Nearly 2,000 racers sprint from Lake City in an event that goes back thousands of years
By Karl Burkhardt
Nearly two thousand racers left Lake City Monday morning for a 120-mile sprint to Spring Hill, Fla. They arrived before lunch.
Three people gathered for the start of the race in the open area that had been the K-Mart parking lot. The only other spectators were a flock of curious gulls, sitting on the pavement.
Jim Milligan of Gulf Coast Homing Club comes to Lake City about 20 times a year to release racing pigeons.
There were two starts Monday. The first start, scheduled for 8 a.m., was postponed for an hour because a squall line was passing across the race course. About 1,400 birds sprang from a large trailer as 52 doors opened simultaneously.
At 9:30 a.m., a smaller group of young pigeons in training were released.
Gulf Coast Homing Club, the largest homing club in the United States, has events every week. Some races are 100 miles, starting in Alachua. Last week, a Saturday race started in Fargo, Ga., with 2,000 pigeons flying 150 miles.
A 500-mile race starts north of Chattanooga, Tenn., and a 600-mile race is from Whitehouse, Tenn. Depending on the speed and direction of the wind, racers go 600 miles in 10 to 11 hours.
“Racing pigeons fly about 45 mph. When there is a good tailwind, we’ve had races that are as fast as 70 miles an hour,” Milligan said. “In a headwind, they fly as slow as 30 miles an hour.”
The Gulfcoast Homing Club is 35 miles north of Tampa and they have about 200 members. Each bird carries a numbered leg band and the club issues 28,000 bands a year to its members. Milligan is a club member, but he does not race in events where he released the birds. “I belong to a one-loft race, the Flamingo International Challenge,” he said. “People send pigeons to our loft. We train them and race all the birds to one loft.” . . . “Some people express concern that the pigeons spreading disease,” Milligan noted. “But these are healthy birds. Owners take care of them like you would care for a race horse or a pedigreed dog.” If a bird is ill, they put it in quarantine and nurse it back to health.
Racing pigeons are sold at auctions. Bidding at some of the online auctions starts at $100 to $500 or more for a bird.
Before they became popular as a racing sort, they were called homing pigeons and were used by Egyptians and Persians to carry messages 3,000 years ago.
According to Wikipedia, “Birds were used extensively during World War I. One homing pigeon,Cher Ami, was awarded the French Croix de guerre for his heroic service in delivering 12 important messages, despite having been very badly injured.
“During World War II, the Irish Paddy and the American G.I. Joe both received the Dickin Medal, and were among 32 pigeons to receive this medallion, for their gallantry and bravery in saving human lives with their actions.
“Homing pigeons were still employed in the 21st century by certain remote police departments in Orissa state in eastern India to provide emergency communication services following natural disasters. In March 2002, it was announced that India's Police Pigeon Service messenger system in Orissa was to be retired, due to the expanded use of the Internet . . .