A renaissance for pigeon racing

By Ged Cann

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Most would think pigeon racing was as extinct as sending messages by pigeon post, but the sport is alive and well in Hamilton and according to one local enthusiast is having a renaissance worldwide.

Hamilton Racing Pigeon Club secretary Ken Blacklock's racing career began when he was 10 when he and his friends would catch wild pigeons. His practices have become a little more refined since then.

These days Ken's 20 pigeons are bred to be champions, fed a controlled diet designed to pack on maximum muscle, and conditioned for specific distances.

His interest was rekindled the way many others are, with a bet.

"It was a few years ago I met a guy who challenged me. He said 'South Island birds can't fly in the North Island - they're useless'."

The challenge, made over beers, led to Ken asking an old friend from Christchurch to send him some birds.

He threw up a loft to house them over the next few days and within a week he was all set up to prove what Southern birds were made of.

From those initial chicks Ken has nurtured champions, including one which won a race from Marton to Hamilton and another which flew the 700km from Christchurch in a little over 10 hours, winning the race by over an hour.

"It probably flew over the Cook Strait and beyond all on its own," Ken said.

There are perils for the birds. Weather can bring a bird down or disorientate them and there is always the threat of hawks.

Incredibly, the longest one of Ken's birds has been away was six weeks.

"It had been out surviving somehow. It was okay but so grubby it looked like it had been living under a bridge."

A racing bird will generally race from the age of two years to six.

"The similarities are always with race horses and greyhounds. Racehorses you have your stock horses which breed champions. Pigeons are the same. It's not easy. If it was, everyone would do it," Ken said.

For these birds their feed is a mix of chicken feed, nuts and grains.

"It's like a racehorse, you can't feed it crap and expect it to win a race."

A race begins by transporting the birds by truck to the start point.

The birds' natural homing instinct, which Ken said uses a mixture of excellent eyesight and magnetic field sensitivity, allows the bird to fly from anywhere in the country right back to their roost, which, in Ken's case, sits right outside his front door.

"These birds can see clearly for 12 kilometres."

Ken will often use a watchmaker's eyeglass to check the clarity of a bird's eye.

The birds are microchipped, meaning the moment they fly into the roost's front door a digital timer logs the arrival, allowing competitors to compare times.

Ken said the club, which meets at Innes Common on Mary Street, always welcomes new members.

Existing members will even lend newcomers a bird or two to breed from.

"All you need is a dry roost and food and you're ready to go."

According to Ken, pigeon racing is the fastest growing sport in China, and he met a businessman recently who claimed to have spent roughly $400,000 on a prize pigeon.

He said competitions in China and South Africa could sometimes go as high as $1 million for the fastest bird.

Other interesting pigeon facts that Ken comes out with include that pigeons have had more Victoria Cross medals awarded than any other animal or bird, often being acknowledged for their efforts carrying messages to mobile roosts about troop movements during World War I.

"If troopers were stuck and needed reinforcements they would let their birds go. They could fly 300km to their commanding officer who would say 'oh my God send in reinforcements.'

"They saved the lives of hundreds of people. The only way to intercept them is to shoot them.

"The Germans would set up shooting galleries to try and kill the birds before they got their message home. Some of the birds would turn up with bullets in their chests and tails shot off."

If you would like to get involved with pigeon racing email Ken at blacklock123@xtra.co.nz

- Hamilton News

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