Of pooing and cooing: pigeon racing on Cape Cod
By Samantha Pearsall
What coos, poos, and can find its way back to Cape Cod from Sandusky, Ohio in one day, a distance of more than 600 miles? Any member of the Cape Cod Pigeon Racing Club could tell you. Dog and horse racing are both more prominent forms of animal racing in the country, yet pigeon racing has been around since 1872. With almost 14,000 current members and about 100 new ones each month it is a growing sport nationwide, even on the Cape. The Cape Club in Centerville was founded in the early 1900s and currently has seven devoted members, some world-renowned, who each own over 100 racing pigeons.
“People think they’re a bunch of poopy animals,” said the club’s president and two-time national champion, John Canto of Harwich.
“People think they’re a bunch of poopy animals,” said the club’s president and two-time national champion, John Canto of Harwich. “These birds are very intelligent and people would be very astounded and amazed about what they can do.” Homing pigeons can instinctively find their way back home to their loft from more than 1,000 miles away. If they get off-course they track back and find the correct direction again that will lead them home. “Nobody gives them a dime for a phone call if they get lost. It’s just in their DNA to come home,” said Canto, “They’ve had it in them and we’ve just made them stronger.”
Strength. Stamina. Pigeons?
Despite the negative perception most have of pesky pigeons, these graceful grey birds are a “pedigree,” supposedly the product of several cross-breedings of domesticated pigeons over the years. From such crossings evolved birds with strength, stamina, and smarts that allow them to be released hundreds of miles from home and return by nightfall with speeds averaging between 45 and 50 mph. These are certainly not the ordinary feral pigeons you come across on city sidewalks; these racing pigeons can cost a handler a pretty penny of up to $250,000.
Not all flyers are as intently involved and willing to invest as much, according to Deone Roberts, Sport Development Manager for the American Pigeon Racing Union (APRU). “This sport includes absolutely any economic level, age, education, gender, demographic, which levels the playing field. Our members range from under 10 years old to their 90s,” she said. “These birds are an amazing creature and nature put into them the ability to find there home. Animal lovers really appreciate that.”
According to Pigeon Racing Digest, research suggests several factors may help answer the question of how these birds can find home. Noticing the sun’s direction may assist in orienting the winged critters with the direction they must take, yet there have been several successful experiments with flying pigeons after sunset. Homing pigeons may be keen enough to actually feel the earth’s magnetic field, which can indicate in which direction their loft is located. Other researchers propose that these birds use their innate sense of smell and even hearing to help them along their journey home. One thing is for sure though, according to flyers on the Cape, building their bodies up strong and healthy is a critical component of racing.
These birds begin training once they learn to fly, usually at about 30 days old, said Roberts. Up until the little ones reach flight maturity, both the male and female take turns feeding the featherless babies in the nest. Females will only lay two eggs, one week apart from each other, so the baby birds won’t begin learning to fly at the same time.
"Training tosses" and teammates
Once they mature, pigeons appreciate the care and food they are given in their loft from the handler, therefore they do all they can to return. The flyers have various methods and techniques for training, but generally they begin by letting the birds go at short distances away from their lofts, maybe half a mile away. As the birds consistently return home, the flyer lets them go farther and farther away, which Roberts calls “training tosses.” She says this technique builds up their muscles and homing skills.
Canto describes his birds as teammates rather than pets. They all work hard together, sometimes more than five hours of training a day. Some of his birds fly up to 300 miles each week for training during the months leading up to race season, which is in the spring and fall. Being involved with pigeon racing for over 50 years might illustrate why he’s been a top competitor in the country for years. In 1999 and 2001 Canto had the best wings in the country out of about 10,000 flyers and what he estimated were one million birds.
The "dark system"
Canto’s close competitor and companion, Don Silvia of Falmouth has been a member of the Cape Club since 1975. He uses the “dark system” where he only lets eight hours of sunlight into the loft so the pigeons think it’s winter. This causes the birds not to molt and instead keep their feathers so their wings are full during the race months. This gives the pigeon more speed, which is critical since the race is based on velocity, the distance flown divided by the time taken. Contrary to most racing sports’ regulations, the first bird home may not necessarily be the winner. For example, a bird that clocks in at 10 a.m. to a loft 110 miles from the release point flew faster than another bird that flew 95 miles and was clocked in at 9:59 a.m., regardless of the latter reaching its loft first.
In fact, many races are won and lost in mere seconds, according to Silvia. He lost a race by three seconds because his top pigeon refused to enter the loft. A neighbor was walking their dog nearby which startled the bird and caused it to stay in flight and circle for a few moments before entering the loft and stopping the clock. Some may wonder how seconds can even be counted in such a race where birds finish at various locations. Each bird must be registered with its respective club before entering a race. Registering consists of getting a band with a code that may read something like this: AU 99 ABC 1234. The AU represents the national organization; 99 stands for the year the pigeon was born; ABC represents the pigeon’s club, and the last four digits are the pigeon’s unique number. On the opposite leg another band with a computer chip automatically clocks the bird’s travels from the time it leaves its crate to begin the race until the instant it flies into its loft. This ensures that all birds in one race are on the same clock and a winner can fairly be named.
Fall River to host 2009 convention
In October 2009, the annual APRU Convention and Race will take place in Fall River. Northeast Zone Director Bill Desmarais said the national convention usually takes place in larger cities like Chicago, Orlando, or San Diego. This year the small city of Fall River was selected since many clubs in the area are known nationally. He said the local clubs should feel very fortunate to have this race in their neck of the woods this year. Three thousand birds are expected to participate, and 1,500 have already been registered. The first place flyer will be awarded $30,000. According to Silvia, pigeons are being shipped in from all over the country to compete in this race, from as far as Hawaii. Silvia is handling several birds that were sent to him from a Canadian breeder and hopes that one will take the first place slot. If Silvia wins, he has a deal in place with the breeders that he will take home 40 percent of the winnings.
“It’s really a ball,” said Canto, who is also excited about the big race. “There’s nothing like seeing a bird come through the sky ahead on race day.” After racing all over Europe, from France to Germany, where racing is so popular that “people have pigeons like we have dogs,” the fervent flyer plans to head to South Africa to get a taste of another country’s competition.