Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pigeon racing is a sport for birds as well as for humans

Post Bulletin, Rochester, MN
10/17/2009 8:20:01 AM
By Kurt Nesbitt
Post-Bulletin, Austin MN

Just like a homing pigeon, Steven Burton left and then returned home.

Home to racing the birds, that is.

Burton raced homing pigeons as a child, back when it was a more common hobby in the area.

He left the hobby when family began to occupy his time. Then, five years ago, he returned.

Burton belongs to the Rochester Racing Pigeon Club, which raises and trains the birds to race across the state or country using a system of leg bands, computerized clocks and sensors, a Global Positioning System and databases to track each bird as well as its racing time.

To avoid confusion among the birds, clubs coordinate races with each other, very much like air traffic controllers at airports. A 100-mile race takes a pigeon about two hours to complete. A 300-mile race takes six to seven hours.

"A lot of times, they'll come back and they're ready to go the next weekend," Burton said.

Pigeons are like athletes, says Burton, and the shapes of their bodies largely determines what they do. Birds with long, narrow wings are like distance runners.

And like athletes, pigeon owners load their birds with corn, barley and rice -- carbohydrates in the bird world -- to give them enough energy to stay in the race. They hydrate the birds with vitamins and electrolytes.

Like owners of race horses, pigeon owners will pay top dollar to get a top athlete with the right lineage. That can be upwards of $50,000. Many of the pigeons that race in the United States are imported from Belgium and Holland, Burton said.

Burton races pigeons because he enjoys the guys he flies and the competition. Tending to the birds in their coop is a quiet way to unwind from his work as a mental health practitioner.

Burton and other races keeps a track record of their successes.

"On any given day," he said, "any pigeon could win."