob Simpson, secretary of the Blue Ridge Racing Pigeon Club.
But racing pigeons — and we’re not talking about the kind that hang around Pritchard Park chasing bread crumbs — don’t necessarily come cheap. Prices for these specially bred birds can soar into the thousands of dollars, says club member Tony Tressa. Then again, a person can get into the sport for pocket change.
That’s right, I said sport.
“Racing pigeons [competitively] has been around for years,” Simpson explains. “It’s a worldwide hobby — and a national sport in Belgium and Holland.”
In England, the fraternity of fanciers (yes, that’s how bird folk refer to themselves) boasts 100,000 registered members, and there are three times that many in Japan. And though the U.S. is a relative newcomer to the sport, the American Racing Pigeon Union already claims 15,000 members.
“I’ve been raising pigeons on and off for about 50 years,” Tressa reports. “My uncle gave me a few birds when I was a young’un. In the mid-1960s, I got into racing them. It’s still a hobby, but there’s more to it.”
Simpson, meanwhile, has put in a couple of decades in the sport, and he’s happy to share what he knows with new enthusiasts. For starters, racing pigeons are different than show birds (the Asheville area also boasts a club for the latter). “There’s a performing breed called a Birmingham Roller that does backward somersaults while it flies,” Simpson notes. “There are over 300 breeds of pigeons, but only one racing breed. Homing is inbred into them, then you train them to use it. On race day, it’s all conditioning.”
Training the birds is a very involved, time-consuming process, says Tressa. “It takes a couple of hours a day,” he explains, adding, “Most people who fly [birds] are retired. It’s hard to do when you work full time — I’m mostly retired now.”
“It’s an interesting hobby, but it takes time,” cautions Tressa. “Some guys come in and have full-time jobs and find out they can’t put in the time. It’s a shame for them to spend the money to get started and then find out they can’t do it.”
That said, however, both Simpson and Tressa are quick to mention that the club will help anyone interested in joining, including donating birds to the new recruit.
Pigeonracers.com, the Web site of BRRPC member Lee Taylor, states: “[The] Pigeon Club is always looking for flying members, and its boundaries include all of the Western N.C. Counties. … Club members will explain all of the basics, help you to acquire birds and equipment, construct suitable housing, and get you up and flying.”
The most important thing, says Tressa, is building a good loft. And once that’s done, you’ll need to choose a suitable name for it (Tressa’s is called Charisma, and Simpson’s is Tarheel Loft).
The loft is the birds’ home — and they can live a surprisingly long time. Some pigeons are said to have made it to age 30, but Tressa hazards a conservative guess that the average bird lives about 15 years. For their first seven years, the pigeons race, and then they retire — not to a Florida condo but to a breeding loft.
This spring, older pigeons (any birds not born this year) will be ready to race. A “designated driver” (someone other than their handler) takes them to a predetermined spot and releases them. At the start of the race, a “countermark” — a numbered rubber ring — is placed on each bird’s unbanded leg. Meanwhile, back at their lofts, the owners wait anxiously for the pigeons to do what they do best: find their way home. And because the lofts are spread all across WNC (there are fanciers in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, Transylvania and Yancey counties), the winner isn’t necessarily the first racer to make it back. Instead, the birds have to be “clocked in.” As soon as a bird returns to its loft, the owner removes the countermark, inserts it into the “race clock” (a special device that tracks times and distances) and turns a key. The bird’s flight time is then printed out.