Is racing going to the birds?

by Lee Adams

‘“Poor man’s racehorses.’”

That’s what Harold Wheeler calls homing pigeons, the kind that are born and bred to race one another. These are not your ordinary park pigeons, he points out. These are bred in hopes of getting the one with strong muscles, nerves of steel and a keen homing instinct.

Harold, who grew up in White Oak, paid 25 cents apiece for pigeons as a boy and fed them with chicken feed. He calls them poor man’s racehorses because they’re relatively inexpensive, easy to care for and fun to race against other pigeons. There’s no track. There’s no expensive barn ‘— any old shed can be turned into a nice coop.

But like any other hobby pigeon racing can get expensive. Some people make a living out of it, like Ganus Farms in Granger, Ind. Ganus is a family farm that breeds and sells pigeons as well as races them.

The better the breed of bird, the more it sells for. Some sell for hundreds of dollars while others have gone for as much as $35,000.

We’re sitting at the kitchen table of Greg Felts in Greensboro discussing pigeons and the art of racing. Felts, Wheeler and fellow racer Smith Johnson are close friends and pigeon acquaintances, older gentlemen who talk of the birds with the excitement of young boys discussing blowing things up with fireworks.

Felts grew up in O Henry Oaks. His father drove a truck for Cone Mills where several employees raised and raced pigeons. Felts’ father was often asked to drive birds to a release point several hundred miles away on weekends to earn a little extra cash, which he gladly did. Felts went along on some of the trips and got to know many of his father’s co-workers. They in turn helped him get his own birds and he began to race as well.

Smith got into racing later in life. He bought some of his flyers from Tom Cashatt in High Point, another local and well-respected pigeon racer.

All homing pigeons have one simple thing in common: they like home and that’s where they want to be. For reasons that science has yet to explain, homing pigeons have an extremely strong sense of where home is and how to find it. Even at ranges of 500 to 600 miles, the typical distance for long races, they are able to find their way home within the same day of being released. They don’t memorize and retrace the path that the hauler brought them on to the release point; rather they fly home in the shortest distance possible. Often, a group of racers will stick together in a flock until each bird eventually diverts onto his own course home, flying as fast as they can at speeds between 40 and 50 miles per hour.

We know that their ability has something to do with the earth’s magnetic fields, but much remains a mystery.

Felts recalls a race into Long Island a few years ago where 600 birds never made it back home. Hurricanes are sometimes blamed for messing up magnetic fields and sporadically throwing whole groups off course. Every once in a while a single bird will get lost, another mystery.

Some may not have the stamina needed for a long flight home and may stop to rest. But those who get lost are likely to meet a cruel fate of starvation ‘— their stomachs can’t handle the nuts and berries eaten by birds in the wild as these domesticated birds have been raised on a feed of corn, peas, milo, wheat and other things they can’t get on their own.

Other enemies for homing pigeons are predators. Birds of prey, particularly hawks and peregrine falcons, try to cut the race home short. Although pigeons can outmaneuver hawks, the hawk is still faster and has incredible eyesight. And once the hawk gets his claws on the pigeon the race is over for him.

When birds begin to arrive at the loft some flyers will throw a dropper into the air ‘— a feather-legged bird that helps the racer know they are home and calms them down after a long flight. After flying, Felts says, the birds are on pins and needles ‘— they’ve been dodging hawks and environmental conditions the whole trip.

An electronic timer just inside where they enter the loft records the exact time of arrival via a band on the bird’s ankle. The old method of timing required the birder to remove the band, place it in a slot in a mechanical box much like a punch clock and manually stamp the time. Just like everything else today, Felts says, pigeon racing is computerized. This is better, he says, because it takes out user error and helps ensure legitimate races.

There are typically two seasons for races: the fall season for younger birds, between six and nine months old, and the spring for older birds, more than a year old. The fall season, which takes place in September, has already come and gone and Felts and his friends are already doing what they can to prepare for the spring by trying to assess which of their birds are the strongest and fastest. Just like in any sport, it’s all about who makes the cut.

In January Felts will start raising new birds ‘— 50 to 60 of them. He does this every year after breeding the 30 birds he has set aside for that purpose. Forty-five other birds in his loft are currently racers.

He says he doesn’t have to be worried about avian flu. What began as a panic to ban racing in European countries has now been put to rest and racing is not a threat to the spread of disease. According to Pub Med, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health, pigeons have been inoculated with the bird flu and have been found to be immune to it.

On a sunny Friday during another visit to Felts’ home, he takes nine birds out to a local elementary school about a mile away to release them. He hasn’t fed them yet today in hopes that they’ll return home quickly. Opening the cage the young flyers walk out onto the pavement and look around. Then, all at once, they take to the air circling the school parking lot. They fly around and around in large circles.

‘“They’re playing,’” Felts says. ‘“They’re like a bunch of kids.’”

The air is nice and cool to them and they enjoy being outside. They’re born to fly, Felts says, and they love just being free above the treetops.

When we arrive back at Felts’ home there is no sign of the pigeons yet. But as we gaze through the bright orange leaves above we soon see them come overhead in a group. They fly around the house over the trees, circling and circling and circling. Felts shakes a tin can holding feed, but they don’t come down. Round and round they go. In a long race they’d most likely be flying solo or in pairs, after the original group of 300 or so birds broke up. But these are not race conditions.

‘“They’re home now,’” Felts says. ‘“They’re just being kids.’”

There are no hawks to run from, just a couple of lazy old crows cawing away in a nearby tree, and they’re not the least bit tired. Instead they’re full of energy. Felts opens the cage door in the loft and shoos a few more pigeons out in hopes of getting the others to come back down. But instead these new pigeons join the ones already in flight. For nearly 45 minutes they circle, sometimes above the trees and sometimes below the limbs.

While the pigeons are young Felts lets them out from time to time to get exercise and to learn their boundaries. As they become more used to home they’ll venture out farther and farther, staying away a few hours at a time before returning.

Finally they begin to slow down. They’re thinking about coming in, Felts says, and soon enough they do. Felts goes into the loft before they come down and throws out some extra seed. The birds come in like a group of dive-bombers and land on the roof of the loft. One by one they make their ways back inside, others still circling above and slowly deciding when they, too, will come eat.

Felts and his fellow fanciers hold to what is a long tradition. Homing pigeons have been used throughout history for delivering messages when there was no other way to communicate. According to the Advanced Science, Serving Society, our relationship with pigeons began between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, using them for food, for their feathers, for racing and for carrying messages. Pigeons have been on earth for about 20 million years, much longer than humans ‘— evidenced through fossilization of bones.

European settlers to Canada are said to have brought pigeons with them. Escapees of those pigeons are the ancestors of today’s feral groups we see in this country.

Pigeons were used to carry the news of Olympic game winners in Greece as early as 776 BC and Julius Caesar used them to carry messages home from battle.

In our country pigeons were used in World Wars I and II, released by troops in the field to give coordinates of enemy locations to bombers back at base. Pigeons even saved lives by carrying messages with the location of lost troops in the battlefield. This technique saved many lives during World War I in situations where radio communications were nonexistent.

One of the most famous pigeons of war is Cher Ami, a registered black check cock carrier pigeon that helped save the lives of troops of the 77th Infantry Division in Verdun France during World War I. The website for the Smithsonian Institute tells the story of the division, led by Major Whittlesey, which was the only battalion to have broken through the German line of defense. The troops were surrounded by the enemy and taking on heavy fire from unknowing American soldiers. Under heavy machine gun fire the battalion sent out three pigeons, which never made it to American troops. In one last act of hope the battalion sent Cher Ami with a message in a small container attached to his leg. When an American officer went into the pigeon coop he found Cher Ami lying in a pool of blood. One leg was missing and he’d taken a bullet to the chest. But he was alive and the other foot carried the vital message sent by the lost battalion.

The simple message said: ‘“We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.’”

The lost battalion was found five days later. The wounded Cher Ami had flown 25 miles in 25 minutes. Out of 12 successful missions flown by Cher Ami this last is said to have been the greatest. He was one of 600 pigeons used by troops during World War I and received the rare French Croix de Guerre with Palm for those injured while performing heroic acts. He was sent back home to Washington to be honored as a hero, and died from his wounds shortly thereafter. In 1931 Cher Ami was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame and today his body is on display at the National Museum of American History.

No pigeons are used in battle today due to the technological advances of our military. But racing remains a highly competitive sport for many, though wide recognition comes rarely. The sport remains strong, however, with support of groups such as the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, a British association under Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. American organizations include the National Pigeon Association, and more locally the North Carolina Combine and the Piedmont Racing Pigeon Club.

As for local flyers Felts, Wheeler and Johnson, they would like to see more youngsters get involved in the sport and are eager to help them get started.

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