DATELINE: BELGIUM

Sport on the wing

PETER LEWIS April 13 1987
DATELINE: BELGIUM

Sport on the wing

PETER LEWIS April 13 1987

Sport on the wing

DATELINE: BELGIUM

The pigeons seemed unimpressed by the ceremony. They fidgeted, nodded off in their cages or stared dreamily through a window as Belgium’s agriculture minister, Paul De Keersmaeker, awarded trophies to their proud owners. The Sunday bird show in the town of Asse, 20 km northwest of Brussels, was one of dozens that Belgian racing-pigeon lovers attend in the fall and winter to keep their hobby alive outside of the May-to-September racing season. After the speeches and prizegiving, members of the 300-strong audience turned seriously to their beer—and to talk of Belgium’s pigeon triumphs past and present. “Others may match our enthusiasm,” declared Ludo Geerts, publisher of a weekly newssheet called Pigeon Paper. “But none has Belgium’s number and quality of racers.”

In fact, Belgium’s fixation on pigeons makes it the undisputed world leader in pigeon racing. The country has about 90,000 pigeon fanciers who belong to roughly 1,600 racing clubs. They breed, raise, coddle and race five million homing pigeons—one for every two Belgians.

Owners commonly trade in birds and eggs, bet on their racers—and view their passion as a sport, hobby, science and business all in one. And interest has spread to such countries as Japan and the United States, pushing world prices skyward.

Indeed, a Belgian racing pigeon

Pigeon owners commonly bet on their racers and view their passion as a sporty hobby y science and business all in one

named Peter Pau fetched a record $89,000—along with a lesser bird and several youngsters—at a Belgian auction last October. Even low-echelon champions command prices in the $8,000 to $34,000 range. “The Japanese are the biggest spenders,” said Serge Van Elsacker, a 30-year-old Antwerp carpenter who keeps 160 birds in his loft. “When

they come to Europe on a buying spree, they purchase only the winners of international races—and never pay under $12,000.”

As many as six million people around the world keep racing pigeons. Scientists still do not know how homing pigeons can navigate great distances. But the knowledge that the birds can be trained to find their way to their home lofts has existed for centuries. Genghis Khan used homing pigeons to send messages to his far-flung Mongolian hordes 660 years ago. And the international news agency Reuters owes its existence to Paul Julius Reuter’s decision in 1850 to use pigeons to carry news reports from Brussels to Aachen, Germany.

Pigeons were often pressed into military service—as recently as the Second World War, in Britain. During the First World War, in 1916, one particularly plucky French bird managed to bear a message from besieged Verdun to French army headquarters near Paris, 124 miles away, before dying from the effects of chemical warfare. The pigeon was honored by the French government posthumously.

The lives of modern racing pigeons can also be arduous. In Belgium, the racing season begins in early May with short competitions of 70 miles and builds up gradually to medium-range races of 220 and 340 miles. By Septem-

ber the hardiest birds are ready for the biggest event of all—the annual 720mile Barcelona-to-Brussels marathon. The gruelling season takes its toll. “On hot days the birds may die of sunstroke,” said Louis Vrijders, a retired farmer and major figure in the Belgian pigeon world. “In heavy winds, they

tend to fly low and come to grief on telephone lines.”

Before a race, owners—who often enter as many as 100 birds in a single event—gather at their clubs and tie leg bands onto their pigeons. Organizers then dispatch the birds by train to the starting point. Fanciers wait for their

birds to return to their lofts, then insert the leg bands into a sealed clock to record the flight time. Betting can be heavy, although the system, supervised by clubs, is simple. Organizers set a limit on the number of winning places, which, depending on the size of the race, can range from 10 to more than 300. If the owner’s bird clocks in among the leaders, he makes money; otherwise the wager is lost.

But the ever-increasing stakes have also led to scandals. To win races—and command higher prices for champion birds—some unscrupulous owners have taken to tampering with clocks or trying to bribe club officials. At auctions, top birds have been known to be switched with look-alikes. As a result, gullible buyers can end up with losers.

Theft has also become commonplace, with some wealthy owners hiring skilled thieves to steal prize birds. That threat has meant new worries for Van Elsacker, for one, who last year cleared about $17,000 from racing, breeding and selling his pigeons—and spent most of it on a safer lot and burglar alarms. “The worry keeps me awake half the night,” he said. But for Van Elsacker and other impassioned pigeon owners, their feathered charges are clearly worth the anxiety—and the expense.

PETER LEWIS