Vital Signs

“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., 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.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Vital Signs

  1. James Ragland

    I found a dead bird with tag #982hipif2008. If possible, could you please help me locate the owner or tell me how to go about finding the owner?

Leave a Reply to James Ragland ×

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.