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Jim Jenner - British Homing World Yearbook Article - 2006

Article in 2006 British Homing World Yearbook

Observations from The Road
By Jim Jenner

It is a pleasure to be invited to contribute to this year's Homing World Stud Book.  It's especially nice to be an American voice included with those of this season's greatest U.K. competitors.  Unlike the other authors in this book I did not win a big race in 2006.  My story is a little different.

Like many fanciers I began in pigeons at age ten in 1960. Over time, I had my fair share of victories in the modest pigeon racing competition one finds in smaller American cities.  Unfortunately, in 1996, I discovered I was one of those rare but unfortunate pigeon keepers whose anatomy had conspired to make me allergic to the very birds I loved to spend time with.  And, after all the masks and medications, new loft designs and air purifying systems, the high fevers and clogged lungs just wouldn't go away.  Sadly it was "down tools" for me as far as pigeon racing went.

While I was cursed in one way, I was blessed in another.  Unlike other fanciers who must walk away from the hobby because their lungs won't allow it, I had a fall-back position.   While my avocation was pigeon racing, my vocation was writing and film making.   In 1988 and 1989 I'd used my vacation time, and savings, to create a video called "Marathon in the Sky:  The Story of Pigeon Racing".   "Marathon" was a way to blend thirty years of thinking and talking about racing pigeons with the filmmaking tools and talented people I had around me in my television production business.  And, other than getting this story out of myself, I did not have any grandiose plans about making other pigeon movies.  Fate was to prove otherwise.  

Happily, "Marathon" was a critical and financial success.   Creating the movie helped me meet a lot of pigeon people, particularly at the national level, in a lot of countries.  This opened my eyes to additional stories about pigeons I thought were worth telling.  It also showed me that, if you worked to sell your material worldwide, there was a large enough market to reduce the financial risk it takes to make a film.  

Lucky for me, by the time I had to give up my birds a decade ago, I had already begun to enjoy seeing the pigeon game on a world wide scale.  "Marathon" had taken me across the US, England and the Continent as did  "Oldest Feathered Friend", which was released in 1996.   In 2002, when I was invited by Chinese television to create "Share The Blue Sky" the travel really expanded.  That documentary features material shot in 19 countries and I spent many months in China not only filming, but editing, the five hour show.

My point in talking about the traveling I've done is to set the scene for what the Editor of this publication asked me to contribute, which are observations from someone with a racing background who has witnessed the pigeon hobby in a variety of locations and has a business and journalistic eye.

While some of these thoughts are random I hope you find them interesting.

First of all, for a sport that has it's organizational and genetic roots in the tiny country of Belgium it's amazing how different cultures now practice pigeon racing.  The attitudes of the fanciers are often very different from one country to the next.

For example I find it interesting that England has held off adopting electronic clocking.  I've heard the argument that "new technology" shouldn't be allowed to disrupt our sport's traditions.  What's ironic about this is our sport would not exist if it weren't for new technology.  You may not think of the railroad as a new technology, but it certainly was in the late 1800's, exactly the time that the pigeon racing hobby exploded in Europe and North America.   Quite simply, there had never been a fast and inexpensive way to send pigeons any great distance from home until the steam engine arrived.  And, as a new sport, pigeon racing had a significant impact on clock making too.   I've met clock collectors who will tell you that the market for pigeon clocks a century ago was enormous and led to some of the most sophisticated mechanical time pieces ever made.

I've also heard the argument that pensioners can't be expected to pay for a new clock, or that an electronic clock gives a few second edge to clocking.  All this may be true, but I can say that the elderly fanciers I've met in other countries absolutely love their new systems.  They don’t fall down running to the loft, their arthritic hands don’t have to grab a countermark, etc.  If I were a betting man I would say that it may ultimately be a legal loophole that changes the game in England.     If a handicapped person were to sue to be able to use an electronic timer the “anti-discrimination” laws on the books today would likely make it  impossible for the sport to ban their use.  

Laws often have far reaching impacts on the sport in a particular country. More than 20 years ago in the U.S. for example, pigeon enthusiasts convinced the government Postal Service to accept pigeons as "Express Mail".  This is the term for mail guaranteed to be delivered within two days anywhere in the Continental U.S.  You may not think this is a big deal in England, although Amtrak is certainly convenient, but in the States it was a watershed.  Why?  Because the continental U.S. is about forty times larger than the U.K. and there had never been an affordable and reliable way of shipping young, unflown pigeons across the country.  This small change in government policy led to the development of an entirely new kind of pigeon competition, “One Loft Racing”.  Initiated in California, like so many things in the U.S., this centralized, big money type of racing is now common around the world.  And while South Africa claims the biggest handle, the number of one loft races in the States numbers in the hundreds.  In fact this new aspect of the sport has led to a new type of racing fancier, the breeder.  

I've met quite a few of this new "breed", if you'll pardon the pun! These are people who do not race their own pigeons.  They simply breed youngsters and then travel to the many one loft races they can enter them in around the country, or around the world.  The biggest purses are in races held in sunny Southern climes when it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere.  Many of these breeders are very wealthy people who like to gamble.  They are not pigeon fanciers in the traditional sense, and often wouldn't know one end of a scraper from the other.  Some simply buy youngsters from racing studs, enter them in contests and keep no pigeons themselves.  I guess they are more like the people in horse racing who own the horse and let someone else do all the work.   But their very existence springs from an obscure change in the postal code.  Although, with Bird Flu, U.S. fanciers have been struggling to keep this vital delivery program alive.

Speaking of struggling, it is a common refrain that the pigeon sport is dying, and in many places this is true.  However it is certainly not true worldwide.   Obviously the days of a club on every corner in Belgium are long gone and England is suffering the same fate.  However the fanciers that remain are breeding and racing far more birds than their predecessors.  This means fewer pigeon trainers, but just as high a level of pigeon competition as ever.   Bad economic news for clock sellers, business as usual for feed companies.  

I find the state of the hobby in China particularly fascinating.  In 1967, when I was 17, my family moved to Hong Kong where my father worked for an American company.  I had hoped to take up racing there, only to discover that the "bamboo curtain" prevented the pigeon fanciers of Hong Kong from shipping their birds into China to back to Hong Kong.  In fact, mainland China was not only closed to the outside world, it was going through the cultural revolution.  What I didn't realize until I visited Beijing in 2001 and talked to fanciers there, was that during the cultural revolution the Red Guard aggressively attacked anything that detracted from the total devotion to Mao's "Little Red Book".  In other words any hobby, such as raising flowers, painting, or pigeon keeping, was frowned on.  Not just frowned on, but often physically destroyed by the fanatical young members of the Red Guard.  This meant pigeon racing was not permitted and, as I learned from Chinese fanciers who lived through the period, many pigeons, including rare Chinese breeds, were exterminated.  This is a tragedy when you realize that China's imperial court had for centuries supported the development of exotic breeds.   After the cultural revolution ended, and people were able to gradually get back into racing, a principal source of new blood into the country came from stray racing birds that landed on Chinese freighters, particularly in Europe, and were cared for by sailors who knew they could sell them when they sailed home.   The progeny of these strays were then used to compete in races up to 2,000 miles during the 1970's and 1980's.  Again this was due, in part, to limited transportation options preventing more frequent, shorter racing.  Today China probably has as many racing fanciers as the rest of the world put together, which is incredible when you consider the hobby was all but eliminated only a few decades ago.   However it should be noted that the fancy pigeon side of the hobby never experienced anywhere near the resurgence as the racing side has.

Many pigeon commentators credit the rise of the middle class, in countries like China with a parallel growth in pigeon racing.  Not just China but Poland, Rumania, Portugal, Mexico and other developing countries have healthy pigeon racing environments.  But I think there is one more thing that is part of the growth as well.  I've seen first hand how it's not just the middle class that is interested in our hobby.  There are more and more well-to-do people as well.  As I mentioned earlier, the "breeder only" fancier most often represents someone who is interested in the gambling aspect of the hobby.  And, remember this, pigeon racing, globally, is a lot more interesting for wealthy people than ever before.  By that I mean there is a lot of excitement going to Sun City in South Africa or to Las Vegas for a big money one loft race compared to staying at home competing in your local.   Also, there are people who have so much money their real hobby is spending it, and the pigeon racing sport can oblige them as well.  I've met many new fanciers, particularly in China and the U.S.A. who make sure you know how much money they have “invested” in their pigeons.  It's often hundreds of thousands of pounds.  It's an egotistical thing in the same way they brag about the cars they drive or the size of their home.  What's ironic is how seldom they seem to develop decent pigeons, or how little they really know about the birds themselves.  But they certainly know how much they cost!  

What's funny about many of these well-to-do newcomers is that they believe you buy the best pigeons the same way they’d buy a watch.  If it's a Rolex watch it's worth more than a Seiko.    To them the pigeons from a particular fancier are like a brand name. If it's a Janssen it's worth more than a Meulemans.   It really is a function of consumerism, where a century of sophisticated advertising has conditioned people, particularly the Americans and now many Asian countries, to equate price to value.   I get a fair amount of letters from new fanciers and it is sad how often they ask what strain of birds do I think is best, a little like asking me what kind of car I drive.  The reality is that today's winning fanciers, who are brand names themselves, are aggressively crossing their bloodlines every year.  The real winners are adept at creating a witches brew of high performance genes and often pay no heed to pedigree at all.  But they are not about to admit that to the new boys knocking on their door with check book in hand.  If the customer wants a "strain" then, by all means, let him think he's buying a strain.

The same can be said about how these neophyte fanciers read a race sheet.  Top line, page one, that's it.  Who's first?  Who won?  In their minds a bird that wins a single race is much more valuable than a pigeon with a dozen top 5% finishes.   After all, a famous American saying is "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."  I saw this attitude in China as well.  Frankly I think this difference in cultures is one of the reasons Belgium and Holland continue to be the main source of the best bloodlines in the pigeon sport today.  Why?   Well in those countries the best fanciers think long and hard about percentages and not single victories.   They think about performance much more than a paper pedigree.  In other countries, where first place is so important, they often don't even have a word for "prizes".  But in Europe, where the top 20 to 25% of the birds on the result sheet are considered to have won a prize, it's the main topic of conversation.   When you think about it, this is much more logical.  On any given race day, just looking at the impact of the wind, one section of the race course has an advantage over another.  And a great bird in the disadvantaged area can be ignored by the fanciers who only care who comes in first overall.  By following the percentages, a fancier is far more likely to keep and breed from consistent racers, rather than over breeding from a few birds that look good on paper.  At least that's my opinion.

The growth of the internet has helped make more fanciers aware of one another around the world.  If you know where to look, it is easier than ever to see who is really winning in a particular country or region.  These internet statistics are often at odds with the advertising by particular fanciers, at least in the many countries where there is virtually no regulation of the rediculous claims some people make regarding their own results, or those of birds they've acquired from other countries.  Also, don't forget, in Northern Europe pigeon racing is still very much an old man's game.  In spite of the demise of so many great champions, some of the top men are in their 70's and 80's.  If you are trying to track down winning pigeons from such veterans remember they probably won't have a website.  In fact most of them don't even have a computer!  As a result I've noticed that younger fanciers, with glitzy internet sites, are often much better known outside their home country than the old timers who may be beating them every week.  Caveat emptor, buyer beware!

Finally, last winter I was honored to speak at the House of Commons dinner.  My speech, principally about our hobby and it's impact on young people, brought me some very nice mail, with a lot of thought provoking comments.   I've had time to think more about this, and have another observation as to how trends developing in the US may ultimately be the same in the UK.  

It reminds me of when I first met British fancier Frank Tasker, while working on "Marathon", almost 20 years ago.  He traveled with me several times and I was always looking for a place I could get coffee "to go".  As a tea-loving Englishman he thought this was a funny Yankee saying and teased me about it.  The idea of coffee, in a take-away cup, was the farthest thing from his mind, and back then it was all but impossible to find.  Well, twenty years on, this has changed hasn’t it?  The coffee bars along England's motorways are now as exotic as those in the states, maybe more.  It's a small, but telling example of how one culture can blend into another.  Frank and I still joke about it whenever I tell him about some new trend I expect to cross the Atlantic.  

I've been studying childhood issues here in the States for some time.  In addition to my movies about pigeons I've produced many other films, including an educational series on childcare for a national agency that was over twenty hours long.  I often observe trends and try to put them into the context of how they may affect the pigeon sport.  

Well, what is happening in America is not that children are changing, it is that parenting is changing.  Much of it is driven by outside forces, particularly the media.  It is hard to describe the level of paranoia that is part of the average American family today.  Thanks to the phenomenon of 24 hour news coverage, which began with CNN in 1980, any bad thing that happens to a child anywhere in America is broadcast over, and over and over.   Of course England has experienced this as well with the abduction of little Jamie Bulger.  But I think America is far ahead of the UK in the level of parental hysteria.

I live in a remote mountain community of 1,000 people.  Children still walk to school here, but this is now so rare in the rest of America, less than 10% now walk to school, that they are promoting a national Walk to School day.  

Parents in the US will not let children out of their sight.  They have become convinced that monsters lurk on the way to school, in the nearby park, or in every shopping center.   In their paranoia they believe children are more at risk than ever before.

The reality in the States is far different.  If you were born in 1930, some 11% of your generation died before age 20.  For those born in 2000, just a little over 1% are likely to die before age 20.  So it's fair to say America is about one-tenth as dangerous for today's kids as it was for their grandparents!  Believe me, that's not a story the evening news finds exciting.

Of America's 60,000,000 children under 14 years of age,  less than 50 are likely to be abducted and killed in a year, odds greater than 1-in-1,500,000.  To put this in perspective, each American child's lifetime odds of dying in a car crash  is 1-in-228.

What has this all got to with pigeon racing Jim?  Well, here in the States the unfortunate impact of 25 years of this paranoia is not lost on parents and educators.  There's growing evidence that children raised in a fearful, protective cocoon are not particularly healthy or well-rounded human beings.  It's more than the exploding problem of children’s physical obesity from the lack of exercise by not walking to school or not playing in the park.  It’s affecting their minds.  Studies are now revealing that American young people lack self-sufficiency and are themselves unnecessarily paranoid.   They have trouble making their own decisions and counting on their own common sense.

A recent article in Psychology Today reported, "With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life.  That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile and riddled with anxiety.  They are robbed of  identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment."

Most ominous of all, the article summarizes, "We are [meaning America] on our way to creating a nation of wimps."

As my last observation here I  want to point out that our hobby, of raising a phenomenal living creature in the safety of your back garden,  does indeed have a place in modern society.  A more important place than ever!   There's a big difference in little Johnnie being raised indoors with his video game, and being shuttled to one adult-supervised activity after another, versus the profound educational and emotional experience of raising and training his own flock of pigeons.

We know the benefits of animal husbandry.  We understand the emotional satisfaction of creating a living, flying thing.  As this wave of parental paranoia almost certainly rolls across the Atlantic to your shores in the year's ahead, I'm certain that scientific evidence will prove that children need what we have to offer more than ever.   Part of successful marketing is determining where the market is going and getting there with a product or message.   The better we frame our story in terms of the benefits to today's youth, in terms that will open the eyes of parents and educators who are looking for alternatives to this new paranoid cocoon, the longer we can keep our hobby alive.  I predict the interest will be there and it is up to us to be ready.  And if you don't believe me just ask Frank Tasker about "coffee to go".  If he'd bought U.K. coffee company stocks in the early ‘90's, instead of laughing at me, he'd be a millionaire today!

Jim Jenner makes his home in Philipsburg, Montana, USA.  He can be reached at jim@paccomfilms.com and his films are detailed at www.pigeonfilms.com.