Eastern Courier : January 21st 2010
12 EASTERN COURIER, JANUARY 21, 2011 NEWS High flyers: Pigeons in action above Tony Thum's Mellons Bay home. Photos: JASON DORDAY Athletes of the sky Passion for pigeons: Enthusiast Dave Brough has been racing pigeons for 40 years. Spreading their wings: Tony Thum lets his pigeons out of the loft for their daily exercise. Next generation: Dave Brough cradles a five-day-old pigeon. It's a sport that is thought to date back as far as 220AD but these days pigeon racing often slips under the radar. This is not so for a group of Auckland enthusiasts. Reporter Amy McGillivray delves into the world of pigeon racing to find out what the sport is all about. There are races for almost every animal imaginable: Ostriches, cows, crabs, snails, wiener dogs -- you name it. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to find there is still an active pigeon racing com- munity in Auckland -- but it did. When I stumbled across the Auckland Racing Pigeon Federation website I imagined birds waddling along a track towards a finish line before my brain kicked in and stories of homing pigeons delivering mail sprung to mind. To most they are the rats of the sky but to enthusiast Tony Thum, 61, they are the athletes of the sky''. Mr Thum is relatively new to the sport, having only kept pigeons for the past five years. I had pigeons when I was very young but never raced them. But I've always been interested in birds and wanted to have an aviary with parrots and stuff,'' he says. The Mellons Bay resident discovered his passion for the sport when he found himself watching a friend's pigeons come home after a race. They were just coming home from Wellington and that sort of impressed me. The way they came back just like little missiles on to the landing deck.'' And watching them come home is still just as exciting. I get a big kick out of the time they arrive from a race -- when they turn up and still look as fresh and fit as the day you put them in. The first bird home often looks the freshest.'' With breeding stock, young birds, hens and cocks combined, Mr Thum can have up to 60 pigeons in the loft at the back of his property. A lot of work and strategy goes into breeding and train- ing the creatures for racing. Mr Thum carefully selects his breeders and experiments with the pairings in order to produce the best possible racing pigeons. Then begins the training. The birds are let out of the loft once a day to explore the area and get some exercise. Initially the young ones stay close to home but by two months old they are ventur- ing further afield. They'll just take off and you won't see them again for an hour. God knows where they go,'' Mr Thum says. The young pigeons' first big adventure comes at four or five months when Mr Thum takes them to the back of Howick and releases them to find their way home. From there they are slowly taken further away for train- ing runs -- Manukau, then Papakura, Bombay and then Hamilton. But racing birds well is not as simple as loading them on to a truck and sending them to the starting point. Federation secretary and treasurer Fred Van Lier, 58, says there are many different ways to fly pigeons but one thing remains the same. The motivation to come backisalottodowiththe way pigeons fly,'' he says. A popular technique is the widowhood method. The cocks and hens are separated, but still able to see each other, before the cocks are sent to the race. It is the desire to be with their partner that encourages the birds to get home as fast as possible. It's all sex driven,'' Mr Van Lier says. Another method is to fly birds who are nesting. If there are eggs or young chicks in the nest both parents have extra motiv- ation to get home quickly. Pigeon racing veteran of 40 years Dave Brough, 65, prefers the latter method. This relies heavily on the timing with which the breeder allows the birds to nest. I just race on a more natu- ral system so they're coming home to hens on eggs,'' the Cockle Bay resident says. I like racing hens. The hens race best when they are sitting on eggs that are 10 days old.'' In good conditions the creatures can reach a top speed of about 120kmh. Last year's race from Invercargill saw the winning bird make the 1290km journey in 15 hours -- an aver- age speed of 86kmh. Mr Thum says he has great respect for the birds and how they navigate their way back to the loft. But he has stopped short of naming his pigeons. You get attached to them. You know the birds by now, especially the ones who race and fly well. They're fun to have and they've all got a bit of charac- ter to them.'' Mr Van Lier has been racing pigeons for 14 years and agrees the birds are not quite pets. The members' love of the sport is clear through their dedication to raising and training the birds. It may be that commitment which explains the lack of young blood in the clubs. It's a pity it's a dying sport. Young kids don't want to be tied up with this sort of thing,'' Mr Brough says. As an oustide observer, pigeon racing still strikes me as unusual but, then again, the same could be said of encouraging dogs to chase a mechanical rabbit around a track. I was half expecting to be talking to a bunch of crazy cat lady types but what I got instead was men who are passionate about their hobby. Keeping birds has never really been my thing. The novelty of having a cockatiel wore off after a few weeks as did Mum's tolerance for the mess -- there were no objections when a family friend offered to adopt him. So that rules pigeon racing out for me. Maybe I could try my hand at hamster racing instead. Racing evolves The basic idea of pigeon racing is not complicated -- the birds are taken to a start point and sent on their way. But there is more to it than that. Basketing evenings are held at the Auckland Racing Pigeon Feder- ation's Michael Park clubrooms before a weekend race. Birds are registered, scanned, put into baskets and loaded on to the truck for the drive to the starting point. Races range from the 130km journey from Pirongia to the 1290km flight back from Invercargill. But the end point of the race differs because each bird returns to its own loft, meaning the winner is determined based on velocity rather than simply the time the bird arrives home. Most members have an electronic timer in their loft which scans each bird's barcode as they return and computer programmes that work out the distance and speed.
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