Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Flights of fanciers: Inside the curious world of pigeon racing

By Dylan Cleaver

"First we'll have a couple of beers then we'll check out the birds." Never a truer word has been spoke as the Auckland Pigeon Racing Federation's season takes flight, reports sports-editor-at-large Dylan Cleaver.

Sitting on a chair at his food-basket of a backyard, Alan Verrall's eyes scan the sky.

The clock is ticking. He is two cans into a six-pack of Southern Gold. "Eight bucks for a six-pack. That's about as 'real' as you're going to get," he says.

Verrall has the easy part. His athletes are out there somewhere to the south of his Mt Wellington home, chugging along at an altitude that would give him a pulmonary embolism. The night before Verrall had boxed up "eight or nine" of his young pigeons.

They were trucked to Marton, deep in the heart of the Rangitikei, where they were released along with hundreds of other birds at 8am.

It's a 357.342km race as the pigeon flies back to Verrall's loft. Normally he'd be expecting his best birds home between 12.30-1pm but it's a nor'easter and there's some sketchy weather around the Waikato that might have to be avoided.

"It could be a five-and-a-half hour race today so you might have a bit of a wait," he says. "Better to be 90 minutes early than five minutes late, I suppose."

Famous last words.

Verrall's loft is a sturdy, homespun structure and the out-of-season birds - pigeon racing is divided into a young and old bird season - are doing their thing, which is nothing much at all.

There are more palatial lofts out there, Verrall would be the first to admit, but that wouldn't be in keeping with the property, which is a tribute to the best parts of the 70s.
There are unpicked runner beans yellowing on their frames, feijoa, plum and guava trees, a colossal asparagus plant and pumpkins, lots of pumpkins - "gem squash, Queensland blue and some French variety that makes great soup". For good measure, there are some beehives (the honey is delicious) and the ubiquitous rotary clothesline.

We have time to take in all this earthy goodness because the birds are deep into overtime. A call is placed to Brian Neil, a Manukau fancier. One side of the conversation goes like this:

"Gidday you mongrel, have you got a bird home yet?

"I've got a reporter here and he's just pointed to the sky but it's a seagull. Ha-ha, yeah, that'd be right.

"Yeah, I reckon it's a long one today."

Verrall scans the sky while waiting for his first bird to come home. Photo/ Doug Sherring
Verrall scans the sky while waiting for his first bird to come home. Photo/ Doug Sherring

It's strangely hypnotic and, yes, even a little hallucinatory staring at the sky until your trapezoids start protesting. As the clock ticks past six, then six-and-a-half hours, any sense of anticipation is replaced by a desperation. You want that seagull, that blackbird, that pair of bloody rock doves to be a pigeon. A nice blue bar or a red checker floating in against the breeze would put an end to this insanity but as the clock nears the seven-hour mark, nothing, the silence broken only by the sound of a tab ripping on another can.

"These are young birds, so they have some bad habits," explains Verrall.

As the clock ticks over seven hours it is time to reflect on another chronological headache: we have started this story nearer the end than the beginning.


Friday Night Lights shine brightly at Papakura Club Inc, the self-appointed "premier workingmen's club in South Auckland". As a covers band work their way through strained standards to a disengaged handful of punters sipping goodbye to the working week, a different crew starts to flock together.

The Auckland Pigeon Racing Federation's season opens the following day with a Young Bird race from Te Kuiti. It's less than 200km to most lofts, a mere sprint in pigeon terms. Those with lofts in the south and east of Auckland are gathered here at the Papakura Club, boxing up before the truck arrives that will take them through the night to the start line.

Sandy, who guards the club's entrance, bursts into laughter when the my colleague and I state our business. When we insist that we were "honestly" there for the opening of the pigeon racing season, the laughter turns into a guilty smile.

"I thought you were joking," she says, still unconvinced she is not part of some elaborate prank. "You look too young."

Inside the club another woman, overhearing our exchange, points out a man buying a handle of beer: "He's a pigeon man," she whispers conspiratorially, "but he's not the best to talk to. That bloke there is better."

It is Verrall. The Maungakiekie-Tamaki ward councillor is happy to impart his wisdom. He got into birds way back when because he used to run gun dogs. When pigeon fanciers culled their stock at the end of the season, Verrall used the birds to train his dogs how to set properly.

Out the back, the light fades and the boxing up continues. Some of the smokers from the club look on with mildly amused detachment while about 20 fanciers discuss their prospects for the season.

How do you enjoy a sport, you ask, where you can't see the competitors until the last few seconds?

"On a Saturday afternoon you're all winners," Steve McCluskie says. The former Kolkatan runs the website and handles media inquiries for the federation, an undertaking that cannot be too onerous. "It's not until you bring your clock in and put it on the table that reality strikes, but that anticipation while you wait is what keeps you going."

Everyone's a winner  till the results go up on the board. Photo/ Doug Sherring
Everyone's a winner till the results go up on the board. Photo/ Doug Sherring

Some fanciers can't bear the wait.

"You'll get people ringing you on a Saturday trying to find out your times," says Dave Moors, who's principal task tonight is making sure every bird is registered before being boxed and readied for the truck. "'You got any birds in yet?' they'll ask.'" This leaves the caller and callee open to bluff and counter-bluff and individuals quickly get a reputation for being either open and honest or cagey. Others just don't engage at all.

Because each loft is spread far and wide over the Auckland region, races are measured in metres-per-minute, so if a loft owner in Pukekohe, say, has a bird home, those in Albany or Henderson would know they still had a few minutes up their sleeve before they needed to see one of their own on the horizon.

Back when terrabytes existed only in vampire flicks, the birds' anklets were removed and put into a mechanical clock, which would then spit out a time. It was a wonderful, if cumbersome, piece of machinery. Nowadays, the timing comes courtesy of GPS data. It's unimpeachable; a concession, both pragmatically and metaphorically, to the passing of time.


If the mechanical clock is an anachronism, the same might be said about the sport itself.

Ornithological appreciation was a feature of many of the great empires of antiquity - Carthage, Persia and Rome, along with Egypt from the time of Rameses, saw these birds as a food source, a perpetual supplier of fertiliser, a means of communication and sport.
It was as a messenger that pigeons elevated themselves above their feathered friends and enemies.

The Rothschild banking fortune was said to be consolidated by information received from a pigeon that Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo. Rothschild got the news well ahead of anybody else.

One of the foundation blocks of modern journalism originated as a series of pigeon posts. Paul Reuter carried information from the Paris stock exchange faster than anybody else, enabling the banks of Aachen, Germany to make sound investment decisions and establishing the news service that still carries his name.

In World Wars I and II, pigeons were used extensively and had a near-perfect mission success rate. One bird, Royal Blue, won the Dickin Medal for gallantry after reporting a lost plane - pilots carried pigeons in case they had to ditch their aircraft - in 1940.

These days, the pigeon has no means of competing with wired or wireless communications but they're still bred for long-distance flying at considerable speed - close to 150km/h with a favourable wind - and are acknowledged, by scientists at the University of Montana's renowned flight laboratory no less, as "one of the smartest, most physically adept creatures in the animal kingdom".

So smart, in fact, that researchers at Japan's Keio University, discovered that pigeons could distinguish between a Van Gogh and a Chagall. (How pigeons might practically apply their ability to distinguish between vivid post-Impressionism and Expressionism is open to discussion, but it nevertheless makes for an impressive CV.)

Pigeons are admired for their strength and brains. Photo/ Doug Sherring
Pigeons are admired for their strength and brains. Photo/ Doug Sherring

This strength and sagacity has attracted some high-profile admirers, not least of all Queen Elizabeth II, who races pigeons from the royal Sandringham lofts.

Mike Tyson is a fan, too, belying his reputation as baddest man on the planet with numerous and rather touching tributes to the only true friends he had as an awkward delinquent growing up in high-crime Brooklyn neighbourhoods.

He is not the only champion boxer with an interest. George Foreman and 'Marvellous' Marvin Hagler also owned lofts.

Closer to home, much-loved Australian cricket commentator Bill Lawry is a pigeon fancier who has had a breed named after him. His affinity with the bird also led to one of the classic pieces of commentary with his long-time sparring partner, the late Tony Greig.

As the camera panned to an aesthetically pleasing member of an MCG audience, Greig couldn't help himself.

"Oh boy, doesn't she look gorgeous," he oafed. "Bill, come on then, say something."

Silence.

Greig: "He won't say anything. It's got to be a pigeon before he comments."

Lawry: "You dig a hole, you fill it mate."

Until his sad demise in 2010, Coronation Street curmudgeon Jack Duckworth saved his sweetest lines for his flock , perpetuating the idea of pigeon fanciers as an inscrutable lot.

In New Zealand, A-list fanciers are thin on the ground. Here it is not so much a sport as a subculture.


"We're a dying sport," says Peter Longville Jr as Peter Longville Sr nods in agreement. "I'm 54 and I'm one of the youngest in the game."

The problem, Longville Sr says, is the start-up costs and time. He got into it because his son expressed an interest. He built him a loft and purchased some birds. "But he wouldn't have been able to do it if I didn't have the time back then to build him a loft."

"It's a selfish sport," says Jr, "because to get results you have to put more and more time into it."

The prizemoney is negligible and the glory fleeting.

"We do it because we're pigeon people."

Even within that broad term, Longville Jr says there are divisions. There are pigeon racers and pigeon keepers.

The racers are serious folk, like Win Arnold, who has been in the game for 50 years, breeds birds to race and isn't always keen to share the secrets of his success.

"I've won a couple of races, yes. There's a bit of rivalry there. People come in with a few stunts," Arnold says without elaborating.

Moors is another successful racer whose secret is a homeopathic tonic that speeds up the recovery of his birds.

"Only another pigeon flyer knows what you're going through on the day of the race. You wait five or six hours for your birds to come home and you still don't know if you've done well or not until you go down to the club."

Verrall, by contrast, is a pigeon keeper, a bird enthusiast who enjoys the company of the other members but is now past the point where he gets wound up by results.

If there was a sliding scale, Longville Jr says he'd be closer to the 'keeper' end than the 'racer' end, but you wouldn't think so as he tosses his "trapper" bird - a pigeon that guides the racers back to the loft - into the air when he thinks he has a bird home and dashes to the loft at a speed that belies his physique.

It's a false alarm.

"Shit, he doesn't usually do that," Longville Sr says.

"He's stressed because he's got a visitor, says Neale Maxwell, a veteran fancier who has no racing stock at the moment after a rheumatic fever-like illness swept through his loft in the summer, looking squarely at me.

Pigeon racing is an "addiction" for Peter Longville Jr. Photo/ Doug Sherring
Pigeon racing is an "addiction" for Peter Longville Jr. Photo/ Doug Sherring

The three men and the "visitor" are gathered around a small plastic table in the shadow of a hedge. It's a beautiful autumn day here in Karaka - part of a South Auckland stretch from the Bombays to Manukau that racers know as "pigeon alley" - but this is the coldest spot for miles. It is warmed only by the top-shelf mixers the men are tucking into.

"It's an addiction. My stress release," says Longville Jr, a painter by trade. "It's just such a buzz watching a bird fly home after racing that long. I don't know what I'd do without pigeons. But you talk to other people about it and they're like, 'What? Pigeon racing!'

"You need an understanding wife or partner because some nights it's a case of walking through the door and saying, 'Hello dear, how was your day? I'm out to the loft now'."

Which seems like an appropriate point of the story to bring up sexual tension. It's the key to a good race, Longville Jr reckons.

The technique is known as widowhood and there are many different twists on the method but at its most basic it is a system of denial.

"Hens like to fly home fast to babies. The cocks want to fly home fast to jump their girlfriends," is how Longville Jr puts it, and we should leave it at that.

At 1.34pm, after the false start, a few drinks and a pigeon sex education lesson, it happens. Peter the Younger spots it on the horizon - "put something in front of my eyes and I can't see it," he'll say, unable to explain how he can spot a bird that far away - and after a slightly haphazard route, the bird lands on the loft and steps over the electronic pad that will determine later tonight whether Longville Jr is a winner or not.

As the birds trickle in, including one that is so dehydrated it momentarily collapses on the deck before tucking into some electrolyte-infused water, it becomes more apparent why these guys get hooked.

It's a beautiful sight, watching them glide home, wings outstretched; a beguiling mix of aerobic and aerodynamic strength.


Once more, Sandy the guard lady breaks into fits of giggles upon my arrival at the Papakura Club.

"You laughed the last time I came," I say.

"Oh god, I did too didn't I," she groans.

At the bar Saturday stalwarts groan as the Warriors butcher the final 10 minutes en route to dropping two competition points to Penrith.

The jackpot climbs above $800 in the gaming lounge, where the desperation is palpable.
In a nondescript room to the side, numbers are being crunched on a computer that looks like it was built by Steve Jobs... when he was 13. It is this computer that will eventually tell the men and one woman gathered around leaners in front of a prize pool and blackboard, who has the best birds on the day.

There are about 50 lofts in Auckland, from Colin Webster's 12-bird hutch in Manukau - "I'm going to prove this year that you can have a small loft and win races," he declared at the start of the season - to Don Campbell's palatial spread in West Auckland.

"Our biggest problem has been attracting members," Campbell says. "The young people all have their PlayStations and we're struggling for new members."

Campbell and his wife are selling up at the end of the season, one more blow for the federation.

"Don and his wife do a hell of a lot of work for the sport," says Longville Sr. "They're control freaks if you know what I mean, but they work hard and it will be interesting to see if anyone takes up that load."

The federation has given up on subscription drives and have instead tried to plug into immigrant communities that have come from pigeon-racing strongholds, like South Africa and Taiwan.

There are one or two couples who run lofts but the gatherings are almost exclusively male.

"It's a man's sort of sport," says Arnold, though exactly why that's the case is a little more difficult to pin down.

The loft is an escape for Dave Moors. Photo/ Doug Sherring
The loft is an escape for Dave Moors. Photo/ Doug Sherring

Perhaps it is Moors who has the best explanation.

"There are definitely some guys who find the loft a bit of an escape from the Missus. That's a good thing," he says. "Everyone needs a bit of time out."

Jack Duckworth would have been proud.

Tony Thum wins with bird number 0748, a male blue bar that came home at an average velocity of 1224.796 metres per minute. He'll take home a gleaming trophy a few bucks and maybe a frying pan.

Moors took out third with a gay pied cock that travelled at 1213.869mpm. Longville Jr got a red check cock home at a rate of 1151.677mpm, good enough for a creditable ninth, three ahead of Arnold's best bird, a black check hen.

The rest? Well, this part of the night doesn't change whether you're talking about rugby, cricket, netball or, as Longville Jr fatalistically and hopefully inaccurately put it, the "dying sport" of pigeon racing.

Beer in hand, it's time for the post-mortems to begin.

It's time for the post-mortems to begin inside the Papakura Club. Photo/ Doug Sherring
It's time for the post-mortems to begin inside the Papakura Club. Photo/ Doug Sherring

- NZ Herald

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