Early wall painting of man with dove
The first mention of the domestication of the rock dove was found in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets (pictographical writing on clay tablets) back over 5000 years. However, it is likely that rock doves were domesticated by Neolithic man as far back as 10,000 years ago in and around the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates. It was at this time that Neolithic man was starting to cultivate cereal crops and domesticate animals for food. In pre-history it is likely that rock doves lived alongside man in caves and on cliff faces.
Images of pigeons were first found on the reconstructed façade of an excavated temple dedicated to the goddess Ninhursag (Queen of Heaven and Earth) at Al’Ubaid in Sumeria in 3000 BC. Many more clay images of pigeons have been found during excavations of sites in Iraq and Crete dating back to 3000 BC. During the excavation of an Egyptian tomb in 3000 BC, the bones of pigeons were found in what is thought to have been the remains of a funerary meal. Although images of the pigeon have been found dating as far back as 3000 BC, it is not clear what role the pigeon played in these ancient civilisations and to what extent the bird was domesticated.
Ancient Egyptian tomb 2950 BC
Later, in 1100 BC, King Rameses III sacrificed 57,000 pigeons to the god Ammon at Thebes, confirming that the pigeon was well on the way to being domesticated not only for food but also for religious purposes. Mention of pigeon sacrifices can also be found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
King Rameses 111
The pigeon is probably best known for its ability to return ‘home’ from long distances and has been used extensively by
King Rameses 111
man for this purpose. The earliest reference to the pigeon being used to carry messages dates back to 2500 BC and the tradition has continued throughout history. The Romans and ancient Greeks used the pigeon extensively for carrying messages and the first sophisticated messaging service was established in Syria and Persia in the 12th century AD, with messages being carried by pigeons from city to city.
Later, in the 19th century, the pigeon was used for commercial purposes, carrying messages for financial institutions and news agencies in Europe and even providing an airmail service in New Zealand.
Carrier Pigeons - World War 1
In the 20th century, pigeons were used extensively in both Great Wars to carry messages, and as a result of their bravery and heroism, tens of thousands of human lives were saved. The last messaging service using pigeons was disbanded in 2006 by the police force in the city of Orrisa, India.
Dedicated pigeon houses, or dovecotes, were believed to have existed in very early times in southern Palestine and later in Egypt in 44 BC.
Ancient Egyptian pigeon house 44 AD
However, a detailed and well-preserved Roman mosaic dating from 200 BC shows a dovecote with a thatched roof in which there are numerous flight holes with pigeons perching both on the roof and flying above it. This confirms that the pigeon was being bred in dedicated facilities over 2200 years ago. The Sicilian historian Diadorous, writing about the period circa 300 BC, also described a mud building with a reed thatched roof that was used to house domesticated pigeons, further confirming that organised domestication had been established in this period.
The dovecote has played an essential role in the domestication of the pigeon throughout history, with facilities ranging from extremely crude early examples in the form of basic clay pots through to highly ornate detached buildings housing many thousands of birds in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Dovecote, Dieppe, France
Pigeons were housed and bred within these structures for food, their excrement (which was used as fertiliser and as an ingredient for gunpowder), sport and as messengers. The tradition of housing pigeons in man-made structures continued until the 20th century and is described in more detail in the Dovecotes article.
The pigeon was domesticated not only for its ability to return home and as a source of food and by-products, but also for the purposes of sport. Man has found many sporting uses for the pigeon throughout history, with the earliest known example being the sport of Triganieri. It is unclear when this ancient sport first started, but the early Greeks and Romans are believed to have participated in it.
Falconry in the 17th century
The sport involves each participant using captive pigeons, released from several pigeon lofts ordovecotes at the same time, and to lure as many birds as possible away from adjoining lofts using specially trained pigeons. The captured birds were either killed or held for ransom. This sport has continued through the centuries and is still played today. In the Turkish city of Urfa the sport involves over 500 flocks in a single event.
Other sporting uses for the pigeon included the use of falconry, known as the ‘Sport of Kings’, where both domesticated and wild pigeons were killed for sport. The sport is believed to have started prior to the 10th century AD. At the end of the 17th century, with the advent of the shotgun, falconry dwindled in popularity, but a new, more deadly sport took its place – pigeon shooting. In the Middle East, domesticated pigeons are still used today as bait for falconers.
Pigeon Cage Trap
Organised pigeon shoots started in the 18th century where huge numbers of domesticated birds were released and shot at point-blank range. Incredibly, the sport continues today in the USA where huge numbers of feral pigeons are cage-trapped by unscrupulous pest controllers and netted by illegal gangs and then sold to shooting clubs. The birds are then released in front of shooters, many with semi-automatic weapons, and shot at point-blank range.
Probably the most common use for the domesticated pigeon today is pigeon racing, a sport that is popular in virtually every country in the world. It is not known when pigeon racing for sport first started, probably in very early history, but pigeon racing
as we know it today first started in Belgium in 1850. The sport grew in popularity and peaked in 1960, when there were 170,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK alone. Today the sport is in decline, but pigeons that are considered to be good breeding stock can exchange hands for as much as £65,000.
Since its domestication many thousands of years ago, the pigeon has been revered by many religions, including Hindu, Islam, Christian and Sikh. Although Neolithic man (circa 8500 BC onwards) undoubtedly domesticated the rock dove, there is little indication that the bird was used for anything but food.
Ancient Persian Dovecote
The first historical indication of there being religious significance associated with the domesticated pigeon was in 3000 BC during excavations of temples and tombs in Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Crete. Images of pigeons were first found in an excavated temple dedicated to the goddess Ninhursag (Queen of Heaven and Earth) at Al’Ubaid in Sumeria. On the reconstructed façade of the temple, a limestone frieze was found showing a row of sitting pigeons. Another discovery, found in Copper/Bronze Age tombs (3rd/4th millennium BC) excavated on the island of Cyprus, revealed large number of clay bowls, some decorated with doves. These closely resemble similar clay bowls found on the island of Crete. The bowls are thought to have been used for sacrificial worship or have some other religious significance.
Excavations of tombs dating back to 1600 BC at Mycenae in southern Greece revealed two ornaments that depict doves.
Greek ruins at Mycenae 1600 BC
One is of a goddess holding a dove in either hand, and another perched on her head, and the other depicts an altar upon which doves are perched. Another excavation in Canaan (modern day Israel and Lebanon) dating back to 1200 BC found a terracotta relief depicting a Dove-goddess holding a dove in either hand. Further examples have been excavated from Canaanite temples dating between to 1100-1300 BC, one showing a model of a shrine shaped roughly like a dovecote with pigeons sitting within the dovecote holes.
King Rameses 111
These examples not only confirm the religious significance of the dove in early history but also confirm that the dove was bred in dedicateddovecote facilities for religious worship.
The pigeon was used as a sacrifice in early history, with King Rameses III, King of Egypt, sacrificing 57,000 pigeons to the god Ammon at Thebes in 1100 BC.
Noah and the Ark
Noah and Dove of Peace
The dove features strongly in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and references to frequent sacrifices exist in both. There are a number of references to the sacrifice of doves in the Talmud, a series of Jewish texts compiled between AD 250-500. Although the texts were compiled in AD 250-500, they are thought to relate to much earlier periods. The texts not only describe the sacrifices but also how the sacrificial birds should be reared and the correct ways of killing them. The dove is better known for its part in the Old
Babylonian Talmud Texts
Testament story of the Great Flood, however, when one returned to Noah with an olive branch. As a result, the dove has always been linked with peace and good news and is still released at the start of the Olympic Games today for this reason.
Roman Mosaic 3rd Century AD
The Romans had a great affinity with the pigeon and although they sacrificed the dove to the goddess Venus, and therefore revered the bird, they also bred different varieties and used the pigeon widely as a messenger. Historian and philosopher Caius Pliny, writing in the 1st century AD, says: “Many people have quite a mania for pigeons, building turrets for them on house roofs and tracing the pedigrees of single birds…”
The pigeon is commonly depicted throughout the Roman period but never in more detail than the superb Dove Mosaic discovered during the 18th century at Emperor Hadrian’s Villa. Another detailed mosaic, dating from 200 BC, shows a priest beside a shrine with an adjoining dovecote. The dovecote is detailed with pigeons on the roof and flying above it. This mosaic further confirms the connection between worship and the breeding of pigeons.
Depicted with Dove
Depicted with Dove
Islam has had strong associations with the pigeon throughout history and that association continues today. The prophet Mohammed (AD 570-632) is thought to have received divine messages from a dove sitting on his shoulder, and large flocks of pigeons were, and still are today, found in the holy city of Mecca, where breeding sites are provided for the birds and where pilgrims to Mecca purchase grain to feed
Pigeons in Flight at Mosque
them. At the shrine of Mohammed in Medina (western Saudi Arabia) the thousands of pigeons that gather there are commonly
Pigeons Waiting Outside
21st Century Mosque
to be Fed
referred to as the ‘Prophet’s birds’. Pigeon racing and fancying is still a popular sport in the Muslim world and the breed of pigeon known as the ‘Arabian Laughter’ is believed to have been introduced by Mohammed and is still bred today.
The Hindu religion has also revered the dove throughout history, with the bird being mentioned as far back as 1500-1200 BC in the Rig Veda, an ancient hymn dedicated to the Aryan Deities.
There are countless illustrations of the pigeon throughout Hindu history, depicted with various deities.
Pigeon Feeding in India
The pigeon is still revered today, with huge flocks of pigeons being fed on a daily basis in temples throughout India, in many towns and cities in the UK and many other European cities.
Guru Gobind Singh
The Sikh religion, founded in the 16th century, considers the dove to be a symbol of peace, harmony and goodwill, and the bird is widely revered. The warrior Guru Govind Singh is commonly depicted with a dove on his right hand or shoulder,
Guru Gobind Singh with Dove
confirming that although he was a warrior he was also a man of peace. The dove is also linked with reincarnation in the Sikh religion and it is believed that after death the soul is taken to heaven by a dove, which may be why so many Sikhs regularly feed pigeons. It is believed that to look after the dove in your lifetime will ensure that your soul is taken to heaven upon death. As with the Hindu religion, Sikhs feed pigeons around temples in India and throughout the UK and many European cities today.
The feral pigeon that is directly descended from the domesticated rock dove is now perceived as being a pest and a nuisance in towns and cities throughout the world, and yet the bird is still revered in the 21st century.
Pigeons Being Fed
Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs continue to revere the pigeon and the huge flocks of pigeons that can be seen in and around temples and places of worship confirm this. In towns and cities throughout the UK the continued growth of multi-racial groups has ensured that the feral pigeon is, to some small degree, still a symbol of peace and harmony.
The first historical mention of the pigeon being used to carry messages in wartime was in the city of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia in 2500 BC. The ruler of the city released two doves to carry the news of the relief of the city from its warring neighbours.
Hannibal Crossing the Alps
Later, in 53 BC, Hannibal was thought to have used pigeons to carry despatches during the Battle of Modena, and Julius Caesar is also believed to have used pigeons to carry messages during the conquest of Gaul (northern Italy, France, Belgium and western Switzerland) from 58 to 51 BC.
Hannibal Crossing the Alps
Pigeons also played an important role during the siege of Paris in 1870-71, where birds were smuggled out of the city in balloons and then used to carry messages to cities throughout France.
First Balloon to Leave
During Siege in 1870
It is, however their feats of bravery and the thousands of human lives that they saved in the two Great Wars that is more often remembered.
Pigeons were used extensively throughout the First Great War and continued to play an important role in the Second Great War, but to a lesser degree due to advances in technology and communications. Pigeons were most commonly used as message carriers and the role that the birds played in the Intelligence Service cannot be underestimated. Pigeons were used to maintain contact with resistance movements across Europe, often flying over enemy territories where they stood a far greater chance of delivering their message than an airplane or vehicle.
World War I
However, due to a combination of shell fire, small arms fire, poison gas, predation and adverse weather conditions, fewer than 10% ever returned.
In 1915, at the start of the First Great War, two Pigeon Corps were established on the Western Front, consisting of 15 pigeon stations each with 4 birds and a handler. The Pigeon Corps was so successful that further birds were recruited and the service expanded considerably. By the end of the war the Pigeon Corps consisted of 400 men and 22,000 pigeons in 150 mobile lofts.
Pigeon Wagon World War I
Messages would be put into a small canister and then attached to the pigeon’s leg. The bird would be released and would return to its loft behind allied lines, tripping a wire as it did so and sounding a bell to confirm that a bird had landed.
'President Wilson' War
Hhero, World War I
Mobile were used so that birds and their handlers could be moved as required during fighting, with messages being relayed to command posts.
Mobile Pigeon Loft World War I
Pigeon lofts were also established on home soil in the First Great War, with each airfield along the east coast of England having its own loft so that pigeons could be dispatched with messages in the event of invasion.
London Bus Converted
to Mobile Pigeon Loft,
World War I
As pigeons can fly at incredible speeds, over 125 kilometres per hour, this method of communication was faster and more reliable than the very basic telegraph systems in service during the First Great War.
‘The Mocker’, War Hero,
World War I
Both the Belgium and French armed services used pigeons extensively during the First Great War, with an estimated 21,000 pigeons losing their lives in active service.
French Pigeon Corps, World War I
Estimates of British pigeons lost in the First Great War vary, but at least 100,000 birds are thought to have lost their lives in military service.
Many pigeons in both Great Wars were awarded for their bravery and their heroism. One example in the First Great War was a pigeon named ‘Red Cock’, who was awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery, considered to be the equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Red Cock was released from a torpedoed trawler and returned to his loft with a message carrying the grid reference of the sinking boat. As a result, the crew were saved, although the captain, who released the pigeon, was mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The Dickin medal is awarded to any animal that has distinguished itself through an act of bravery in wartime, and of all the animals that have been recognised for this award, the pigeon has been recognised more times than any. Of the 55 medals awarded to date, pigeons have been recognised 32 times.
Probably the most famous recipient of an award for bravery in the First Great War was a British pigeon called Cher Ami, which was donated by British pigeon fanciers to the US Army Signal Corps.
On 3rd October 1918, 500 men from a battalion of the 77th Infantry became trapped and cut off near Argonne in north-eastern France with no food or ammunition.
Major Charles Whittlesey
The troops were also being bombarded by friendly fire. Within 24 hours of becoming cut off, over 300 men had been lost and with no other options available to him, the Commander, Major Charles Whittlesey, wrote a note saying: “Many wounded, we cannot evacuate”, and attached the note to a carrier pigeon.
The bird was immediately shot down by the Germans. A second bird was dispatched with a message which read: “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” The second bird was also shot down.
US soldiers attaching message to pigeon World War 1
The last bird was called for, Cher Ami, and Major Whittlesey wrote a final message saying: “We are along road parallel to 276:4. Own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For Heaven’s sake, stop it!” and attached the message to Cher Ami.
Mobile Pigeon Loft, World War 1
The bird was immediately shot through the breast by enemy fire and fell to the ground, but managed to get back into the air. Cher Ami then flew the 25 miles back to his loft at Division Headquarters through a constant barrage of enemy fire and made the journey in 25 minutes. As a result, 194 men from the 77th Infantry Division were saved. Cher Ami had delivered the message despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, covered in blood, and with a leg hanging by only a tendon. He became a hero of the 77th Division and medics managed to save his life and replace his leg with a wooden one.
The Lost Battalion, 77th Division
When the bird was well enough to travel he was sent back to the USA and became the mascot of the Department of Service. The pigeon was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for his heroic service in delivering 12 important messages in Verdun.
Australian Pigeon Lofts
He died at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 13, 1919 from the wounds he received in battle and was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931. He also received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of his extraordinary service during World War I.
In the Second Great War, pigeons continued to be used throughout Europe and as far afield as Burma and India. The American and Australian Services also used pigeons extensively and had their own pigeon units operating in many different countries. Allied bomber crews usually carried a pair of pigeons so that in the event that the plane was shot down, the birds could be released with details of the crash site.
Pigeon Message Capsule,
World War 2
Wireless communication could not be used, so a message with a grid reference offered surviving crews the only hope of rescue. One example of this was on 23rd February 1942 when a damaged Beaufort bomber had to ditch into the sea off the Norwegian coast after being damaged during a raid. One of the carrier pigeons escaped from its container after the damaged aircraft had broken up on contact. The bird managed to travel the 129 miles back to its base, covered in oil from the damaged plane and delivered its message. The crew were rescued as a result.
Pigeon Carrying Vest,
World War 2
In 1943 a pigeon called White Vision was awarded the Dickin medal for “…delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an air crew while serving with the RAF in October 1943”.
Paratrooper with Pigeon
Harness, World War 2
A Catalina Flying Boat came down close to the Hebrides in heavy seas and bad weather and rescue operations by sea were hindered due to extreme weather conditions. An air search was impossible due to heavy fog. White Vision was dispatched from the Catalina and flew the 60 miles back to her loft with the position of the aircraft.
World War 2 Paratrooper
with Carrier Pigeon
White Vision battled over heavy seas, with visibility of only a hundred metres in places and against a headwind of 25 miles per hour. The search was resumed in light of the information provided by White Vision and the crew were found and saved.
In 1940 over 300 crates of pigeons were dropped into Enemy-occupied areas of Europe, each bird being packed into a single box with enough food for 10 days.Instructions and a questionnaire were also included in the box. The idea was that if found by an ally, information about enemy movement could be put inside the container on the bird’s leg and the bird released to fly back to its loft in Britain. An estimated 16,544 pigeons were parachuted into occupied Europe during the Second Great War but only 1,842 returned.
World War 2 Pigeon Carrier with Message Equipment
World War 2 Pigeon Carrier with Message Equipment
Message Enclosed in Pigeon Carrier
However, important information was received via the birds, particularly information relating to exact positions of the V1 flying bomb site in Peenemunde in Germany. Pigeons were also used extensively for aerial photography.
Pigeon with Message
Capsule and Harness
An automatic miniature camera was mounted to the bird’s breast via a canvass harness and pigeons were then flown over areas of strategic importance to capture images. When the bird arrived back at its loftthe camera was removed and the film developed, often providing crucially important information about enemy troop movements and air bases.
World War 2, Pigeon
The following quote, from Major General Fowler, Chief of the Department of Signals and Communications for the British Army, sums up just what a vitally important role the pigeon played in wartime:
“It is the pigeon on which we must and do depend when every other method fails. During quiet periods we can rely on the telephone, telegraph, flag signals, our dogs and various other ways in use on the front with the British Army, but when the battle rages and everything gives way to barrage and machine-gun fire, to say nothing of gas attacks and bombing, it is to the pigeon that we go for succour. When the troops are lost or surrounded in the mazes on the front, or are advancing and yet beyond the known localities, then we depend absolutely on the pigeon for our communications. Regular methods in such cases are worthless and it is at just such times that we need most messengers that we can rely on. In pigeons we have them. I am glad to say that they have never failed us.”
In 2004 an impressive memorial to commemorate all the animals and birds killed during wartime was erected in Hyde Park. Pigeons have been given pride of place on the wall of the sculpture where they are carved in relief, with two pack mules in the foreground weighed down with munitions and cannon parts.
Memorial to Animals Lost in War, Hyde Park
Memorial to Animals
in War, Hyde Park
Huge numbers of animals and birds lost their lives in both Great Wars, particularly the First Great War, with 8 million horses being lost and pigeon losses in the hundreds of thousands. Further impressive memorials to the pigeon bravery and heroism in wartime can be found in Brussels, Lille and Berlin-Spandau. Most died in appalling circumstances.
Dickin Medal For Bravery
The following pigeons received the Dickin medal for bravery:
The first historical mention of pigeons being used for the purposes of sport is in the Jewish Talmud (AD 200 – 500). The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. Within the Talmud there is a definition of a pigeon trainer as being someone who deploys decoy birds to attract other birds from another loft or dovecote. This reference suggests that the ancient pigeon flying sport of Triganieri, or a version of this sport, may have been first practiced as far back as AD200.
The sport of Triganieri is thought to have originated in Modena in northern Italy during the 14th century.
The Modena breed of pigeon, as it is known today, was known as the Triganica when mentioned in the chronicles of Modena dating back to 1328. Breeders of the Triganica pigeon were known as Triganieri, the term that is now used to describe the sport itself. Having originated in Italy, the sport became widely followed in many countries, including Persia, Spain and Egypt. The sport is still followed today, with references to it being actively pursued in New York. In the Turkish city of Urfa the sport can involve over 500 flocks in a single event.
Triganieri, Modena in 14th Century
The ancient sport of Triganieri involved training pigeons from one loft to lure pigeons from otherlofts back ‘home’. The sport was normally undertaken by those pigeon keepers who owned rooftop pigeon lofts, and highly organised events involved large numbers of participating pigeon keepers and birds. Flights of pigeons were released at the same time and allowed to fly together before being brought back to their respective lofts by their owners, normally by signalling to the birds with flags and whistles.
The sport was usually amicable, with birds being returned to their rightful owners. However, the sport could be highly competitive, with rules for the game varying depending in what part of the world it was played. In many cases, captured birds were killed and some pigeon keepers even resorted to re-releasing captured birds to fly back to their ‘home’ loft with a phial of gunpowder attached to their tail feathers. The gunpowder was primed to explode on contact with the competitor’s flocks or when the bird arrived back to its loft.
Dovecote-bred pigeons were commonly used for the sport of falconry. Of course hawks and falcons were commonly used to kill wild pigeons and in fact still are today in many countries worldwide, particularly the Middle East and the UK. Pigeons were also used to train falcons, using a live pigeon as a lure rather than the more common feathered lure.
When trying to catch a hawk or falcon that was reluctant to return to its handler, particularly when young birds were being trained, a live pigeon was sometimes tethered to a post in an effort to tempt the hawk back. In Holland this method was also commonly used to tempt wild migrating raptors into traps for resale. At the end of the 17th century the sport of falconry started to die out with the advent of the firearm.
Queen Elizabeth 1st
In the late 18th century, organised pigeon shooting became a popular sport in England, with tame dovecote-bred birds being used as targets. Up to 120 birds were used during one event. Early ‘meets’ took place in Ealing and Battersea, with large sums of money being wagered during competitions. Later, organised pigeon shooting clubs were established, with the famous Hurlingham Club being founded in London in 1869.
Hurlingham House, Fulham
The birds that were used as targets in these shoots became quite highly prized, with members of clubs like the Hurlingham Club paying as much as half a crown per bird. This was a considerable sum in 1896 and it therefore comes as no surprise to learn that members of these clubs were wealthy, with the sport attracting individuals from the House of Commons and the House of Lords and even royalty.
Olympic Games Poster,
Incredibly, the Summer Olympic Games held in Paris in 1900 included live pigeon shooting as a demonstration event, but due to public outrage, it was never granted official status. Even more incredible is the fact that over 200 years after the shooting of domesticated pigeons for sport first started in England, the state of Pennsylvania in the USA continues the tradition. Several shooting clubs in Pennsylvania host pigeon shoots where captive feral pigeons are released from traps and shot at point-blank range with automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
Pigeon Shoots in Pennsylvania
A majority of the pigeons sold to these clubs are feral pigeons that have been illegally netted for the purpose. Pest control companies also cage-trap feral pigeons for their clients, supposedly as a method of bird control, and sell the live birds to shooting clubs. The continuance of this barbaric ‘sport’ has caused great controversy across America, but even in light of huge opposition, live pigeon shoots continue today in Pennsylvania.
Pigeon Cage Trap
Pigeon racing as we know it today is the sport most commonly associated with pigeons and a sport which is still enjoyed by large numbers of enthusiasts worldwide. The modern day sport of pigeon racing started in Belgium in 1850 and within 20 years had made its way across the Channel and was being enjoyed in the UK. One of the most famous pigeon ‘fanciers’ of the 19th century was the naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin, who was a member of two London pigeon clubs.
By 1896 the National Homing Union was established as a governing body for the sport in the UK. That body is still in existence today and is now known as the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, with a further six Unions overseeing the sport in the UK, including the Scottish, Irish and Welsh Homing Unions and the North West and North East Homing Unions. The sport in the UK is represented on the world’s ruling body, the FCI (Federation Colombophile Internationale) which regulates the sport worldwide.
Pigeon races are organised and controlled by local pigeon racing clubs who transport the birds to various release sites, both in the UK and in Europe, from where they are released to fly back to their ‘loft’.
Pigeons are released to fly over a carefully measured distance during a race and the time it takes the animal to cover the specified distance is then measured. The bird's rate of travel is then calculated and compared with that of all the other pigeons in the race to determine
Old Timing Clock
which pigeon returned at the highest speed. The winner is the bird with the highest velocity. The calculation is the distance flown divided by the time taken. The traditional method of timing pigeons in a race is to place a rubber band on the leg of each bird – each ring has a unique serial number. When the bird returns to the ‘home’ loft the rubber ring is removed and placed into a sealed clock which records the official time. From this timestamp an average speed is measured and the winner can then be identified.
Large Modern Pigeon Loft
The ‘real’ time the pigeon arrives at its loft is not necessarily the time that is recorded, as the owner has to catch the bird, remove the ring and then insert it into the clock.
Pigeon Racing Rings
As races can be won or lost by seconds rather than minutes, this system is not ideal. Furthermore, as the pigeon is aware that the removal of the ring may be uncomfortable, it may not be as willing as it might otherwise be to be caught by its owner to have the ring removed.
Pigeon Racing Rings
In an effort to update the system of recording arrival times, an electronic timing system is now more commonly used where the arrival of the bird is recorded automatically. Each bird is fitted with a band that contains an RFID chip (radio-frequency identification), which is automatically read as the bird arrives at the loft. A pad or antenna is placed at the entry point to theloft
Selection of Pigeon Timing Clocks
and this scans the RFID chip as the bird arrives. The electronic clock is linked to the pad or antenna and the serial number on the transponder ring is recorded along with the precise time of arrival. This system means that the bird’s owner does not have to be present at the loft when the bird returns.
In the early part of the 20th century, pigeons were transported to release sites in horse-drawn carriages, but today huge articulated lorries with all modern conveniences for both pigeons and owners transport thousands of birds to a single race.
Pigeon Transporter and Release
The sport has definitely moved with the times and the ‘flat cap’ image so often associated with pigeon racing is now a thing of the past. Pigeon racing is not only a global sport, it is a rich industry with stud pigeons and race winners fetching huge sums of money. One pigeon called Playboy has recently been purchased from its Belgian owner, Mr Van Roy, by a Japanese businessman, for a record $144,000 (£78,404), more than twice the usual price.
Playboy won the 620-mile Barcelona race in 2008, a high point in the pigeon racing calendar, and as a result Mr Van Roy had been inundated with offers for him.
It is common for pigeons to fail to return home after a race, with large numbers of birds falling prey to exhaustion, weather conditions and birds of prey. Many of the survivors join feral flocks in urban areas and integrate quickly with feral birds.
Some experts believe that the considerable numbers of racing birds lost annually to feral flocks has a significant impact on the size of feral flocks and pigeon-related problems in urban areas. A major disaster befell tens of thousands of racing pigeons released from Nantes in France as part of a race held to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Racing Pigeon Association in England (1997).
Pigeon Race 1997
Some 60,000 pigeons were released in Nantes but only a few birds ever arrived back at their lofts throughout southern England. It is not clear what happened to the birds, or whether any survived, but one theory put forward is that the sonic boom created by Concorde as it flew over the English Channel, at the precise time the pigeons would have been at the same point, completely disorientated the birds and compromised their inbuilt navigation system.
There are many theories about how pigeons manage to return ‘home’ when released 100s of miles away from theirloft. A champion racing pigeon can be released 400-600 miles away from its home and still return within the day. It is believed that the instinct to return to a mate and nest is a powerful motivator, but this does not explain the ability to travel such extraordinary distances and at such speeds. An adult pigeon in good condition can achieve average speeds of up to 125 kmph on short to middle distance flights and fly at an altitude of 6,000 feet. A 10-year study carried out by Oxford University concluded that pigeons use roads and motorways to navigate, in some cases even changing direction at motorway junctions. Other theories include navigation by use of the earth’s magnetic field, using visual clues such as landmarks, navigating by the sun and even using infrasounds (low frequency seismic waves).
The sport of pigeon racing does not always attract good publicity and the darker side of the sport was recently put under the spotlight as a result of an extremely small number of pigeon fanciers bringing the sport into disrepute through their actions. A series of crimes against birds of prey, carried out by pigeon fanciers according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (), hit the headlines in 2007 and 2008. The RSPB reported several cases of 'sickening cruelty' relating to attacks on peregrine falcons and their nests – the peregrine falcon is the natural predator of the pigeon and peregrines do take racing pigeons as natural prey.
Poisoned Golden Eagle
In 2007, 11 members of the National Birmingham Roller Pigeon club faced prison sentences in the USA having been convicted of a range of crimes against hawks and falcons, including spraying birds caught in illegal cage traps with ammonia and bleach, shooting hawks with shotguns and pellet guns and cutting the talons from trapped birds. All the men charged confirmed they had been protecting their racing pigeons. However, a majority of those involved with the sport of pigeon racing would never condone the actions of this small minority. Pigeon fanciers in the UK commonly raise money for various charities and raised over £35,000 toward the erection of ‘The Animals in War Memorial’ in Hyde Park, commemorating the many animals that died in both Great Wars, including the 100,000+ pigeons that died whilst on active duty.
Poisoned Red Kite
The annual Royal Pigeon Racing show in Blackpool is attended by many thousands of pigeon fanciers and all proceeds from the event are also donated to charities.
Pigeon racing saw a massive increase in popularity at the end of the First Great War, and between the two wars the sport was enjoyed by entire families. The popularity of the sport peaked in the 1950s,
Memorial to Animals Lost
in War, Hyde Park
with the National Homing Union receiving Royal patronage and becoming the Royal National Homing Union, later to become the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA), as it is known today. Prior to 1987 it was impossible to calculate the number of members of the RPRA, but in 1987 a single member subscription system was brought in, allowing a true assessment of the membership for the first time. In 1989 the total membership for the RPRA was 60,000. The RPRA is now a thriving business with an annual turnover of £1.2 million and offices in Cheltenham and Welshpool.
There has been a marked decline in the sport in recent years which is blamed, certainly in part, on the restrictions imposed on keeping pigeons on residential properties. Due to the negative and inaccurate publicity generated by the pest control industry, suggesting that pigeons are disease carriers, objections are quickly raised if a pigeon loft is erected on a residential property.
Alternative sites for racing pigeon lofts are almost impossible to find and there is the inevitable risk of vandalism and theft associated with remote lofts. The future for pigeon racing is unsure in the long-term but although the sport is in decline at present, it is far from dying out. It must be hoped that the sport will continue long into the future and help to raise the profile of a much maligned and unique bird that has given so much to man and yet has been rewarded with hate and persecution in the 21st century.
Greek Poet Homer
The breeding of pigeons for the purpose of enhancing size, shape, colour or behaviour is thought to have started over 3000 years ago, but little historical evidence of early breeding exists. The first mention of pigeons being bred for colour appears to be in a poem written by the Greek poet Homer in 950 BC when he referred to ‘Messene’s towers for silver doves renowned’.
Greek Philosopher Socrates
The reference to silver doves suggests that the rock dove, from which all varieties of pigeons descend, must have been bred to produce a silver or white colour. Later, the classical Greek philosopher Socrates (469- 399 BC) discussed the cross-breeding of birds which appear to have been pigeons.
Roman Historian Pliny
In the 1st century AD the Roman historian Pliny discussed the breeding of fancy pigeons, confirming that the practice had been ongoing for some considerable time. In the same century, the Roman scholar Varro made clear
Rock Doves in Natural Habitat
references to cross-breeding. He mentioned the domesticated rock dove in contrast to the ‘…white pigeon, fed at the doorstep’. It is clear from this that the fancy breeds of today are not only descended from the wild rock dove but that cross-breeding was started soon after
Fancy Pigeons Illustration
the bird was first domesticated.
Throughout the next 2000 years breeding and cross-breeding of the pigeon to produce fancy breeds has become an art form, with over 300 known breeds of fancy pigeon in existence today. The grouping of fancy breeds is complex but can be roughly defined in 8 separate headings:
These are breeds that were originally bred for meat and include the ‘French Mondain’ and the ‘King’.
This group of fancy pigeons includes birds that are bred for show purposes but which can also be used in flying competitions for their acrobatic abilities. This group includes the ‘Tumbler’, the ‘Tippler’ and the ‘Roller’.
This group has been developed for extensive feathering and for their laughing or ‘trumpeting’ voice. The group includes the well-known ‘Fantail’, the ‘Trumpeter’ and the ‘Jacobin’.
As the name suggests, this group of pigeons was bred for their homing abilities but also includes racing birds bred specifically for showing. The group includes the ‘English Carrier’, the ‘Dragoon’ and the ‘German Beauty Homer’.
German Beauty Homer
Some members of this group were originally bred for their acrobatic abilities but have been interbred to such an extent that they are now considered to be purely show birds. This group includes the ‘Nun’, the ‘English Short Faced Tumbler’ and the ‘Magpie’.
English Short Faced
This group consists of many different varieties of fancy pigeon bred specifically for their colour and markings. The group includes the ‘Archangel’, the ‘Swallow’ and the ‘Danish Suabian’.
This group of fancy pigeons is bred purely for their ability to inflate their crop with air. The group includes the ‘English Pouter’, the ‘Norwich Cropper’ and the ‘Pigmy Pouter’.
This group has been bred for their stunted beaks and their extraordinary chest feathers. This group includes the ‘Old German Owl’, the ‘Oriental Frill’ and the ‘Aachen Lacquer Shield Owl’.
Old German Owl
Aachen Lacquer Shield Owl
The breeding of fancy pigeons is an international pastime, with pigeon fanciers coming together at local, national and international shows to compete for ever-growing prizes. The German National Pigeon Show, one of the largest national pigeon shows, is held annually in Nurnberg and attracted 33,500 people to the 2006 event. This demonstrates how popular pigeon fancying has become. The annual show held by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association in Blackpool is attended by upwards of 25,000 people each year, with all profits raised from the event being donated to charity.