W. T. WEBB
RACING THOROUGHBREDS of the turf, racing hounds of the track, racing men and racing machines —all of them “with speed to burn." We have marvelled at them; we have been thrilled by them. Athletic youth on the straightaway and over the hurdles has excited our admiration; machines, in shattering records on land and water and in the air, have set our nerves on edge.
But what of those feathered speed demons, racing pigeons, thousands of which vie with each other in speed tests over distances of fifty to 500 miles and more?
Each and every Saturday throughout the summer months, thousands of birds are released at scores of points in this Dominion. They are the race entries of hundreds of men in scores of clubs from Halifax to Vancouver. The birds may lx* racing from fifty to 500 miles, according to the club’s schedule. Toronto fanciers this season will send thousands of birds to race points as far as Hillsboro, in the State of Illinois. 614 miles from their home lofts. Fanciers in Hamilton, Meaford, Brampton, Woodstock, Welland, London, Stratford, Kingston, Bowmanville, Oshawa, Port Hope, Cobourg, Guelph, Chatham, Oakville. Goderich and Kitchener will be doing the same thing. Fanciers in Winnipeg will be racing from points best suited for Winnipeg birds. In Saskatoon and Regina, in Calgary and Edmonton, in Vancouver and New Westminster, pigeon racing will be the week-end sport tidbit for many men. who will tell you there’s no other game to compare with it in interest and excitement. One of the most enthusiastic racing pigeon men in Canada today is Dick Irvin, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. Dick races in Regina, and he will admit that he gets as much kick out of pigeon racing as he does out of hockey. And that’s a tall admission for Dick Irvin.
Racing pigeons, fanciers will tell you, have more indivi-
duality than a racehorse, more personality than many a human being, greater pedigree than a prize-winning Boston bull pup, as much heart as a prize-fighting champion. A good homing pigeon will never admit defeat while it has strength to fly. And on a good day it races at more than a mile a minute
Recall the stories of the winged messengers of war days? The cream of Britain’s feathered world was on service wdth the cream of her manhood. I have seen birds return from the front line shattered with shrapnel and minus one leg or both of them. I saw one bird that came from famous racing stock reach his loft back of Mont St. Eloi and drop dead as he hit the roof. Heroes all of them, but that’s another story.
Good Stock is Necessary
PIGEON RACING has developed into a popular sport in Canada. It attracts more fanciers to its ranks each racing season because of its great fascination, and because it takes a good bird and a good owner to win with any degree of consistency. As in horse racing, pigeon racing is prettymuch a question of scientific training and management. The old axiom that “blood will tell” is particularly true in the homing pigeon sport, for a fancier without good stock cannot hope to win races. He may “fluke” a victory occasionally when his bird homes with another and the race is so close that speed in trapping decides it. But without good bkxxi he cannot compete with any assurance that his birds will “home.” Any successful fancier will tell you that this or that pair of stock birds will breed winners up to 300 miles; that another pair will produce his best for longer races.
I have met fanciers in Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, F’dmonton, Calgary and as far west as Vancouver who have imported birds from England costing from $50 to $100 per pair. I recall one fellow in Edmonton who paid $20 for a pair of eggs from stock birds of proved worthand took a chance on the fertility of the eggs. Another paid $50 for a youngster before it w-as a month old. Just the other day I met a fancier in Toronto who, during the winter, had imported half a dozen birds from a noted English loft, had paid S100 for them, and then had to meet additional expense for ocean and rail express. But he was satisfied. “Got some real stuff now,” he said, as enthusiastic as a kid with a new bike. He realized he had the blood, and that blood plus sound management would win races.
From England, Ireland, Belgium and Germany comes this pedigreed racing pigeon stock to Canada. Logan, Barker, Stanhope, Clutterbuck, Delmotte, Grooter, Gits, Vandevelde, Osman. Toft, Van Cutsem and J. L. Baker— these are the originators of the strains of homing pigeons that have gone to the far comers of the world, to every British Dominion and possession; for where you find the Britisher you will find the pigeon fancier and the good blood of the proved winners of the Old Land. And, because of their British background, you will find Toronto and Hamilton in the East and Vancouver in the Far West the leading centres of the racing pigeon sport in Canada, with Toronto the hotbed of them all.
The national organization in Canada is the Canadian Homing Union, boarding about 500 members. The Queen City alone has six clubs and a federation, and as many as 2,500 birds have been released for Toronto lofts on a single race day, w-hich is any Saturday, providing the weather is clear, from May to September. I remember seeing on one Saturday last summer as many as sixty birds homing to lofts in Toronto within an area of about four blocks. On other occasions the sky has been black w’ith birds as they were liberated at a race point 200 miles away. I have seen single birds break from the flock and head in the direction of home—potential winners where speed counts. I have w-atched other birds, liberated 400 miles from home, get their bearings and disappear in the right direction within two minutes of the “toss.” How do they do it?
Faster Than a Mile a Minute
A PIGEON leams to fly when about a month old. Good fanciers give young birds all the liberty they want as “squeakers;” that is. they permit them to strut around the roof of the loft to their heart’s content. And a youngster is all eyes. Every' mark within range is observed, so that by the time he takes wing he knows his surroundings and his loft. He quickly gains wing strength, and within three or four months is ready for the road. His training is by easy stages, perhaps a mile or less for his first “toss,” w'hich maybe repeated a couple of times; then five miles, which may also be repeated. From five he is sent to ten miles, then twenty, always in the direction he is to race. From twenty he may be jumped to fifty, from which point he may be
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given a couple of tosses. He is then ready for the races, which take him in jumps of 50 to 300 miles, 300 being the maximum for a youngster. As a yearling, he goes over the same ground and races in similar races, but now he has graduated into the old bird class and is ready for 500 miles.
A fancier may enter a single bird up to fifteen or more in an ordinary race. He takes his birds to the clubhouse, where a race committee assumes charge, each bird’s metal ring number being recorded on the race sheets submitted by each member. The committee, using an automatic stretcher, expands and slips a rubber race ring on the leg of each pigeon, the ring bearing a number that is known only to the committee. As the race ringing proceeds the birds are placed in a pannier, and when completed each pannier of birds is officially sealed and is ready to be transported by train to the race point. Usually a conveyor, who is paid by the club or a federation of clubs, accompanies the birds, releasing them simultaneeously at a specified time.
If the race point is. say, sixty miles away, the fancier begins to look for his birds about an hour after liberation. He waits, watches every movement in the sky—and every minute is filled with keen anticipation. He sees a speck on the horizon. It grows bigger as it speeds through space. The heart of the fancier beats with excitement as a feathered speed fiend which he now recognizes as his doubles itself into a ball and drops like a stone to the loft. The owner picks it up, takes the rubber race ring off its leg and puts it into an automatic timing machine, feeds the bird and is ready for the next one. The timing machine records the split second at which the rubber ring is placed into it, and the velocity of the bird is thus esti-
mated. The distance from race point to loft is scientifically measured.
On good days, when the atmosphere is clear and there is a tail wind, birds are often clocked in at a speed of more than a mile a minute. The speed record in Canada is held by Messrs. Sealy and Gordon, Toronto, whose winning bird in the Toronto Federation 1931 Young Bird Race from Tilbury, 180 miles away, averaged 1,864 yards per minute. On that day more than twenty-four birds in the race bettered a mile a minute. The fact that distance is measured in a straight line from race point to home loft, and that time wasted by the bird in getting direction is not taken into account, gives an idea of the speed of these feathered demons. Not only do they fly faster than a mile a minute rate for a single mile; they keep it up for every mile of the race, which may be any number from fifty to 400 or even more. The 500-mile race of the Toronto Federation last year was a particularly successful one, some fanciers having all their birds arrive home during the day, others five out of six, while birds that spent the night out were home before the sun was very high the following morning.
The Homing Instinct
DO PIGEONS always “home?” Take a race last year from the comparatively short racing distance of little more than 100 miles. Close to 2,000 birds on which scores of fanciers in Toronto pinned their hopes were liberated in poor visibility. To make matters worse, it began to rain as the birds sought direction, the atmosphere becoming as thick as soup. Only twenty-five out of 1,976 birds, though some of the finest birds ever placed in a pannier were liberated, reached home that day. Others, looking more like drowned rats than sleek, pedigreed birds, arrived next day; and a few straggled in days and weeks afterward. The race goes into the annals of pigeon flying in Canada as one of the worst “smashes” in the history of the game.
What happened to those that failed to return? Doubtless many of them flew until the rain drenched them so they could fly no longer. They dropped exhausted then, and there’s no telling their fate. Some struck out in the wrong direction and kept on the wing until they, too, dropped from sheer exhaus-
tion. They spent the night in the rain, and next day, as the rain continued, were in no condition to resume. They would try, of course, and keep on trying. Hunger would assail them, but still they would keep on trying to “home,” getting weaker with every attempt. That’s the way it goes, and that’s the reason for smashes and hundreds of lost birds.
Not only must racing pigeons contend with weather. Hawks and guns and a score of hidden enemies balk them as they wing their way on training and race days. A pigeon fights odds at every turn, and the surprising fact is that they race and home with the consistency they do. Which brings to mind the fact that Ben Wright, of the Beaver Club, Toronto, has a bird—he calls her Ivy Girl—which has flown the 500-mile race six years in succession, first as a yearling.
Edmonton fanciers, among them Jack Richards and Billie Ruff, will recall the occasion, a few years ago, when enthusiastic Texas fanciers, aiming for a long distance record, sent birds to Edmonton for liberation —approximately 1,500 miles from their home lofts. There were about three panniers of them, the birds being as fine a collection as Edmonton fanciers had ever seen. Considerable publicity was given the event. A great crowd gathered at the public market place to witness the liberation, the mayor officiating. He cut the pannier strings, and the birds dashed to liberty after more than a week in the basket. Starting out in a circle at low altitude, they soared in a greater circle and repeated the procedure three times; then, as the crowd cheered, they hit in the direction of Texas. But, to my knowledge, not a single bird of the entire collection -and some must have been worth almost their weight in gold reached Texas. What happened? Your guess is as good as mine. The odds against them were too great. After all, a pigeon is flesh and blood and there is a limit to what it can stand.
But great feats have been accomplished. A fancier in Saskatoon told me of a bird bought by him in Chicago that flew from Saskatoon to Chicago on its first liberation. The remarkable fact about this, of course, is that the bird had not been trained in that direction. Recently a Toronto fancier told me of a bird which George Daniels, member
of a Toronto club, had bought from John Scarth, a well-known Winnipeg fancier. The bird was first “settled” in the Toronto loft, and then shipped out sixty miles for training. Instead of returning to Toronto, it struck for Winnipeg and finally reached the Scarth loft.
What about breeding? It is common knowledge that well-mated stock birds will produce good birds practically every round, and so certain do fanciers become of producing good stock that "produce” races are organized in which birds are nominated to win almost as soon as they are hatched.
While much pedigreed stock is still being imported into Canada from the Old Land, Canadian fanciers are doing considerable selling themselves and have created a market in the LInited States, where racing pigeon clubs are thriving in virtually every city and State in the Union.
Western Canadian fanciers have contributed appreciably to the success of Eastern fanciers, and the progeny of birds owned by Owens, Richards and Ruff of Edmonton are to be found in many lofts in Ontario. Just the other day William Curry, a member of the Toronto Western Club, bought four birds from Tom Walters of Edmonton, while John Scarth of Winnipeg frequently sends stock birds to Eastern lofts. And then there’s Dick Irvin of Regina, who is willing at any time to make a trade for the good of the “fancy.” It’s a great game.
Doubtless you are still wondering how homing pigeons “home.” I’ve left that until now because I can’t tell you and I don't know of anyone who can. Certainly men who have been in the game all their lives don’t know. Instinct? Eyesight? Birds are trained and win by training. But what of those birds that home for hundreds of miles over territory they’ve never seen before? That they have a keen sense of direction is certain; that they have a keen brain is sure; that they are fighters, all with great, stout hearts, is a part of their makeup which men admire. Good homing pigeons are bundles of speed and intelligence; they are the fastest flesh-and-blood machine contributing to man’s entertainment and welfare.
Fanciers will tell you that “once a fancier, always a fancier;” that pigeon racing is a great game. Knowing what I do about it, I heartily agree with them.