Competitive pigeon racing isn't just for the birds.
Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.
Imagine being a disciplined, competitive, and thoroughly dedicated athlete with a knack for aerobatics, adhering to a strict diet and training regimen and, on top of that, enduring gruelling marathons—only to have the public judge you by the actions of your over-bred, layabout cousins who loaf all day in city parks, pestering folks and pooing on statues.
Talk about being pigeonholed.
Racing pigeons are nothing like those freeloading fowl found perched around the city in the thousands. These long-distance marathoners are a select breed who’ve been flying their hearts out for millennia, and still they get no respect.
Pigeon racing isn’t as obscure as you might think: the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union’s yearbook lists several racing clubs in and around Toronto. Nationwide, there are hundreds of clubs. The Canadian Racing Pigeon Union itself has been around for more than 80 years.
And the sport is much, much older than that.
Humans first domesticated pigeons around 5000 years ago, and we’ve lived in close proximity ever since. Early in the Neolithic age, pigeons were recognized for their uncanny homing ability. Soon after, some were bred exclusively for this trait.
Ornithologists disagree on exactly what underlies a pigeon’s built-in GPS. Some claim the birds navigate through solar positioning; others say the innate skill is somehow related to the earth’s magnetic polarity. More romantically inclined ornithologists believe the monogamously paired-for-life pigeons are simply making a mad lovers’ dash back to the roost to be reunited with their darling.
Modern pigeon racing got its start in Belgium in the early 19th century. Today, the sport’s popularity has a global reach, appealing to a wide range of individuals both rural and urban. (However, the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union’s 2010 yearbook does note a marked decline in membership amongst their Ladies Auxiliary.) Even brutish Mike Tyson has been enamoured with the sport for years.
For the past 25 years, Paul Tsiampas has bred racing pigeons in a coop atop his restaurant on Dundas Street East. Along with co-worker Nancy Leblond, he’s a founding member of the Toronto Central Racing Pigeon Club, which has a dozen members.
A lifelong racing enthusiast, Tsiampas’ beginnings with the breed occurred quite serendipitously when, as a teenager, he came upon a baby pigeon that had fallen to the sidewalk from its nest. With mommy and daddy pigeon nowhere to be found, Tsiampas took the featherless squab home and raised it into adulthood.
From then on, Tsiampas was hooked. He’s bred and raced dozens of homers—that’s pigeon slang for birds bred specifically to race. Tsiampas knows his birds. Even at a distance of a few hundred metres, he can differentiate between the flight pattern of his pedigree and that of a lowly rock dove, those bobble-headed pigeons found in the wild. (For the record, rock doves and racing pigeons both derive from a common species, Columba livia. Like the fiddle and the violin—for the most part, identical instruments—differences between the two types of bird is revealed in their performance.)
As Tsiampas will attest, breeding homers requires dedication. Seven days after hatching, domestic pigeons are banded, and over their lifespan their health is closely monitored. Compared to their rock dove cousins, and even to our untrained eye, these birds have a much healthier appearance.
Tsiampas is attuned to his feathered competitors like a thoroughbred owner to his stable of racehorses. A clean coop is a must, and the birds require daily training and care. Early in the mornings it is not unusual for Tsiampas to crate his pigeons north to Barrie. There, he’ll release the homers, then see who can make it back to the rooftop coop first—him or the pigeons.
Tsiampas confesses, “Driving back down Highway 400, I keep one eye out for my birds, and another eye out for the OPP.”
If the homers catch a tailwind, and Tsiampas doesn’t break the law speeding, the birds will be victorious: racing pigeons have been clocked flying at over 170 kilometres per hour.
There are two racing classes: young birds (pigeons under one year of age) and old birds. Racing season is from mid-March until the end of September; hundreds of races take place throughout the season. Weather permitting, the majority are held on weekends. Race distances vary, from 100 kilometres to several hundred.
One day prior to a race, Tsiampas’ Toronto Central PRC, along with other clubs, transport their birds to a prearranged location. Each homer has a tiny plastic microchip band placed around its leg. These are coordinated with a computerized time clock at the entrance of the coop to record the exact time of their return. From the prearranged meeting point, all the birds from all the clubs are placed in a transport vehicle, driven hundreds of additional kilometres to a starting line, then released.
The release is a sight to behold, an intense fluttering of wings as hundreds upon hundreds of pigeons, relishing their sudden freedom, ascend higher and higher into the blue sky. Forming a dense flock overhead, they circle once, twice. In those brief seconds, by some mysterious means, they’ve gained their bearings and start immediately for home.
Relentless flyers, rarely will they alight to rest. Hazards for these sky marathons include birds of prey, power lines, and unexpected changes in weather.
Because distances between release points and various club members’ coops vary, a lot of mathematics goes into calculating the winner. Basically, the homer with the highest velocity, measured by dividing metres-per-minute-flown by the number of minutes the bird takes to return, is declared the winner. Prize money comes from entrance fees, and purses aren’t that large—though there are a few races with a handsome reward.
In the middle of September, racing season nearly complete, Tsiampas enters pigeons in the Englehart Young Bird Classic, in which some pigeons will fly from Englehart, Ontario, and others from La Sarre, Quebec, a couple of hundred kilometres north. Considering competitors’ ages of less than a year, none have previously flown either course.
In total, Tsiampas and Leblond enter 16 homers. On the Friday prior to race day, Tsiampas transports them to Oshawa. From there, they are placed in a large, well-ventilated truck with the other competitors and driven hundreds of kilometres north to one of the two starting locations.
Early Saturday morning, they are released.
A few hours after receiving confirmation of their release, Tsiampas periodically leaves his post in the kitchen to venture up to the roof, checking for the homers’ pending return. Eventually, he’ll seat himself on a plastic lawn chair and wait patiently. He enjoys the relaxation that accompanies the wait, but admits, “This part’s a little boring.”
It’s a clear, blue-sky day. Midway through the afternoon, the first homer arrives. An exciting moment, but the race isn’t over quite yet. To officially record an arrival time, the pigeon must cross an electronic pad at the entrance of the coop.
After such an arduous journey, the pigeon is physically spent. It circles overhead. Coaxed down with a familiar whistle and a toss of peanuts (plus an additional secret technique), Tsiampas is overjoyed when the bird finally alights and enters the coop.
One down, 15 to go.
Inside the coop, the weary pigeon flutterers up to the roost it shares with its mate, but she’s not here. His paramour is competing in the race from La Sarre. Soon, she’ll return and the two will be reunited.
In the meantime, Tsiampas provides the returning homer with seed and water. He believes “pigeons race for three things: food, water, and love.”
Tsiampas supplies all three, unconditionally.
Race results won’t be known until tomorrow. Right now, Tsiampas is feeling confident that in today’s great race home, at least one of the birds from his loft will make the grade.