Notes on...

The mysterious world of pigeon racing

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

Pigeon racing isn’t much of a spectator sport. Race birds are driven to the ‘liberation point’, where they’re released to fly back to their homes. Only the liberation and the return are witnessed — what happens in between is a mystery. This is partly what makes pigeon racing so fascinating. It’s also what can make it so stressful.

A week ago, between 5,000 and 10,000 pigeons went missing during a race from Peterborough. Usually fanciers aren’t too worried if a few birds don’t make it straight home from a race; they’ll rest up and return a few days later, no worse for wear. But this time the losses were exceptionally large. ‘I have never heard of anything like this,’ said Ian Evans, manager of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. ‘It is a real mystery.’

Racing pigeons are closely related to feral pigeons — themselves urban relatives of columba livia, the rock dove — but have been selectively bred over thousands of years to have an unrivalled ability to find their way home. Quite how they do so isn’t fully understood. There is some evidence that, like migratory songbirds, pigeons can detect the Earth’s magnetic field (fanciers have speculated that the Peterborough losses might have been caused by a solar storm interfering with this mechanism; the Met Office says no unusual activity has been recorded). It also seems likely that they navigate using an ‘olfactory gradient map’, produced by smells carried on prevailing winds.

However it works, this homing ability has made pigeons one of our oldest companion species. They were used to break the sieges of Modena and Paris, and won awards for bravery during both world wars.

Pigeon racing was invented by Belgian coalminers at the end of the 19th century. The sport depended on two other things: the railways, which allowed fanciers to send their birds far from home for training, and mass-produced clocks, which enabled them to record their flying times accurately. For a time, pigeon racing was one of the most popular sports, by participation, in Europe. In Britain in the 1950s, half a million fanciers tended millions of birds.

Now, in the West at any rate, pigeon racing is in decline. At 37, I am the youngest member of my club by quite a margin. This is partly reputational: the stock of the pigeon — so high in the post-war years, when they were seen as heroes — has plummeted. Some flyers blame an increase in the raptor population. Brexit, too, is having an effect. Last week fanciers lobbied the government to end new animal health regulations which threaten to make cross-Channel racing impossible. In China and central Asia the sport is flourishing — last year a Chinese fancier paid a record £1.4 million for a champion Belgian bird named ‘New Kim’ — but in Britain pigeon racing has become very much a minority pursuit.

With luck, most of the missing Peterborough pigeons will find their way home (I once lost a bird on a flight from Cambridge; he turned up, unruffled, six months later). But some might choose not to return at all. These will join their feral cousins on the streets of our towns and cities. Next time you pass a flock, you might see if you can spot one.

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