Pigeon racing: Birds sometimes travel 600 miles to get home

News-DemocratSeptember 1, 2013 

Dave Jennings pulled into the YMCA parking lot in Columbia, got out of his truck and dropped the tailgate next to the soccer fields.

He waited a few minutes to let his homing pigeons get acclimated before opening the cage. About 20 birds shot out in a burst of flapping wings, circled the area and disappeared in the cloudy distance.

Dave, 66, of rural Millstadt, had no doubt the pigeons would find their way home. It was only 10 miles away.

"Usually, they (navigate) by the sun," he said. "But when it's like this, I think it's done magnetically. That's just speculation. Colleges have tried to study these birds, and they can't figure out how they do it."

Dave climbed back in the truck and headed home, where pigeon pals Joe Woolford and Theresa Juenger were sitting at a patio table, ready for a visit.

Dave's birds joined the party five minutes later, perching in a grove of trees.

"A lot of people think (pigeons are) messy nuisances," said Dave's wife, Tina, 53. "But that's not true. They're not all over the neighborhood. They stay in their own coop."

The pigeons would have gone inside for water immediately at the end of a 300- or 600-mile race, passing an antenna that documents arrival by scanning leg bands.

But this was just a training session for Dave's younger pigeons. He had driven them a short distance because it looked like rain.

"The training isn't to get them to come home," he said. "The training is to get them in shape to come home. They know how to come home."

Dave, Joe and Theresa belong to the Belleville Racing Pigeon Club. In the spring and fall, members truck pigeons to starting points all over the country for races sanctioned by the American Racing Pigeon Union.

Pigeons have to fly different distances to get home, so their performance is judged by yards traveled per minute.

The Belleville club has been operating since 1932. Membership once stood at more than 60 members but has dropped to about a dozen. They're trying to drum up interest.

"It's a great thing for a dad to do with his boy," said Joe, 73, of New Athens. "Somebody has to do the driving, and the kids learn responsibility. They've got to feed (the pigeons) and take care of them every day.

"And the kids are with you. You know where they're at. They're not mixed up with drugs or gangs or anything like that."

Joe and Dave noted that several famous people have been pigeon enthustiasts, including Walt Disney, Roy Rogers, Mike Tyson and Queen Elizabeth.

Dave belonged to the Belleville club as a boy in the 1960s and rejoined eight years ago.

"When I retired (from AT&T), I thought I would do some of the stuff that I did when I was a kid," he said. "But it got way out of hand. I had no idea I would have this many pigeons."

Dave estimates he has 150 pigeons, including about 60 youngsters in training.

Joe followed a similar path, racing as a boy then getting back into it after retiring from coal mines.

"I race for trophies," he said. "I just want to win for the fun of it. There's no money in the sport. Well, yes there is. South Africa has a million-dollar race. My goal is to get 50 trophies before I die, and we're in the 30s right now."

Joe and Theresa own about 40 pigeons together. He got her into racing, and it's a running joke that he did too good of a job showing her the ropes.

Theresa, 78, a retired Belleville Shoe Manufacturing Co. employee, has won two out of five races this year with her pigeons, one 200 miles and one 600 miles.

"I really don't know why," she said. "They say it's because I talk to (the pigeons) when I'm outside. And I clean their pens out more often than Joe does."

Dave and Joe remember when pigeon racing wasn't as high-tech. When the birds got home, owners took off bands manually and put them in sealed compartments of timing devices that could only be opened by race officials.

Most pigeons make it home from races. But some are killed by hawks. Others get hurt running into telephone poles.

"I put three in the 600-mile race (this spring), and I'm still looking for them," Joe said.

Computerization has changed pigeon racing dramatically. Lost or injured birds can be reunited with owners, thanks to a national banding and registration program.

Earlier this year, one of Dave's pigeons took three days to get home and arrived with no tail feathers and a broken leg.

"They've got a real desire to come home," he said. "They're pretty tough. I took a soda straw and some tape and put a splint on her leg for about a month. I think she's going to be OK."

Sometimes pigeons don't return for a year. They meet mates or take vacations, eventually showing up alone or with friends.

Occasionally, people who find lost or injured banded pigeons call their owners. That happened with Joe and Theresa recently. They drove 106 miles to pick up an exhausted bird with an injured wing in Girard.

"We try to take care of our birds," Joe said. "We don't just let them go out and be destroyed. We'll go and get them if they're hurt. If they're not hurt, I just tell the people to feed them for a couple of days until they've got the strength to fly home."

Each pigeon owner has his or her own way of caring for pigeons, ranging from feed and vitamin supplements to coop design and training schedules.

The birds generally aren't named or considered pets, but owners often feel a bond.

"They enjoy racing," Dave said. "They like to fly and come home. You give them freedom, and they can do whatever they want to do. You have no control over them. That's why you lose some of them. But most of them want to come home."

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