Whether serving the country or competing, pigeon racing has dazzled with feats of speed and stamina that have turned more than one royal head, says Charlotte Mackaness
Pigeon racing has long been a favourite royal pastime. Charlotte Mackaness gives an insight as to why.
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PIGEON RACING: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Her Majesty The Queen, Elvis Presley, Mike Tyson, Walt Disney and Roy Rogers share a common interest: Columbidae, or pigeons to the rest of us.
The list of famous pigeon fanciers is long and illustrious, including not just monarchs, sportsmen and entertainers but politicians, actors and artists. Such was Pablo Picasso’s fascination with the birds that he went as far as naming his daughter Paloma, which means ‘pigeon’ in Spanish.
The Royal Family’s connection to pigeons dates back to 1886, when King Leopold II of Belgium gave some racing pigeons to his British cousins. This unconventional gift was accepted with great enthusiasm, most notably by the future Edward VII, who immediately commissioned a loft on the Sandringham Estate, where more than 150 royal birds are based to this day. Edward’s interest in breeding and racing pigeons, winning virtually every race of note, became a royal tradition unbroken by Queen Elizabeth II, who is the patron of both the National Flying Club and the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA). “It is a massive bonus to have The Queen as our patron. She is still very active in the sport and supportive,” says Richard Chambers from the RPRA. “From speaking to past and present loft managers at Sandringham, it seems HRH The Duke of Edinburgh also took a keen interest, always having lots of questions,” reveals Chambers, who organised a mass release on the day of the Duke’s funeral. “We liberated 10 pigeons from every cathedral city in the country from Durham to Winchester to commemorate Prince Philip’s life and express our support for the family.”
Royal involvement goes beyond The Queen’s patronage and entering races: pigeons from Sandringham are donated to charity auctions and development projects and have served the country through history. The Army Pigeon Service was formed during World War I, during which these unassuming birds played an invaluable role carrying messages strapped to their legs and backs, something that continued in World War II. Both The Queen’s father and grandfather donated pigeons to this war effort. “In World War II, 32 of the 53 Dickin Medals awarded for animal bravery went to pigeons,” says Ian Evans, head of the RPRA. “That makes me incredibly proud.” One of these decorated birds was Royal Blue, bred by the Royal Lofts at Sandringham, recognised for his service to the Royal Air Force. The Armed Forces also bred their own homing pigeons, while the pigeon loft at Bletchley Park is impressive not simply because of its size but also the contribution made by its inhabitants.
Among the many dazzling tales of wartime feathered derring-do are those of Winkie and GI Joe. Winkie was the saviour of an RAF bomber crew that ditched into the North Sea in February 1942. The four men were unable to radio their position and faced drowning in the freezing waters. However, as their aircraft plunged downwards, they released their extra crewman, Winkie. The hen bird flew 120 miles home and was discovered, exhausted and covered in oil, by her owner, who informed the RAF, which launched a successful rescue mission. GI Joe saved thousands of soldiers in World War II, notably when he was sent with orders to cancel a bombing mission in Italy that could have accidently killed British troops present in the target area. GI Joe covered the 20 miles in 20 minutes, arriving just five minutes before the bombers were scheduled to start thundering down the runway. “Pigeons are capable of fantastic feats: no animal on the planet can match them for speed and stamina,” believes Evans. “For centuries, homing pigeons have been trained and were a mainstream mode of communication until the late 19th century. They were employed by Reuters, while the Ancient Greeks used them to relay everything from love letters to the results of the Olympic Games.”
WORKING CLASS SPORT
As their use in communication tailed off, so the rise of racing pigeons for sport took over, explains Evans, who adds that pigeon racing has always been predominantly a working-class sport. “The social aspect is at the heart and many local clubs are still based at a pub or working men’s club. I know that my club always manages to incorporate a few drinks into race weekends. It is very accessible: you don’t need a huge amount of money or space to take part – a garden shed will do. It’s also a sport you can carry on enjoying into old age, because you don’t need to be physically strong to handle a pigeon. Homing pigeons are biologically the same as feral pigeons you see everywhere, only selectively bred. Nobody is quite sure how they navigate; whether it is the Earth’s magnetic field, landmarks or both. However it is done, it is remarkable,” he says.
Chris Knowles is a third-generation pigeon fancier who has achieved racing success at the highest level, in addition to many decades’ contribution to the administration of the sport. He believes that paying close attention to birds’ foibles is the key to success. “You have to discover what motivates a bird. I believe it should be reward based, and reward for a pigeon is coming back to a nurturing and welcoming environment. Many fanciers think separating paired birds motivates them to fly home and so race the hen and cock at the same time, but I don’t follow that,” he continues. “One of them is going to be left disappointed when it gets home to find an empty nest.”
Race winners are calculated using velocity. “If a pigeon flies 600 miles in 10 hours, that works out at 1,760 yards per minute. I’ve won races with my birds managing more than 2,000 yards per minute with the wind behind them,” reveals Knowles. “Pigeons are perceptive at working out the most advantageous height to fly depending on conditions. The stronger the headwind, the lower to the ground they will go, sometimes hopping hedges, trees and buildings. With the wind behind them, they can reach more than 70mph. This is known as a ‘blow home’ and they will resemble tiny dots high in the sky.”
According to Les Parkinson, of pigeon auctioneers Elimar, the feathered Lewis Hamiltons and Max Verstappens of the sport can fetch big money. “We sell pigeons to fanciers as far away as Australia. The record price for a pigeon is more than £1 million. That went to a Belgian pigeon called Armando in 2019, who was bought by a Chinese enthusiast. “It’s nothing unusual for racing pigeons to make four figures on the UK auction sites, but £30,000 would be about the top price, and you can still pick up a pigeon for £20,” says Parkinson.
Despite Armando’s headline-grabbing price, many think it distorts the sport’s true state. “In the late 1980s, the RPRA had about 80,000 members. It has been in steady decline and membership is now about 19,000,” admits Evans. “The sport has many challenges, not least the pandemic, but I was proud that on 1 June 2020, we were the first competitive sport to restart after lockdown.” Brexit has also put a spanner in the racing world’s works. “It’s been a real party pooper,” says Knowles, who explains that birds are released from France for the blue-riband ‘Grand National’ competition and racing from that country is currently very difficult. Chambers concurs.
“Everything from pigeon food to fuel has risen in price. In my grandfather’s day, before men went to work, they would take their birds to the local station in a labelled basket stating which station they were to be released at. Nearly every train had a pigeon compartment. It was an inexpensive and easy way to train.”
Perhaps the biggest danger to pigeon racing comes from elsewhere in the avian world. “Birds of prey are a huge factor,” declares Chambers. “It is very demotivating to lose birds to peregrine falcons. I’ve a friend who had 58 babies and over a two-week period watched 30 of them taken out of the sky by a peregrine. We are losing members because they just feel so disheartened.”
However, Chambers has a plan. He’s a fourth-generation racer whose professional background is in education. “We have six schools signed up to our schools’ scheme, with another one getting a loft ready. It costs the schools diddly dot,” he reveals. “The RPRA pays for the loft, birds, food and medical care.” There have been some notable sporting successes for Chambers’ fledgling flyers: “One school came fifth in its region in the ‘Grand National’, placed in the top 100 of the 2,500-bird field.” However, the McLaren or Red Bull of the schools is St Andrews in Oswaldtwistle. “They started with a small hut and are now among the best flyers in their area, having been first in the British Classic,” says Chambers proudly. “Pigeons change the dynamic of learning and engagement for many children and can be brought into so many aspects of the school curriculum. It’s a win-win.”
Teacher Sian Farley overlooks the pigeon lofts at Theydon Bois Primary School in Essex and says the birds feature in a wide array of subjects. “A favourite activity was attaching secret messages to our birds when we were learning about the war,” she says. “The children are always impressed with how clever pigeons are and were intrigued when I told them they have been taught to distinguish between Renoir and Picasso.”
The class pigeons are not lacking personality. “We had Princess Peach, who strutted around haughtily until she fell in love and flew off into the sunset. And there’s Costa. He was fabulous and knew it,” says Farley. “Costa would go off and bring back wild pigeons. Once, he was away so long that another pigeon took over his box and girlfriend. There was a bust-up worthy of EastEnders. In the end, Costa left for good. I explained that pigeons mate for life.
As he had a taste for the wild Essex girls, the children and I think one finally stole his heart. We’re currently training our pigeons to fly and have just done a drop-off at the local McDonald’s car park, which is four miles from school. We’ll increase the distance and try to familiarise them with the M11 corridor, which will be a good navigation marker in races.”
The pupils of Theydon Bois Primary School have recently collected some very special birds, donated by the Royal Lofts. “As you can imagine, it was incredibly exciting,” enthuses Sian. “However, I was faced with an awful dilemma: which of my budding pigeon fanciers to take with me to Sandringham?” Now, that’s a royally good problem to have.