Pigeon fever takes over SA

2009-09-21 12:25

Cape Town - A KwaZulu-Natal racing pigeon's recent victory over an ADSL line has resulted in a serious case of pigeon fever across South Africa. 

Not only did Winston, the pigeon, put Telkom to shame by delivering 4GB of data faster than a 1mbps ADSL line, he also proved again that racing pigeons are in a class of their own.

Whereas their simpler pigeon cousins might love to irritate humans by messing on famous statues and brand new cars, Winston and his friends prefer to show off their superior bodies, navigation skills and speed in top class pigeon races.

News24 spoke to racing pigeon expert Kierie Krugel, who is also the chairperson of the Kwazulu-Natal Racing Pigeon Union, to learn more about his feathered friends.

"Pigeon racing is a most rewarding sport," Krugel told News24 from his home in Newcastle on Friday. "Pigeons are incredibly loyal creatures."

Krugel started pigeon racing at the tender age of four, and was hooked on it ever since.

"I grew up as a skinny little chap (hence the nickname 'Kierie') on a farm in the Bethal region of Mpumalanga. My late mother's three brothers flew pigeons in the early 60s and 70s and I suppose I just inherited those kind of interests from them and have had a passion for racing pigeons since I was four years old."

Today Krugel is both the Young Birds Champion and the Federations Champion of the Northern Natal Racing Pigeon Federation. 

"It took me 25 years to build a proper pigeon racing family," Krugel said. "I now have 100 stock birds and breed around 120 youngsters every year," he added.

There is a definite difference between homing pigeons and racing pigeons, says Krugel.

"A racing pigeon is a thoroughbred with a superior bodily structure bred to win races. A homing pigeon has navigation skills similar to a racing pigeon, but there is no urgency for such a pigeon to turn home - that's why we also call it a 'homer'. "

But how is it possible for the pigeons to find their way home? Do they possess some kind of built-in "genetic compass"?

Racing pigeons are born with a built-in navigation system, says Krugel.

They use the following properties to return home:

1) They have the ability to read the magnetic field at their loft and at the liberation point (it is like opposite poles of a magnet attracting each other);

2) They have superior eye sight, smell and hearing abilities which allows them to distinguish the area where they were born and its surroundings; and

3) They have the ability to identify certain beacon areas on their way home (therefore gaining experience).

This is why it is important to do a lot of in-house training with young pigeons in order to prepare them for the next season race programme, to school them, explains Krugel.

The 2009 Northern Natal Racing Pigeon Federation yearling champion 4017 OERF 2008. 

How are racing pigeons trained?

It is of the utmost importance to start training pigeons as young as 3 months old.  The sooner you start training them and give them exposure, the quicker you develop their navigation skills, says Krugel.

You start training them from liberation points of 5km-10km-15km-20km away from their loft, but it is important to liberate only young pigeons at a time, otherwise they will become flock pigeons and abuse the skills of the experienced birds which will give you a false sense of confidence before the new season, he warns.

"We in South Africa start racing pigeons at a very young age and in general, you can race such a pigeon up to 4 and 5 years at the most. We normally start the first race from 300km and finish off the furthest race at 1 000km. 

"A race programme normally involves 20 races and if you race such a pigeon every second weekend, you can imagine what kind of mileage such a bird does in a racing season. 

Furthermore, the lifespan of a normal pigeon after racing and breeding normally comes to anything between 10 and 12 years, Krugel adds.

According to Krugel racing pigeons can travel even further distances than the 1 000km that a normal race programme caters for.

"In the Netherlands and Belgium, they are racing ultra long distances of anything between 1 400km and 1 600km.

"For example, racing pigeons flying from Barcelona in Spain across the desert back to Europe normally involves a two-day race."

The average speed of a racing pigeon depends entirely on the wind direction (a head wind or a tail wind) and can vary anything between 60km to 120km per hour, "or as we express it in pigeon terms, anything between 1 000m to 1 600m per minute," adds Krugel.

So how exactly does a pigeon racing event work and are their specific flight routes that are used on a regular basis?

Organising a pigeon race is not so complicated, says Krugel.

"You simply determine the co-ordinates of each and every loft and each and every race point on the race programme. And, from that information, a computer programme calculates the speed of each bird to determine who won the race."

The route all depends on where you live in South Africa, which in turn will determine in which direction you fly to get the optimal distance of 1 000km, Krugel  continues.  

Various organisations in South Africa fly across the country in all directions, crossing each other in order to get their pigeons to the race point. 

"It is at these crossings that clashes of pigeons result in big pigeon losses throughout the season.

"The strongest and fittest with the best developed navigation system are the pigeons that will survive and those are the ones that you should consider for future breeding of your thoroughbreds," Krugel explains.

'Massive sport in South Africa'

According to Krugel pigeon racing is a massive sport in South Africa that can "really pump the adrenaline like nothing else".

The highlight on the pigeon racing calendar is The Sun City Million Dollar Pigeon Race.  

"The Sun City event is a huge pigeon event in South Africa that attracts competitors from over 40 countries," says Krugel.

Despite the sport's huge popularity, it is struggling because of the high costs involved and the adverse weather conditions experienced through global warming.

"It is difficult for youngsters to start pigeon racing, because of the expenses of acquiring the right quality of birds and taking proper care of them.

"However, more and more pigeon racing experts are donating pigeons to youngsters and allowing them to use their lofts for free," says Krugel.

"It is such a rewarding sport - it's a 365 days of the year passion - and it would be a great shame if our youngsters never got the chance to join in all the fun.  

"After all, what's the use of all the knowledge and experience that I've gathered over the years, if I can't share it with the future generation."