By Alison Rentschler | Photography by Kelvin Andow
Homing pigeons look similar to the pigeons you see flying around downtown Rochester or in many plazas in European cities. But homing pigeons have a unique capability: they can be taken far from home and let out to fly, and they return to their home loft.
They also have a distinct look and a special instinct for homing, said Mike Holton, who has trained homing pigeons.
How do they do it? Holton explained that there’s ongoing research about how it works. “Two things they’re pretty sure about – the gravitational pull and the sun. The rays could act as a navigational tool.”
Homing pigeons have been trained to be messenger pigeons and have even been used in wars.
Homing pigeons can also be trained as racing pigeons. Holton, who owned racing pigeons in the past, used to be part of the Rochester Racing Pigeon Club. The club meets on Friday nights and races the birds on Saturdays. “Everyone brings their birds and crates,” he said.
Early on Saturday morning, all of the pens are opened up from a truck at a specific location, and the birds are released at the same time. Tim Macken, a member of the club, explained that each bird has a computer chip on its leg. Everyone in the club has pads in their home pigeon lofts that record the times from the birds’ computer chips as each bird returns to its loft.
“They walk over the pad in the pigeon loft. It’s like how people run marathons and have chips in their shoes that are read,” said Macken.
Holton said that the club meets on Sundays and downloads the race information to log the times of the birds that raced.
“Everyone’s pigeon loft pad is calibrated by GPS,” said Macken. This helps to estimate the speed of each bird. “Our shortest race was about 100 miles and our longest race was about 600 miles.”
Macken sometimes brings a few of his white racing pigeons to special events when requested. After he lets them go, the pigeons fly home to their loft.
Born a bird guy
Holton’s interest in pigeons formed when he was 12. “My grandfather had a friend with racing pigeons, and I was fascinated by them. I got a couple pigeons and built a loft and raised them.”
Later on, he raced pigeons. “Unfortunately it’s getting to be a dying hobby,” he said. “It used to be a sport of kings.”
Macken’s interest is almost innate. “I’m a believer that you’re kind of born being a pigeon guy. Like there’s cat people … There’s something about pigeon guys; they just like birds,” Macken said. “It’s a nice hobby. You can sit in the loft and feed them and all your stress goes away. Something as simple as a bird can do that.”
How do you train pigeons? “It’s through motivation,” said Holton. “You keep them a little bit on the hungry side. Then you train them how to trap.” That means training them to go out of the loft through a trap door.
Soon the birds are let out to fly outside around the yard, roof and neighborhood.
“After a couple weeks, we go on training drops.” In training drops, he brings the birds in crates to a distance of 1 or 2 miles away at first, then up to 10 miles and then further out.
Holton said he opens the crates in the mornings around 8 or 9 a.m., so the sun is positioned in the same place. After letting the crates sit for 10 minutes or so, he releases the birds.
“They’ll fly in a figure-8 and wait for all the birds to catch up, and then they take off,” he said. “You either have birds that are good at getting home, or they’ll fly into a wire or a hawk gets them, or they just don’t have the homing ability.”
Now, Holton has moved in to showing pigeons. He has about 30 that include three rare show breeds, and he travels all over the country showing his birds.
“You get to know the birds,” Holton said. If the parents don’t feed the baby pigeons, he has to hand-feed them. A healthy pigeon lives until about age 15.
With show pigeons, “If birds win a lot of shows, then they’re more valuable.”
Alison Rentschler is a writer and editor living in Rochester.