Racing Pigeon News


Racing pigeons | Homing in on the prize

By Richard Seven, Seattle Times staff reporter
206-464-2241 or rseven@seattletimes.com

Any minute ... any minute now, Herb Cartmell's racing pigeons should swoop in from the southwest, over the roofline of his Woodinville home, round and round the tree line, then down into his backyard and through the time-stamping door of their loft.
He knows this because they were dispatched along with hundreds of others in the first of two heats from the starting gate in Kalama, Cowlitz County, at 9 a.m. And it's about 11:40 a.m. now. He expects them to fly the exact 124.9 miles to his home at about 45 mph or better. Factoring in time, distance and velocity tells him they have to be close.

He knows his pigeons won't dally, because well-bred and trained racers don't. They are gold medal-motivated to get back to their nests, their mates, their feed their home. You can bank on that.

He also knows they are athletes in the extreme, each built and bred for speed and endurance, comfortable at a steady heart rate of 600 beats per minute for the entire flight, which can stretch to 600 miles.

And then there's the birds' legendary guidance system, which science has yet to figure out.

A veteran pigeon flier knows these things. Cartmell was a 12-year-old Tri-Cities kid when he got his first batch of racing pigeons. They promptly flew away. He got more and started the only all-youth pigeon-racing club in the country at the time. He's a 62-year-old businessman now with snow-white hair, trifocals and a national reputation in this sport, which, while largely invisible to most of us, is practiced by a million or so people worldwide.

Well-trained homing pigeons are about as dependable as your pet pooch. History is replete with examples of birds carrying messages that saved the day or broke news. Cartmell just wants them to stay focused and beat the other pigeons racing to backyard lofts around the area today.

He squints into the blue sky, waiting and watching. He has bred them from champs and has spent hours training and observing their personalities. He feeds them the right mix of seeds. He knows they'll come home. But will they be first?
"It's kind of like NASCAR," he says. "You do all your work during the week and see what happens on the track. You never know when you'll hit the wall. Anyone can win at any time. You just try to get them ready and motivated."

But it really isn't much like car or even horse racing. There is no single finish line or communal backstretch where you urge and will your driver or horse home. In fact, how can one be a spectator at a pigeon race? You just wait, usually alone, by your individual loft and take calls from your competitors until the birds come home. Then, it's up to the computer to spit out which bird flew the fastest "yards per minute."

In fact, pigeon racing is a marathon, for the humans as well as the birds. Cartmell's athletes are likely just a minute or two away, screaming toward the finish line, but he's leaning back on a deck chair with his legs stretched straight out, right ankle draped over the left.

"Once you let a bird loose," he says, sipping coffee, "it's up to the bird."

A Prestigious Past

Pigeons don't get a fraction of the respect we show their close relative the dove, but they have been intertwined with humans for millennia.

More than 5,000 years ago, ancient Greeks employed pigeons to carry messages. For centuries, "homers" were the fastest and most reliable means of communication. A pigeon in the employ of a news service broke Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Pigeons have been war heroes. One named G.I. Joe was awarded a medal for bravery by getting a message through enemy lines in World War II that is believed to have prevented more than a thousand British soldiers from being bombarded by friendly fire.
The "racing homer" has been developed through selective breeding, and equating racing homers with the common street pigeon, as many of us do, is like lumping a Thoroughbred racehorse with a plow horse.

Belgium developed the sport, and it is still a rabid pastime there. China and England are crazy about it. There are a few money races in the U.S., but mainly they are small club events that score "diplomas" for the birds and awards for the owners.
Some researchers believe homing pigeons use the sun as a compass. Perhaps they are able to interpret the planet's magnetic field and use it as some sort of map. Some wonder if they essentially smell or even hear their way. It is clear they have sharp sight they are able to spot orange life vests in the ocean about five times faster than humans can. Likely, they use a number of their assets to get home.

Breeders add psychology and motivation to the equation. Cartmell lets hens sit on plastic eggs during the week, which makes them hungrier to get home on race day. Or he will deprive the male of female contact a few days before the race. He wants them to love and miss their loft.

As the season approached, he trained his birds by letting them go farther and farther away from home. One weekday morning, well before the commuting rush, he drove 17 hens and 17 cocks, separated into two carrying crates, to a deserted parking lot in south Enumclaw.

He's judicious about when and where these birds fly. They are fast and goal-oriented, but they are still prey. He lets the hens go first. He knows they'll wing their way back to their nests. Knowing they will be there will, in turn, motivate the cocks waiting in a separate cage. If he lets the cocks get home first, one or two might strut around the roof of the loft and be attacked usually by hawks.

Friday night before the Kalama race, Cartmell sets his carrying cage on the loft floor. The cocks walk right in with no prompting. He smiles. "They know the drill." The hens take coaxing to get off their nests.

He takes 35 birds to a Woodinville field, where he and others in the Sno-King Racing Pigeons Club log in their birds. It is an assembly line of pigeons, each band recorded on computer that will track the flying time of each bird. Cartmell is president of the club, one of four in the Evergreen Concourse, which contains about 40 lofts and stretches from near the Canadian border to Issaquah.

All but one of the eight breeders competing in the Kalama race are men. Some just race the adult birds, but racing young birds, less than 1 year old, is a specialty of David Lavrentyev, a 16-year-old Woodinville kid, who is something of a wunderkind. He won all 10 races in last year's "Young Bird Series," and he had the top three birds in all but one race. Other fliers say he has innate ability and can recognize specific birds from his team even from a distance. He shrugs, "I just go by feel."

Winners of the previous week's races bring dinner of chicken, sausages and chips. It's dark by the time club members finish eating and the large truck arrives to pick up the birds. It is already nearly full with pigeons collected from other clubs in the concourse. The driver, a retired clergyman, sets off for the next morning's release point near Kalama. He'll sleep in the cab of his truck and release the racers at the appointed time (weather permitting).

The Return

There is nothing a breeder can do when the release gate opens and the birds rustle out. That's why Cartmell is so relaxed in his lawn chair the morning of the race and with his birds close. A board member and hall-of-fame inductee with the American Racing Pigeon Union, he knows the pastime needs young blood to survive, just like each loft, so he wants to work with the 4H.
"It involves genetics, and math and animal husbandry, and it gives kids something to do," he says. "When I was a kid ... "
Flicking shadows stop him midsentence. Two pigeons, white feathers gleaming, soar in circles about his property. Cartmell tosses two white-headed pigeons (the non-racing kind) toward the loft. They help focus the racers and entice them to cross the tape. Many a race is lost by a short dawdle the last foot or two.

The two racers zoom into the loft, setting their time as they enter. For the next two hours, all 35 of his birds arrive, in pairs, in threes, sometimes solo. Great to have them back safe and sound, but did they win?

While they peck on feed or lay in their boxes, looking as fresh as when they were shipped off, Cartmell fields calls from other members of the club. Yours come in yet, they ask? He gives them the barest of information. It's part of the game.

He grabs a module, which has been recording times, and heads to the field where they logged in their racers. A few hours later, he learns his pigeons placed first and second in both races for the entire concourse a rare feat.

He takes it with the stride of someone who has been in the game 50 years. "I guess I am buying the food and drinks for the club next week."

Herb Cartmell, in his deluxe pigeon loft ("it's not a coop"), calls other racers to find out the progress of the birds released that morning in Eugene, Ore. They're all late, possibly because of a storm, low pressure or a solar flare. One did not show up for almost a week. Racing pigeons return through special doors in Cartmell's loft where they trigger a recording device that shows their flight times. Just like any athletes, racing pigeons need their exercise. Cartmell releases his birds in the mornings and evenings so they can stretch their wings. The pigeons are comfortable with a steady heart rate of 600 beats per minute for entire flights, which can stretch to as long as 600 miles.

Photos by Alan Berner/Seattle Times


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