On February 23, 1942, Winkie, a carrier pigeon, traveled 120 miles across the North Sea to return to his home base. She had brought valuable information about her companions from a Royal Air Force bomber that had crashed at sea. On arrival, her guard informed his colleagues at the base and the crew was rescued within 15 minutes. The story was reported by the BBC.
While carrier pigeons were transformed into military assets, their first use was in sports, especially racing, possibly as long as AD 220. Pigeon racing remains popular to this day, including in several parts of India like Chennai where it is a passion for over 800 people.
OP Vijayakumar, 55, secretary of the town’s Royal Pigeon Society, also owns around 35 pigeons and is a double racing champion. He points to a small dovecote on the roof of his building, with a dozen pigeons floating inside, and says: “This is my son’s dovecote. He studies law at VIT but I know his passion lies in pigeon racing. “
Sport is not just for the rich, unlike other animal breeds. For Vijayakumar, his son Rahul and many like them, pigeon racing is more than just a hobby. “My grandfather did it, my father did it, I do it and now my son does it. It’s an inherited passion,” he says.
He talks about his pigeons as if they were exquisite homemade machines. It is not the same attachment that one would feel for a dog. “It’s a question of prestige. It’s a question of which bird flew the furthest and which came back,” he says. Maintaining this prestige costs him around Rs 1.5 lakh per year, including food and medicine.
Carrier pigeons were brought to India in the early 1900s by a British pigeon fancier. Purebred birds were bred with domestic breeds to create a line of birds that now spend their lives training for races.
Success in racing depends a lot on how the birds are bred – the closer they are to the purebred breed, the better their chances of winning or at least returning home. Each year, nearly 400 birds participate in races of 200 km, 500 km and even up to 1500 km, sometimes only 10 round trips.
Purebred birds use magnetoreception – a sensory system that allows them to use the Earth’s magnetic field to draw regional maps based on elevation, direction, and location. And when mated with servants, some do not necessarily inherit exceptional magnetic abilities.
There are also other reasons why birds do not return home. “Due to the many disturbances in the sky these days, it is more difficult for them to orient themselves. Parabolic televisions and network towers disrupt their flight patterns, blocking them halfway, ”explains Vijayakumar.
In the dilapidated roof of his building, he keeps up to 10 purebred pigeons which are only used for breeding purposes and 30 carrier pigeons. The dry months of the year, January through May, are when they train and run. The rest of the year is reserved for breeding.
During the breeding season, it trains the young for about 5 to 6 hours a day. He keeps them in a cage outside so they can study the environment and familiarize themselves with nearby buildings. In six months, they will be ready to tour the area and return.
Pigeon racing is not lucrative as the prize money is usually a meager Rs 3000. But Vijayakumar sells its domestic carrier birds for up to Rs 15,000 in local markets.
The sport is legal, but the laws are sometimes broken, such as when around 50 purebred pigeons were smuggled into India by a Briton in 1982.
The fancier enthusiastically remembers that an Egg of Cattrysse, the best carrier pigeon strain carrier, was brought to Bangalore in 1984 and bred. “It wasn’t contraband, it was purely out of love,” he laughs.