Athletic racing pigeons need exercise, mental acuity to win over long distances

December 22, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

An athlete must eat right, work out and stay mentally sharp to win -- even if the athlete is a pigeon.

"Pigeons are athletes in their own way," said Bill Hamilton, 61, who raises racing pigeons at his home near Keymar.

"If they're not in good condition physically, their mental processes are definitely impaired."

The mental processes of a pigeon may not be complex, but they are crucial to the bird's homing ability -- its power to use Earth's magnetic field to navigate home from hundreds of miles away.

Mr. Hamilton retired two years ago from his job as a machinist and toolmaker with W. R. Grace in Clarksville.

Now he has more time to devote to the breeding and training of his birds.

"I'm retired," he said. "That's why I'm winning."

Pigeons are carefully bred, their pedigrees traced for generations.

The best fly 50 mph or more for hours at a time, spanning 500 miles in a single day.

If their minds are to be kept sharp, they must be exercised the right amount at the right time.

Exercise may consist of the owner leaving the loft door open, so the pigeons may fly at will, or it may involve road work, where the birds are driven 30 to 70 miles from the loft and left to fly home.

Some of Mr. Hamilton's 36 breeding pigeons were imported from Belgium, where pigeon racing is an important sport and the best racers can fetch more than $100,000 each.

Mr. Hamilton also keeps about 30 racers.

The young birds, several months old, race in September and October over courses of 100 miles to 300 miles.

Older birds race from April to June, over distances of 100 miles to 600 miles.

In a pigeon race, all the owners entrust their birds to a race manager with a special truck designed to house them. He drives them to the race's starting point.

The starting point and the location of each owner's loft are surveyed in advance from the air, so the distance from the start to each loft is known -- down to the thousandth of a mile.

Each pigeon wears a band on one leg with its permanent identification number. The race manager places a temporary band made of rubber, stamped with the pigeon's race number, on the other leg.

The pigeons are then released.

The race manager telephones the owners to let them know when the birds were released and what the weather was like.

That information tells the owners when they should go outside to await the return of their pigeons. As soon as a pigeon flies home, the owner catches the bird, removes the rubber band and pops it into a special clock. The device produces a printout that says when each band was clocked in.

From the printouts, the race manager calculates the speed of each bird in yards per minute, worked out to the thousandth of a yard. Because each owner's birds fly a slightly different distance, the winners are determined by the fastest average speed.

Not all pigeons can be winners. The less successful are sold off, given away -- or eaten.

"It's excellent eating," Mr. Hamilton said. "They do make excellent soup, especially pigeon noodle soup."

He says eating the birds produces no more regret than eating any farm animal.

"You know you've given them a good life, and that they were killed clean," he said.

Mr. Hamilton refers to his birds by their identification numbers.

He does not name them or keep the trophies they earn.

Except for one exceptional bird.

"Miss Gamber" was a racer Mr. Hamilton had in the late 1960s. She placed first or second in all her 500-mile and 600-mile races.

"She had it all," Mr. Hamilton said. "You just get one like that in a lifetime."

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