Flat Caps and Feathers
Claire Simpson looks at the oft-maligned world of pigeon racing
Pigeon racing has not enjoyed the best reputation in recent years. The sport has been unfairly associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street's Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.
Yet pigeon racing has also attracted diverse devotees such as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter 'Paloma', the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.
Although many find the notion of pigeon racing baffling, the rules are simple. The birds are removed from their home coops and transported to an agreed location before they are released at a set time.
The pigeons are then expected to return to their own coops and their flight times are recorded to determine when each pigeon returns home. The bird which returns home in the shortest time is declared the winner.
Although Derry pigeon enthusiast Noel McGrotty has been involved in the sport for around 60 years, his love of pigeons has not diminished.
‘I first started in 1946. I’ve been involved in racing since I was eight or nine years old,’ he laughs.
He argues that despite its reputation, pigeon racing is an important sport in its own right. According to McGrotty, no two birds are the same and every pigeon has to undergo a rigorous training regime.
‘A racing pigeon would be racing at six months old. When it's a year old it would be flying up to 200 and 300 miles. To fly 600 miles it would be three or four years old.
‘A short race would be from Derry to Wexford and a middle distance race would be as far as Skibbereen or Cornwall. But when we get to Cornwall it’s not every pigeon that’s capable of flying the distance.
‘Distance racing pigeons can compete until eight or nine years old. It's like humans - health is a big factor. If you don't have 100 percent health then there's no point racing.’
McGrotty admits that unfortunately, not every pigeon can be trained as a champion.
‘The pigeons have to go through a training process and anyone that shows any weakness falls by the wayside,’ he says ruefully.
‘We have to have a culling process, so the ones that don’t make it unfortunately have to be culled.’
Noel maintains pigeon racing has more in common with the glamorous world of horse racing than any other sport. Although pigeons in towns and cities are often viewed as little more than disease-spreading vermin, he believes racing pigeons are, in fact, feathered thoroughbreds.
‘There are many different breeds of fancy pigeons but the difference between them and the racing pigeon is that the racing pigeon is a film star,’ he laughs.
‘It’s something like horses. We have to study their breeding to see if they’d make a good champion.
‘The modern day racing pigeon stems from a rock dove. Pigeons were first bred for food, then mankind started to use them from a racing point of view.
‘They were one of the first animals man domesticated. Even now they seem to stay close to mankind.’
According to McGrotty, pigeons have similar dietary needs to those of top human athletes.
‘Pigeons are grain eaters - beans, peas, hemp - anything at all. There are some grains that are high in carbohydrate. When it’s racing, the pigeon needs carbohydrate and when it's building up it needs protein, just like a human.’
McGrotty reveals that even pigeons which normally compete in long distance races can reach impressively high speeds.
‘We won a race this year and the pigeon was doing a mile a minute. Other pigeons have won in Ireland doing a mile and a half a minute,’ he smiles.
Although McGrotty's club, Foyle Racing Club, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, he admits that the sport is in decline.
‘I'd encourage all young people to join up with their pigeon racing club. It's nearly all middle-aged and old people even though we have couples in the club - men and their wives who compete together. It's a dying sport, to a certain extent.’