Homing pigeon racing in the United States dates back to the 1800s

·3 min read
The discovery of  this homing pigeon that died in the woods at Walk-in-the-Water led to the world of homing pigeon racing.
The discovery of this homing pigeon that died in the woods at Walk-in-the-Water led to the world of homing pigeon racing.

After Thanksgiving, Derek Duke and I were scouting Walk-in-the-Water WMA near Frostproof for an upcoming deer hunt. About 3 miles into the hike, we discovered a dead pigeon in the sugar sand trail.

Now, this was in Deep Woods — not where one would expect to encounter a feral pigeon, deceased or otherwise. And as anyone who has traipsed through that labyrinth of scrub oaks would tell you, the particular odds of this bird croaking in an open space for people to find were spectacularly low.

As such, we approached cautiously. Perhaps this was a trail camera set-up to catch a predator on film. Or maybe an elaborate Indiana Jones-style trap that would end with a poison dart in my neck.

Once satisfied there was no danger, we examined the departed. Poor guy had a red band around one leg that read “AU 2021 ARPU” with a five-digit number and another nondescript teal-colored band on the other leg.

I had an inkling this was a homing pigeon but knew virtually nothing about the hobby. A little research, though, led me to Deone Roberts, the Sport Development Manager of the American Racing Pigeon Union. Our email exchange lured me down a homing pigeon rabbit hole and towards a whole society of folks who race these birds.

According to Ms. Roberts, homing pigeon racing is a tradition introduced to the United States in the early 1800’s. Nearly 10,000 members across the country belong to the American Racing Pigeon Union (AU).

Essentially, these birds are released at a drop site and are expected to wing their way to a home or “loft,” a safe location instilled in them at a young age. As I learned, the red band was a permanent identification, key to determining to which club and owner the bird belonged. The teal-colored band was a snap-on computer chip that collects racing data.

“We call it a race,” Ms. Roberts wrote. “The birds simply love to fly. They are muscular, marathon flyers. Scientists have not perfectly defined what makes the homing pigeon go home, but Nature made them that way. Their eyesight and sense of smell are so different from ours. They detect what we don't. They have an internal magnetic detection utilized in reading their location. They use the sun as a sort of compass.”

To kick off a race, club members meet at a designated location where the bands are scanned into a master clock. All race birds are transported to another location by an assigned driver. At an appointed time, the birds are released at once.

The following day, each club member will wait for the birds to arrive and be scanned in at the loft. The racing software determines yards per minute, and the fastest speed wins. For older birds, races are typically up to 600 miles for a series.

Unfortunately for Pheidippides the Pigeon, this particular marathon wasn’t a win for him. Hope his owner was notified of his demise deep in the jungles of Walk-in-the-Water WMA. I barely made it out myself after hours of hiking but certainly thought a lot about the things we learn and find while in the woods.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Homing pigeon racing in the United States dates back to the 1800s

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