The Racing Pigeon or Racing Homer, like all other domestic pigeon varieties is descended from the wild European Rock Dove (Columba Livia). The earliest mention of domestication dates back to approximately 2600 BC in ancient Egypt. History records that the Romans were experienced pigeon breeders. The bible makes numerous references to pigeons in both the Old and New Testaments.
Pigeons were first domesticated for the purpose of producing food in the form of eggs and meat. The pigeon’s natural instinct to return to its birthplace enabled it to be left to free range, feeding in fields, thus requiring limited hand feeding. The manure produced by the keeping of pigeons was also prized as fertiliser.
In early Europe pigeon manure was proclaimed to be the property of Royalty as it was also used as an ingredient in the making of gun-powder.
Later through selective breeding, strains of pigeons were developed for ornamental, acrobatic flying and commercial meat production purposes.
There are today more than 200 breeds of domestic pigeons with over 1,250 varieties. The most famed breed of course being the Racing Homer once known as the Carrier Pigeon.
Through selective breeding over the centuries, the pigeon’s natural homing instinct has been improved and together with improvements in the physical make-up of the bird, the Racing Homer is capable of flying incredible distances with velocities of over 2,000 metres per minute having been
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) wrote the first known report about “pigeon sport” and at that time pigeons were being used by Athenians as messengers. By 1150 AD, the Sultan of Baghdad had introduced a pigeon postal service. The use of homing pigeons as messengers continued throughout Europe and the Middle East. The famous Charles Darwin used the development of domestic pigeons as a corner stone to his research into the theory of evolution. The information and results of his experimentation with pigeons provided him with much of the evidence he required to have his theory accepted.
Pigeons have been made famous through their use in transporting messages in times of war. Pigeons were used extensively during both World Wars, saving countless lives and providing an invaluable military service. Many soldiers owed their lives to the speedy return of a pigeon carrying important military information. A number of pigeons have been awarded the Dicken Medal (the equivalent of the Victoria Cross) for the bravery and of course many thousands of pigeons have lost their lives attempting to return with messages during times of war. In World War I the English-bred “Cher-Ami” (Dear Friend) carried a message 25 miles in 25 minutes despite the loss of a foot and a wound to the head imposed by enemy gunfire.
Throughout Europe and some parts of Asia, Pigeon Racing is an extremely popular and prestigious past-time with prizes awarded on a par with other more recognised sports. Pigeon racing in Australia is not as widely practiced. Although a tough and competitive sport, it enjoys a status as a hobby rather than a lucrative mainstream concern. It is estimated that some 20,000 Australians own and breed pigeons in an organised manner and of these some 50% are involved in racing competition. There are of course many thousands more who keep pigeons outside of club or organised activity.
The Racing Homer of today is vastly different from its ancestor, the European Rock Dove and is very different to its cousin the common feral pigeon. The common pigeon is a crossbred remnant of domestic pigeons gone wild and is present on every continent except Antarctica. The common pigeon can be seen in parks and gardens, in factories and schools thriving wherever human population is present. Although the common pigeon when caught can be very easily domesticated, its ability to home is only limited and its use as an ornamental bird is not particularly striking.
Organised Pigeon Racing in Queensland started in Brisbane in 1894 with the formation of the Queensland Homing Society (QHS) by the then Queensland Surveyor General, Mr Archibald McDowall. The Queensland Homing Society, based in Brisbane’s inner north-western suburbs is still in operation today.
In 1945 the Queensland Racing Pigeon Federation was formed by three clubs operating in the greater Brisbane area at the time, including the QHS. The Queensland Racing Pigeon Federation is now an Incorporated Association with a number of affiliated clubs operating from within the greater Brisbane area and surrounding shires. There are other pigeon clubs and federations devoted to pigeon racing throughout Queensland and Australia. The Queensland Racing Pigeon Federation is the governing body of only those clubs within its boundaries. The boundaries run from the Caboolture Shire in the north to the Gold Coast and Beaudesert Shires in the South and West to the Lockyer Valley. Pigeon Racing in Queensland prides itself on being a family sport. Obviously a majority of time is spent at home caring for the birds with a competitive season conducted from May (Autumn) through to October (Spring) of each year.
Most South-east Queensland local councils are fairly flexible with the keeping of pigeons, provided that “Lofts” or cages meet council requirements and that the pigeons are kept in sanitary conditions causing little nuisance to nearby residents. A properly contained and managed team of Racing Pigeons pose no threat to surrounding residents and can be quite pleasing to the eye when seen exercising. The Racing Homer spends a majority of its time confined to the safety of its loft. When in training the birds will be released to exercise in the vicinity of the loft and may range over several kilometres for hours at a time. The birds are trained from an early age that they are free to fly about, but they may only land on the loft and not on neighbouring roof-tops.
The Racing Homer, like other racing animals is kept under a tight regime of exercise, rest, nutrition and hygiene. Like any athlete the pigeons must be in top condition to perform and remain competitive. As they are bred for this purpose the pigeons seem to enjoy their managed existence. In preparation for a life of competition, young pigeons are made accustomed to their home environment being trained to range from the safety of their loft and return for shelter and sustenance. Once the pigeons are considered fit and experienced enough, they will be caught and taken a short distance away from their loft and released to return home on their own. This routine is repeated with the distance traveled increased gradually on each occasion.
The pigeons may be trained by their owners to return from up to 200 kilometres away. Racing commences at a distance of about 150 kilometres with a gradual increase up to 1,100 kilometres (A racing pigeon can quite easily fly up to 800 kilometres in a single day, given favourable weather conditions). The racing season includes approximately 24 Races with the average pigeon taking part in an average of about 10 events in a season. The pigeons are rested between events and will be given short training flights in between to maintain fitness in addition to being let out to free-range around the loft once or twice a day for short periods, usually early morning and late afternoon.
To be eligible to compete, a pigeon must be fitted with an approved “life ring” which is fitted at about five days of age and cannot be removed once the bird has grown. Each ring contains information such as the year of birth, the club name and a unique registration number (on each ring) that identifies a pigeon with its owner. Upon being entered for a race the details of each bird including its colour variety, sex and ring details are recorded on an approved Race Entry Form. As each bird is presented at the club-house on the eve of a race, it is checked off against the details recorded on the entry form and is fitted with another disposable rubber ring which also contains a unique number. The rubber ring number is then recorded on the entry form against the relevant bird by an official and the bird is transferred into a special race travelling crate for overnight transportation to the prescribed release point. At a prescribed time all pigeons competing are released simultaneously much like the way horses or greyhounds are released from the barriers. The birds will head straight for home. On arriving home the bird should make its way immediately into the loft where the owner will quickly remove the disposable rubber ring and insert it into a special timing device that records the time the ring was placed in the receptacle. The clock is secured so that only at the official clock reading time can the rubber rings can be retrieved and the birds identified.
Whilst the above procedure is still in operation to this day, the advent of electronics has enabled the use of electronic bands that are fitted to the bird’s leg which trigger a signal to a specialised timing clock that automatically records the bird’s arrival time at the home loft.
Once the clock is presented at the club-house following the race, the bird’s velocity is calculated using both the GPS coordinates from the release point and each pigeon’s loft. The time taken to fly the distance is calculated against the distance flown to each owners loft to obtain a velocity in metres per minute and the highest velocity wins. Proven winners are often quickly retired and used in the owners breeding program ensuring that only the best pigeons are afforded the opportunity to reproduce. Hundreds of years of this selective breeding have made the Racing Homer what it is today. There are of course many recognised families of Racing Pigeons too numerous to mention that have been developed in Australia and overseas.
It is still not known to modern science exactly how a pigeon can find its way home.
Pigeon Racing can be a very rewarding pastime and is a passion for people in almost every country on Earth. It is a sport that is open to anyone regardless of age, sex or impairment and can provide a common interest for whole families. The Queensland Racing Pigeon Federation is committed to the growth and recognition of pigeon racing and is actively seeking ways to improve the sport for its members and to attract outside interest.