Script: Marathon in the Sky
Scripts written by Jim Jenner
Marathon in the Sky
Narrated by Michael Landon
History and Life Cycle
It is the sport with a single starting gate and a thousand finish lines. It is the aerial contest with a cloud of competitors and no spectators. It is the race of one of nature's most amazing creatures, and man's oldest feathered friend, the homing pigeon. This is the story of marathons in the sky, the story of pigeon racing.
Like many of nature's creatures, doves and pigeons have an innate ability to return to their nesting places from great distances. For centuries, this has permitted them to fly far from home in search of food and return to their young. What makes the pigeon unique is how comfortable it is with man.
Whether one accepts a biblical or scientific basis for life on earth, pigeons predate man. Genesis has them created by God on the fifth day, man on the sixth. By evolution, pigeons are at least 30 million years old—significantly older than humans.
The names dove and pigeon describe the same family of birds. Before recorded history, they lived with man. In early times, they were a source of food and their droppings provided fertilizer for the fields.
Their gentle ways and soft cooing made them a symbol of peace and love. In ecclesiastical art, the dove was a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but pigeons grew to fill another role. Men learned they could carry messages home. This instinct made the birds essential to civilizations as early as 5,000 years before the birth of Christ. Noah's dove flew over the horizon to find land. Ancient Egyptians developed special paper to permit birds to carry more information.
Athletes in the first Olympics carried pigeons from their villages to the games. If they won, they'd tie a strand of finish line to the bird’s foot. Its arrival home signified the local athlete's victory. The release of pigeons is still part of Olympic ceremonies.
In the 12th century, the Sultan of Syria had dovecotes built across his realm, and this early air mail system brought messages to Baghdad.
After thousands of years of selective breeding, pigeon keepers have developed many different types of pigeons. There are now almost 300 breeds of pigeons, all of them thought to descend from the rock dove.
The sizes, shapes and colors of these fancy pigeons in a modern pigeon show are a far cry from the little grey dove that made its nest along the rocky cliffs of ancient lands, and, while these birds are bred for their beauty, the rather ordinary looking homing pigeon was the one who served man the most.
As fast messengers, they were important to ancient military and business leaders. A horse and rider galloping at top speed could cover only a few miles an hour. A pigeon could carry a message almost 50 miles an hour and fly over rivers, mountains and possibly the enemy below. Today in England, you can still find dovecotes erected on great estates. Hundreds of birds lived in these stone nesting spaces. They provided more than food and fertilizer. For thousands of years, they were the world's fastest way to send messages.
In the business centers of London and Antwerp, it was common for bankers and traders to maintain their own homing pigeons, used to deliver secret messages from distant cities.
One of the first was the great financier, Nathan Rothschild, whose intelligence network included well-trained homing pigeons. In 1815, a Rothschild pigeon flew home to London carrying the startling news that Napoleon's grand army had been crushed at Waterloo. Information like this, arriving by pigeon many hours and even days before it was known to others, was invaluable. Combined with the Rothschild family's astuteness in finance helped them to create one of the greatest financial institutions in Europe.
During the siege of Paris in 1871, Prussian troops surrounded the city. Homing pigeons were carried in air balloons past enemy lines. Then, using microdot photography to record hundreds of messages on a tiny piece of film, letters from as far away as London were carried back into Paris by the birds. During the four month siege, the Parisian pigeons carried home over a million different messages.
By the late 1800's, pigeons were often used for fast communications. Birds delivered stock prices from one city to another. A key part of the early Reuters news agency used them to carry news. Government run pigeon posts became common in many parts of the world. The birds racing today are the descendants of these messengers. For, when business could send messages faster with a new invention called the telegraph, the pigeon couriers became obsolete, but the sport of pigeon racing was already being developed.
A race begins when the birds are released from a distant point. This is the starting gate. These releases are from standard locations and are named for the nearest town. The birds race home. The distances from the release point to each pigeon loft are calculated by special surveyors. They compute the flying distance down to the thousandth of a mile or kilometer.
By the turn of the century, special clocks had been developed to time the birds’ arrival. Before the race, a numbered rubber band, called a countermark, is placed on each pigeon’s foot. A bird is officially home when this band is placed in the clock and the timing handle turned. When the clock is struck, the exact time is recorded, and the countermark enters a sealed chamber that can't be tampered with. This makes it impossible to time a race bird before it actually arrives home.
It also means that getting home first is not enough to win. A trainer has to make sure the racer comes inside instantly so its countermark can be removed. With thousands of competitors in a race, seconds often make the difference between first place and 50th.
The equation is simple mathematics. Distance divided by time equals speed. With an exact flight distance and flying time, the bird’s average flying speed can be very precisely calculated. Because competition is so keen, this speed is figured down to the yards flown per minute. The winner, as in any race, is the bird with the fastest homing speed.
Today, quartz clocks and computer systems are making the complex calculations. In much of the world, the new generation of clocks is connected directly to a main computer, and, as each trainer’s arrival times are entered, the standings for the race winners change until all the information is in.
Although they became obsolete for most business communications, homers remained crucial military tools. In both World Wars I and II, homing pigeons provided a reliable means of delivering messages. They were used in the desert over arctic terrain and in the densest of Asian jungles. They were often released behind enemy lines from airplanes and from ships far out at sea. Many a downed airman owes his life to a pigeon he let go as he bobbed in a tiny rubber raft in the ocean.
An American homing pigeon known as GI Joe saved the lives of over a thousand British soldiers in World War II, when he carried a message 20 miles in only 20 minutes to stop the bombing of an area the British troops had just overrun. GI Joe was one of thousands of pigeons used in wartime. Their loyalty and heart resulted in birds delivering vital messages, in spite of mortal bullet wounds, and missing eyes or feet as the result of enemy gun fire. Pigeons were so reliable they were often the only way messages were sent without being coded, and, in the five years of World War II, military birds successfully delivered an incredible 98% of hundreds of thousands of messages.
Today, only the Swiss, French and Israeli armies still use the reliable couriers. But the birds’ delivery skills have also resulted in their continued use to fly blood samples from remote areas and to carry industrial data and other materials over crowded urban highways.
Released in a town they have never seen before, rising from the ground hundreds of miles away from home, these racers take only minutes to get their bearings. Then, one pound of flesh and feathers hurtles home over the earth at 50 miles an hour. They can fly from sunrise to sunset. In terms of a marathon, there is no match for their stamina, and no level of competition can match the thousands of wings that vie to achieve the fastest speed. It is to the one who is among the first to determine the correct route home. It is to the leader who never falters, the bird that never stops and, on arrival, goes immediately into the loft.
For all the unique traits of a champion, each pigeon's life starts as any other.
The lengthening days of spring spark the hormones in both male and female. The courtship habits of pigeons are marked by a level of love and devotion seen in few other birds.
The larger, swaggering cock birds strut their stuff to any and all females who will listen. The deep melodious cooing comes from the males’ throats as they inflate their crops.
For every strutting male, there is, in the pigeon world, a coy hen, and, while first ignoring the cock bird or walking out of his bulldozing advances, sooner or later the lady will succumb.
The mood changes; the male pretends to preen. The hen does the same. As they draw closer, the magic builds. They exchange a quivering first kiss. The chemistry of this moment is important. Love and mutual attraction are vital because these two birds will remain forever together.
Nature has wisely made the pigeon's love life a satisfactory experience for both partners and, after they join for a brief moment, their wings quiver with excitement.
Like many birds, pigeons are gregarious. A modern breeding loft looks like a small apartment house. But the birds’ gregarious nature does not include their own nest. Nothing in the universe is more important than the little piece of real estate they call home. Birds will fight almost to their death to defend their own nesting space, and, to this special place, the male calls his mate to nest.
The quiet cooing fills the pigeon loft, and these birds of peace also affectionately massage each other by gently opening and closing their beaks.
A week after they first kissed, the hen retires to the nest box to await the first egg. As the sun begins to set, she exerts herself to lay the pure white egg.
It is the first of two. Until the second arrives, two days later, the birds will not warm this egg. Like a seed, without soil or moisture, the spark of life in the egg only begins at 82 degrees. The birds instinctively know that by waiting and then starting to incubate both eggs together; they will hatch within hours of each other. This means the baby in the first egg is not older and thus stronger than the other. This gives both an equal chance to survive.
Now comes a peaceful two weeks in their married lives. Both male and female take turns incubating the eggs.
As the seventeenth day approaches, the baby stirs within the egg, and, with the aid of a sharp point, called the egg tooth, on its tiny beak, it circles the inside of the shell with a line of cracks. Once weakened, the top of the shell yields to the final, great pushes of the tiny pigeon as it enters the world. It can take over a day for the baby to break out of the egg. Hatching within hours of each other, the slightly older youngster sometimes helps his exhausted nest mate by removing the shell from its head. Their eyes are closed. Without their parents, they are helpless.
This birthing drama takes place beneath the parent's warming breast, and, after a period of rest, a tiny head wobbles upward for its first meal.
Like few other birds on earth, both parents develop a milky secretion inside their crops. For the first five days of the babies’ lives, this rich pigeon milk, as it’s called, will nourish the young birds.
As father takes his turn with the newborns, instinct tells mother to keep things tidy, and she removes the sharp edged shell from the nest.
At three days, their eyes are open and their body weight has doubled. At a week, feathers begin to appear, and again they have gained weight rapidly. They now weigh five times more than at birth; the equivalent of a human baby achieving three years of growth in seven days. Before they grow too large, they are banded with a seamless metal ring. Slipped over their tiny feet, this registration band carries the year they were born, the club they’ll race in and an identification number that is each bird’s alone. No pigeon can race without this band.
At two weeks, they are flapping and noisy youngsters. I'm sure you can tell why pigeon breeders call them squeakers. They have faces only a mother could love. They're losing their porcupine appearance. The mass of tiny quills are beginning to open, and the feathers sheathed inside spring free.
When full grown these birds will carry almost 10,000 feathers, none more important than the long, supple flight feathers that make up the bird's wing.
At this age, the young birds’ plumage color becomes apparent and the little creatures possess instinctive behavior, such as their attempts to appear tough and intimidating to their keeper's gentle hand.
Between the second and third week, the youngsters undergo another growth spurt. Now, they are ready for the transition from parental care to a life on their own.
A young pigeon is considered ready to leave the nest when the growth of feathers under its wings covers the last portion of exposed skin.
For three weeks, the young birds have eaten, slept and, apart from banding, had little contact with man. This is about to change. The youngsters now enter a stage of training where one goal is paramount, to come home as quickly as possible.
At less than a month old, these gawky, squeaky babies are hardly the feathered jets of the bird racing world. At this stage, their first lesson is to eat and drink on their own. Like tiny children learning to coordinate their writing skills, eye-beak coordination is less than exact. It takes all of the young bird's power of concentration … and a lot of misses to capture an elusive pea. The bird's keeper also gently shows the babies how to drink water. Unlike other birds, pigeons swallow water like a horse and do when they're thirsty.
With the last sprigs of yellow baby down sticking out like stuffing from a rag doll, these young minds are absorbing the surroundings of their loft in great detail. Pigeons somehow imprint the location of home, and part of their training is for these youngsters, still too young to fly, to see, hear and smell the outside world and view the open sky. The next step is to learn to fly.
As their wings grow rapidly, the young birds experiment with lift off. Like little children, nothing can prepare them for what's to come. As they first take flight outside their home, their piloting skills are no match for the power and speed their young bodies can generate. Like new drivers, these early days are a comedy of tail spinning takeoffs, near mid-air collisions and missed landings.
The ecstasy of flight is apparent in these young flyers, and their uncoordinated early efforts soon give way to the single most beautiful sight in a pigeon flyer's eyes—the tight maneuvers of a team of birds freely wheeling over the surrounding countryside. This is the moment when the bird's freedom is part of its education. A flock of young pigeons, fueled by boundless energy, will disappear for hours at a time as they roam to any point of the compass, and, from any direction, as hunger or thirst pull them home, they'll rocket over the loft and wheel and drop down.
Now, the bond with their trainer begins to form. It's vital that the youngsters learn to trust this human, to look for him or her for food and heed the call. By keeping just the right edge to their appetites, the trainer teaches the young birds to trap quickly after landing. This lesson, taught time after time in the spring, will be a key to victory in the young bird races to come later in the summer.
It's not really too tough a job description—great food, lots to drink, regular exercise with your friends, plenty of rest and a nice clean home, and, you usually only have to work six to eight weekends a year.
The Perfect Airframe/Homing Instinct
As a product of nature's superb aeronautical engineering, the pigeon comes close to perfection. The airframe is made up of hollow bones, whose interior is permeated by tiny air bubbles, making them half the weight of the same amount of our human bones.
The hollow skeleton plus numerous air sacs provide reservoirs of oxygen to augment the bird’s lungs. This efficient system oxygenates tremendous amounts of red blood cells which, in turn, power the muscles.
The fuselage is tapered to the finest point, a beak made of keratin—pound for pound the strongest natural substance on earth. After a strong jump to get airborne, the landing gear is tucked above the point of air resistance. Most important of all, anchoring the skeleton, like the foundation of a sailing vessel, is the great keel bone. The keel anchors the pectoral muscles, the pigeons amazing power supply that drive the wings and rocket the bird through the air. This huge muscle accounts for almost a third of the bird's weight. Fueled by an almost limitless supply of oxygenated blood, the tremendous strength of these muscles powers the key down stroke of the wings. A bird can make up to ten complete strokes in a single second.
Pushing the air are the extraordinary wing feathers. Light, supple and extremely strong, these feathers bend and let air pass through on the upstroke of the wing, then lock into place for the down stroke. To keep the bird at peak efficiency, flight feathers are replaced each year. During the late summer, when food is most abundant in nature's cycle of life, the body and wing feathers are gradually molted and replaced with a new suit of feathers. When it's done, the birds look brand new, but, during the molt, they begin to look a little the worse for wear.
After millions of years, nature has refined this airframe for a special purpose. This is not a glider, nor a bird meant to flit from tree to tree with short bursts of speed. This is nature's version of the perfect marathon machine, designed to reach peak velocity in seconds, then, incredibly, hour after non-stop hour, to sustain a tremendous pace.
At rest, the bird’s heart beats 200 times a minute. When it takes flight this shoots to 600 beats and remains there as long as it flies—even as long as 15 or 16 hours—covering over 500 non-stop miles. If human beings could achieve this performance level, a typical marathon would be over a hundred miles long and last all day.
No matter where they will fly in the world or from how far they'll compete, the basic training for the homing pigeons is the same. In their early days of training, the young racers are taken several miles from home and taught to return quickly for the tastiest grains. At first, they're released as a group, but, to give them more experience and self confidence, a trainer will often release them to fly home solo.
Despite years of intense research, the homing ability of birds, animals and insects remains one of nature's best kept secrets, but the racing pigeon is providing data that may someday explain this fascinating ability of creatures to find their way over vast distances.
Since 1967, Cornell University, in New York State, has been conducting experiments with racing pigeons in an effort to understand their homing ability. Data gathered here, combined with research in Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland and Italy, reveals that nature has blessed these birds with senses far more sophisticated than human beings.
The experiments point to the possibility the birds use a combination of senses for clues to find the route home. Each bird has a very accurate internal clock and is able to tell North and South by sensing the sun's position in relation to the time of day. If the sun is obscured by clouds, it seems likely that pigeons are able to sense the earth's magnetic fields. In addition to their clock and compass, they have visual senses that allow them to see ultra-violet and polarized light—possible aids to determining direction.
Backing all this up is a sense of hearing so sensitive to low frequencies they can perceive infra-sound, inaudible to humans. Scientists believe they can actually hear certain noises, such as the wind blowing over the Rocky Mountains from several thousand miles away.
But that's not all that makes up their on board computer system. Pigeons can also smell so well that some bird researchers believe they might use odors to help them find their way.
Exactly how they know to correctly pick the route home remains a mystery. Whatever the answer, these quiet, sensitive creatures live in a world of sights and sounds and smells that is much different than our own.
To the modem man on the street, the pigeon is a nuisance or the butt of jokes. In our high-tech society, the thought of pigeon messengers and pigeon racing is laughable. These earthbound humans are oblivious to the marathoners in the sky.
There are certain people who know the racing pigeon is in a class by itself. The fanciers who breed and train them are as woven into the fabric of these creatures as the trainer of any race horse or the breeder of any blue-blooded greyhound.
Unlike horse racing, the sport of kings and princely incomes, pigeon racing is a sport that attracts all types of people from every walk of life and of every income level.
Throughout the world, as many as one million people keep homing pigeons, as many as forty million birds, and the people who care for them are carpenters and doctors, captains of industry and coal miners, and, while money may make things a little easier, in pigeon racing it does not buy success against a poorer man who has good birds and more skillful training methods.
From its birthplace in Northern Europe, pigeon racing is now a truly international hobby. For over a hundred years, books and magazines have recorded the history of the sport, and, in many parts of the world, there are weekly and monthly magazines filled with race results, stories about trainers, and advertising for pigeons.
The housing built for racing pigeons reflects both the local climate and the quality of life that fanciers want for their birds.
Throughout the world, palatial pigeon lofts, such as this one in Belgium, are designed to provide the birds with much more than shelter. Buildings are oriented to provide the pigeons with maximum exposure to morning sun. Ventilation is designed to assure the flow of dry, pure air, and cleanliness is carried to the extreme, with special flooring and perches that keep the birds from standing in their droppings. It's not unusual for a fancier to clean the loft twice a day. Remember, what lives here are athletes. Their health and happiness are paramount to their owners.
The formula for consistent winning is painfully simple—birds and brains, and it is in the daily solitude of a flyer caring for and observing his family of pigeons that the sport's great racing triumphs are based, and, like any human endeavor, pigeon racing has many champions.
For over 40 years, Paul Haelterman has chronicled the victories of pigeon racing. Nowhere on earth is the sport as popular or as organized, as in the tiny European nation of Belgium. With only ten million people, Belgium has over 100,000 pigeon lofts. So many people fly pigeons here that the national radio stations broadcast race course weather conditions and release information every race day.
What Haelterman writes carries weight because he too is a champion. Throughout his comfortable home are countless reminders of the family's love of racing pigeons. Most notable is the likeness of ''My Darling,” a young hen that won Haelterman a National race; to win a National is the dream of every Belgian flyer.
As in thousands of other Belgian families, pigeons have long been a passion for the Haeltermans. Flyers like Paul and his nephew Roger represent third and fourth generation Belgians who fly marathons in the sky.
Haelterman chronicles the winning methods of top trainers. One of the family favorites is Frank Tasker, a brilliant English trainer, who for a decade, has won repeatedly at middle distance pigeon races. His visit is part of a twice-a-year ritual, as he and old friend Haelterman meet to compare ideas and often exchange birds.
Haelterman's daughter runs a bustling pet shop in their home town, and, while the cages are full of hundreds of song birds, a big part of the volume is in pigeon supplies. Like any typical Belgian village, there are hundreds of pigeon keepers nearby and thousands of birds to be fed each day. Entire shelves are devoted to pigeon medications. Every conceivable type of grain is for sale, and the back room is full of perches, carrying cages and nestbox systems. In Belgium, pigeon racing is big business.
Though Belgium has the highest per capita percentage of pigeon flyers, the United Kingdom has the highest total number. Over a quarter of a million English, Irish, and Scottish families keep racing pigeons, and the lore from a century of racing is as deep here as on the Continent. Even the royal family has racing pigeons in England. The Queen still makes regular visits to her lofts. Only her birds can carry the distinctive bands that begin with the letters ER for Elizabeth Rex. Her father was also interested in pigeons and much of the royal flock is descended from birds given to the British Royal Family by the King of Belgium.
In England, flyers can race their birds from two directions. On the South Road, as it’s called, pigeons are released on the mainland of Europe and cross the ninety miles of open Channel water to home. On the North Road, birds are released as far as six hundred miles from home from islands at the farthest tip of the British Isles.
Several of the greatest races are named for the crown. In fact, the most coveted trophy is the King’s Cup for long distance flying. Many Englishmen spend a lifetime trying to win this trophy.
In the back of this tiny row house in Northeast England, lives one of them. His name is Frank Perkins. In his 80’s, "Mr. Perkins," as he is known at the local club, has forgotten more about pigeons than most men will ever know. The birds are his family. Pigeon racing is his life; trying for the King's Cup, his greatest goal. Like many pigeon keepers, Mr. Perkins is not a wealthy man. The tiny loft is hardly a showplace. But two times, to this humble building, flew pigeons that came in second against thousands of others for the King's Cup, and, one time, on the same day of the great race, Mr. Perkins watched a bird land in the afternoon light and he clocked her. The bird won the King's Cup and Frank Perkins’ name was engraved on the face of one of England's most coveted trophies.
In Belgium, one in a hundred people keep racing pigeons—In England, one in 200. In America, the ratio is less than one in a thousand, but, in typical American style, what racing there is here tends to be on a grand scale.
Suvit Asawapornsnit (“Ahh Saw Wah Porn Snit”) learned pigeon racing in his native Thailand. Now, he competes in a club in the suburbs of Los Angeles with flyers whose names are Asian, Mexican, Polish, English and Italian, and, as a member of the Fernando Valley Pigeon Club, Suvit flies the biggest race in North America, The Snow Bird Classic.
Because there is no national series of racing on this huge continent, the Americans have invented another way to match the best birds. The Snow Bird Classic is the grand daddy of a type of young bird racing called a “futurity". Young, un-flown pigeons are sent by breeders from all over the country. Handlers like Suvit train the birds to home to their lofts and prepare them for these special races. Hundreds of these futurity birds then compete for prize money and pools that can total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the years, this quiet-spoken Thai has become one of the most respected young bird trainers in the world.
In the world of long distance pigeon racing, there is another name that evokes the drama of the Marathon in the sky. That name is Barcelona, a release point on the Southern coast of Spain. From here, each summer over 20,000 of Europe’s veteran long-distance pigeons compete, flying five to seven hundred miles to their homes in England, Belgium, Germany and other countries. To win Barcelona is a special feat, but among the true sportsmen there is an even greater victory. That is when the trainer correctly picks, or "nominates" which of the pigeons he sends will be the first to arrive home. This takes a person who knows each bird as he knows life itself. To select such a bird from the long distance station of Barcelona is an extraordinary challenge. It even carries a special award, The Golden Wing.
As they say in Belgium, a lucky man may win Barcelona; only a brilliant man can pick his winner. Such a man is Alphonse Bauwens (''Bowens''), a quiet rose grower in central Belgium. His loft houses some of Europe's great long-distance pigeons. The family business is to grow roses; the family passion is to fly the greatest marathons in the sky.
Bauwens is following his father's footsteps as a flyer, following in his are two competent sons. Bauwens won The Golden Wing in 1987. He and his sons want to win it again.
Each continent has its champions, every club its best trainers, and part of the beauty of this sport is that there are many different roads to victory. While it is principally practiced by men, pigeon racing is also a hobby for quite a few women. Family partnerships are also common.
As a hobby, it is relatively inexpensive, compared to those that require a lot of expensive equipment, and the finish line on this race course is as near as the back garden.
Even as a relatively small sport, it is still big business, and, like any endeavor, the names of a handful of top competitors are known around the world. Near the coast of Belgium is the home of Norbert Norman. Downstairs is his home, upstairs the home of his old birds. Behind this building is another, equally as large, which houses the young bird racing team and stock birds. The lower level also has a large office. Racing pigeons have always been a part of Norbert Norman's life. He started helping clean his father's loft at the age of three. Coupled with his success as a businessman, he has had the time and money to earn himself a special niche in the pigeon racing world. For Norman, it's a serious hobby. For his full-time loft manager Gilbert, and his assistant Michel, it’s a serious business and how they earn their living. But Gilbert has earned every penny. Together the industrialist and the pigeon manager are a deadly partnership on the race sheet. Four times in just six years in the 80s, the Norman Lofts were ranked Grand Champions of all Belgium by one of the top pigeon publications.
Racing success on a national level brings a steady parade of visitors from around the world to visit the lofts and sign the guest book. Like many of the world's champions, after countless seasons, Norbert Norman still loves his pigeons, and, even with shelves of trophies piled in the office, the team is always planning for the next season, readying another generation for the airways. And, as with all good planning, they never forget to remember lady luck in the equation.
For the millions of birds and thousands of races flown each year, only a handful of names dominate the stud books of the sport, and, when in every race there can only be a single winner, every year the pigeon books and magazines are full of ads for birds that will make the difference in victory for the flyer that buys them.
In recent times, the Japanese have purchased many of the top European birds, and literally thousands of pigeons are imported and exported throughout the world each year. If racing is a hobby for most people, breeding birds is definitely a big business in many parts of the world, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the center of England at a place known appropriately as "Pigeon World.” Here, on every day but Christmas, pigeon flyers can come to shop for new birds and supplies, and, to people who never heard of pigeon racing, this edifice erected to the sport by the Massarela family is nothing short of amazing. In one great hall, the size of an American supermarket, are 600 individual homes for birds of special bloodlines.
If you want to stock your loft with birds descended from pigeons of the famous Norbert Norman, you'll find a row of breeders who are children, or more likely great grandchildren, of Norman pigeons. Row after row is dedicated to the household names considered the very best breeders and flyers in all of pigeon racing. For as little as a few dollars, you can buy a bird on sale, or for several hundred more you can order the babies of some of the world's top racers. The patron of Pigeon World, Lou Massarela, is famous for paying six figure sums for top pigeons, including $135,000 for this International Barcelona winner, and $80,000 for this bird Peter Pau ("Po").
In the spring, when trainers select young birds for the new racing season, these cages and halls are full and Pigeon World sells thousands of pedigreed pigeons. Nearby, you can sit in the restaurant or take the kids outside to the playground. If you're looking for pigeon supplies you'll find them here. There are even complete pigeon lofts on display for the fancier who wants one built in his back yard.
While Pigeon World and other breeding facilities may sell a lot of birds, they are only the commercial spectrum of the sport. Each year, millions of young pigeons are traded by fanciers. Many old friendships are based on this nonprofit give and take of babies of top pigeons. The interchange helps to keep the gene pool of each racing team as viable as possible, and it also shows a breeder how his birds respond to the methods of another trainer. Although the parentage of each bird is discussed, most pigeon trainers don't believe a racing pigeon's performance is guaranteed by its pedigree. Nature is not always predictable—any egg could hold a champion.
No matter what a piece of paper says about a racing pigeon, or how many winners it has in its ancestry, the sport's ultimate equalizer is this, the shipping basket. No matter how good a bird looks, or feels in the hand, this is where the truth begins. When they leave these baskets, out among the clouds are where the true champions are found.
Shipping night, central Belgium.
Shipping night, Northeast England.
Shipping night, the Northwest United States.
All of the days and weeks and years of effort end here, when the birds are entered into the race. In all parts of the world, the routine is basically the same; all that varies is the sophistication and the stakes, depending on the level of competition. The races themselves are typically weekend events with weekdays spent carefully analyzing each bird ... of exercise and judicious feeding.
On the day before the race, the birds are selected to compete. This is when the trainer wants to make sure that his entries are in perfect health, with the right wing condition and top physical form. Those chosen are basketed and taken to the clubhouse along with the fancier's clock. The birds’ band numbers are listed on a form and turned over to the race committee. As the birds are passed to the race committee, it is the last time the owner will touch them before they come home. Many aspects of this entry process have been designed to prevent any find of fraud.
Each bird's band number is checked and a numbered rubber countermark is placed on its leg. The countermark actually bears two numbers, one outside and another, known only to the race committee, on the inside. In big money races, like the Snow Bird the precautions are extreme; Birds are double countermarked and examined prior to being put into the shipping crates. They are placed in the crates at random so no crate contains more or less of one loft's entries.
Each crate is sealed.
Clocks are placed together, and, at exactly the same time, are started. They too are carefully sealed.
The camaraderie of shipping night is the same at every club on every continent. These competitors meet each week to race against one another. Many have been flying against the same faces in the same village, since they were children. Tomorrow could be a great day. Tomorrow is the chance for each flyer to taste victory. Tonight is time to taste Belgian, or English or American beer and laugh at the stories of another pigeon lover.
To the birds, this is just the noisy part of the job, and even these young birds quickly learn to relax in the basket and doze through the racket of shipping night.
What is at stake tomorrow depends on where in the world the race takes place. In small clubs, members fly for pride. Maybe they will each put up a dollar to be won by best loft tomorrow. In Europe, the pooling system is relatively sophisticated and a wager of a few pounds can come back four or fivefold.
In the big futurities, like the Snow Bird Classic, a lot more than pride is at stake. Prize money alone will push the purse to over $300,000, to be won this weekend. In addition, proud breeders and local handlers drive up the pool of wagers between lofts.
Each bird entered is listed. Its parents may have cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, so the pride of the breeders is reflected in their willingness to bet on their own birds. But, for all the dollars at stake, few fanciers make much money at the game. Many of the breeders here have paid to come from around the world to sunny California to see their birds compete, and, of the few that do win money, most will only buy better bloodstock or build a bigger loft.
But, as a way to keep score, the dollars riding on futurities like the Snow Bird can be significant. The shipping baskets, containing about 25 birds, are loaded on transports for the journey to the release points. Often the crates of one club join those of many others, swelling the total number that will compete for top honors. A bird can win against those in its club, against birds from its section of the country or against all comers, meaning that as this transport prepares for the start of the race, over four thousand young pigeons will vie for top honors.
In the larger pigeon racing area, the transport trucks are huge, professional affairs, and they can get stacked up like cargo planes ready to discharge their living contents into the crisp morning air. The drivers often know each other and compare notes on who will release when and on the weather. Decades of decorum call for the birds with the furthest distance to fly going up first, and, when the weather is bad and the pigeons are held until it clears, these truckers can spend hours and days waiting, playing cards or cooking a meal to the melody of cooing birds.
Weeks, months, years and even generations of work have gone into what is about to begin, but for the pigeon flyer the start of each race is invisible.
Hour after hour, as the rising sun brings Saturday morning to thousands of release points, the scene is the same. From starting gates on every continent, up into the morning light, the races are on.
As they spill from the shipping crates, the birds form great wheeling balls of flashing wings. It is almost impossible to release them at once, but a few seconds lost at the beginning can be made up in the hours of flight to come.
Ahead, out over the horizon, is home.
Paul: “Right…Weather is good at release and they were in the air at 7:00 AM. Do us a favor and call Barry, will you Frank?”
The waiting begins.
As they fly over the summer countryside, the flocks begin to stretch out. Those that first locked the correct route home are far in front, and, of these brightest birds, the race homeward boils down to pure stamina. Their heart and respiration rates shoot up; the tremendous pectoral muscles fire. The wings complete over seven complete cycles each second, over 400 pulls of air per minute; almost 30,000 strokes per hour.
These numbers become meaningful because each wing stroke, like each runner’s stride, is the foundation of victory. For victory is the sum of the parts. First comes homing instinct, then comes a hundred thousand pulls of air, and on each stroke the blend of better breeding and conditioning pulls some birds a little farther forward.
Out here is where the sons and daughters of champions, bought to peak physical form in clean and healthy conditions, begin to leave the others behind.
To the waiting pigeoneer, the drama is unseen but ever-present in his mind, and all of the guesses about which bird to buy or breed and a thousand little things he’s done to create the fittest pigeons, are on the line.
Years of squinting at the distant summer sky has never dampened the emotion of these trainers; staring at the horizon, jumping when any kind of bird flies by. In their hearts these are the children who first saw the great miracle—the miracle of a beloved bird, a feathered friend, appearing in the distant sky, coming back from the wild and then magically gliding and landing near your waiting hands. This moment, resonating only with the whisper of wings, is what keeps the ember burning in the heart of these pigeon flyers. This is the moment when the partnership rings true.
They are bred to race and born to fly, these marathoners of the sky. They are of all colors, and they fly over the contours of the globe from the fields of France to the open water of the Sea of Japan. These birds of peace are loved and cared for by men and women and children who speak all of the earth’s languages.
For these people, the sport has a magic that will hold them forever. Each new egg could hold a champion; each week, another race, another chance to see your birds come home. And, for the elders in the sport, there is the mission of teaching the next generation of flyers. What keeps these senior competitors young is that there will always, always be another spring. The cycle of life will begin again with their beloved birds.
In their freedom, are born the sinews of greatness, the wisdom of the air and the stamina only nature can create, and, in this joining of two creatures, are the legends of thousands of years of friendship. Man and bird. One earthbound and looking skyward at the product of his and nature’s partnership; the other airborne, taking wing from distant points to complete its instinctive purpose for being, to magically come home, and to fly farther and faster than those before. This then is pigeon racing. This is the marathon in the sky.
I’m Michael Landon, thanks for watching.
Written & Directed by Jim Jenner