King’s College lecturer Jon Day‘s new book delves into the curious world of pigeon fancying and what it means to return home.
The call came through at 8.26 a.m. on the Saturday morning, but I’d been waiting for hours by then, and was beginning to wonder if it would come at all. The message moved southward, rippling down the lines from the north, a single, urgent sentence: ‘The birds are up.’
Brian, the race controller, sounded officious at the end of the line. This was no time for small talk.
‘They were released into a light variable wind at a quarter past seven,’ he said. ‘Visibility was good. The first returns should arrive this evening. The clocks’ll be struck at ten p.m. Have a good race.’
In London the sky was clear, with wisps of cloud scudding high overhead and a light breeze fingering the leaves on the trees. The morning was already hot, and it would only get hotter as the day progressed. Two weeks before, a band of high pressure had moved in to squat over the country and, despite the occasional thunderstorm, it had held. The grass had yellowed. The reservoirs were running dangerously low. There was talk of a hosepipe ban. Saddleworth Moor caught fire and burned for days, lighting up the evening sky with an orange glow. The heat had dried out the land and, in the process, had revealed the presence of ancient archaeological sites. Ghostly outlines of Roman villas and bathhouses appeared in the fields. The plane trees outside my house began to shed their bark in the drought, like snakes sloughing off their skin.
I had been awake since before dawn, worrying. I hoped I’d done enough to prepare the birds for the race. I hoped that they had been given enough food and water in the lorry on the way up. I wondered if they had any sense of the journey they were about to undertake. I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be them.
In the hours before Brian called I checked the weather forecast compulsively, as well as a website monitoring what it called ‘space weather’: the electromagnetic anomalies – sun flares and solar storms – which, some pigeon flyers believe, confuse their birds’ navigational instincts. There was a chance of rain over the Midlands at noon – summer storms rolling in off the North Sea – but the flock wouldn’t arrive there until later in the day, so should avoid the worst of it. The wind was calm. Solar activity was negligible. Conditions seemed promising for good returns.
Preparations for a homing pigeon race – which can feel as much a ritual as it does a competition – begin long before the birds are released. On Wednesday the previous week I had cycled to the clubhouse with the six pigeons I had chosen to enter cooing in the basket strapped to the front of my bicycle. For weeks previously I had worried about which birds to send. It had been a hard season, and I had lost many.
Two had gone missing on a training flight before the racing had even begun, when I released them into a dead sky from a car park at a junction of the M11. One would turn up again three months later no worse for his adventure, but the other I never saw again. I lost another to a hawk on a flight from Cambridge three weeks after the season had started. I lost one from Laceby, one from Berwick-on-Tweed, two from Whitley Bay. One cock had, for a reason known only to himself, taken off on a still day from the roof of my loft and flown away to start a new life on his own, out in the wide and dangerous world.
The birds I had selected for today’s race were healthy and rested, and had been flying well around home for weeks. They were in full feather, having not yet begun their autumn moult. Some were sitting on eggs, which would make them particularly motivated to fly home quickly. At certain periods during the breeding cycle a pigeon’s homing instinct is stronger than at others. Cocks that are driving hens to their nests to lay their eggs, or hens that are sitting on eggs that are just about to hatch, as mine were, are particularly favoured for longer races like this one.
When I arrived at the club I took my pigeons out of the basket one by one and passed them down the line to be marked. To ensure that no one cheats, no fancier, as pigeon racers are known, is allowed to mark his own birds. When they got to the marking station a rubber ring bearing a unique race number was attached to each bird’s leg. This number was recorded on the race sheet alongside a description of the pigeon: sex, age and colouring. After they had been marked the birds were placed in communal baskets, the cocks and hens separated to prevent them harassing each other.
The marking is the moment the birds are registered for the race, but it also provides an opportunity for racers to get a sense of the form of their rivals’ pigeons. As they are passed from hand to hand their weight and condition are quietly assessed. Do they feel sluggish and overfed? Are they in good feather, or too deep in the moult to perform? Are they well balanced in the hand?
The work was done largely in silence, with only the occasional grumble when a number was read out incorrectly, or a pigeon was put into the wrong basket. Those who had finished marking their birds stood to one side, smoking, discussing training strategies and breeding regimes, or moaning about the hawk attacks which, they said, seemed to be becoming more frequent. As they waited they checked the weather on their phones.
Once all the pigeons had been marked the baskets were fastened, the ties crimped with a small tin seal bearing a number and the image of a pigeon. Then the baskets were loaded onto a trailer while the flyers went inside the club to strike the clocks.
Next the birds were driven from the club to a service station on a motorway north of London, where they were loaded onto a larger lorry, along with pigeons from several other clubs. Thurso was an amalgamation race, which meant that birds from clubs across the South of England were racing against each other. The North London Federation, in which I was competing, was open to flyers who lived within a 33-mile radius of Wormwood Scrubs, but fanciers from Kent and Bristol had sent birds to Thurso, too.
After being loaded onto the lorry the pigeons were driven north through the night. They were supposed to arrive by Thursday evening, but the lorry broke down on the way up, and so it wasn’t until Friday that the convoyer finally reached the liberation point: a nondescript car park on the east bank of the River Thurso, at the end of the A9, in the northernmost town in Britain.
One thousand or so pigeons were competing in the 2018 Thurso Classic, one of the longest and most prestigious pigeon races in the club calendar. My six birds would be flying with them. The liberation point was 504 miles to their home loft, in my garden in East London. But pigeons rarely fly as the crow does, choosing instead to follow low-lying land and avoiding large bodies of open water, and so the distance they would travel would likely be far greater. With a following wind they might fly at 50 miles per hour, and would be able to cover the distance in twelve hours or so. But Thurso was famously unpredictable, and it was the hottest race day anyone could remember. It would probably take them far longer to home, if they made it back on the day at all.
Extract from Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return by Jon Day (John Murray, £16.99). Buy a copy here.