Pigeon-lovers home in on a new passion

Dennis Lee of Duncan and his four-year-old racing pigeon celebrated as the grand champion from more than 60 entries at the annual Mid-Island Racing Pigeon Society show in Westholme on Saturday, Jan. 12. - Andrew Leong
Dennis Lee of Duncan and his four-year-old racing pigeon celebrated as the grand champion from more than 60 entries at the annual Mid-Island Racing Pigeon Society show in Westholme on Saturday, Jan. 12.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Participants stand waiting,  collectively watching the horizon.

Anticipation mounts as their eyes peel for a flicker of movement.

“You’re waiting and all of a sudden you see this one little black dot,” describes Cowichanian Mike Tomshak.

That black dot is actually hundreds of pigeons which becomes clearer as the racing birds near the finish line.

“That’s the thrill of it, and it kind of makes your blood tingle just a little bit,” said Tomshak, an active member of the Mid-Island Racing Pigeon Society.

The society started as a Ladysmith club in 1993 and has since expanded into one of the largest clubs servicing Vancouver Islanders.

Homing pigeons fly an average 65 miles per hour but Tomshak’s had his crew cruising at 75 mph.

Most folks don’t know much about racing pigeons and their athletic abilities, Tomshak said. They also don’t have a clue either what the Mid-Island society’s been up to, let alone one even exists.

“It’s really a serious hobby and sport,” he explained. “Most people assume they’re just rats with wings, but they’re far from it.”

If you ‘Google’ homing pigeons, you’ll discover there is a lot to know about the feathered fowls than you’d think. Their history involves delivering messages in Baghdad as early as 1150 and later for the likes of Genghis Khan.

The Republic of Genoa equipped their system of watch towers in the Mediterranean Sea with pigeon posts, and in 1818, a pigeon race called the Belgian Concourse took place for the first time in Brussels.

Founder of Reuters press agency, Paul Reuter used a fleet of 45 pigeons in 1860 to deliver news and stocks prices.

And, the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo came down the line by, you got it, a pigeon.

“They’re not just pets,” Tomshak stressed.

He takes his fleet out every morning for their daily dose of training, which includes a 30-mile toss.

His birds, and all society member birds, are clocked by implanted bar code tracking devices and identity chips through GPS devices.

And during races, they’re measured by meters per minute.

Tomshak got into pigeon racing in 1985 in Calgary where he was living at the time.

“I’ve always had a love for the birds, I guess,” he said.

Racing birds require special meals for maximum athleticism before the big race, he said.

“They’re fed top quality feed, including peas, corn, wheat and barley. And closer to the races they eat real high-energy food.

“They’ve got the same pedigree as race horses,” he said.

“The modern racing pigeon has been specifically bred from a variety of pigeons and unlike the feral pigeons which plague most cities of the world, the racing homer is to pigeons what the thoroughbred racehorse is to horses,” confirmed the Mid-Island society’s website. “Racing pigeons are bred down from many generations of forbearers, from which certain attributes such as performance, stamina, intelligence, size and breeding ability have evolved.”

Races are held every weekend, usually on Tomshak’s property once the season opens, which is in mid-April and runs until October.

Race organizers choose distances, most often 100- or 200-mile runs for the birds to compete in.

Their release time is documented as is their arrival.

And like with any sport there are risks.

Unfortunately for the pigeons, their fate falls on hawks or falcons swooping in for a snack.

And there have also been power line incidents too, Tomshak noted.

“We always expect about a 10-15 per cent loss,” he said of the birds participating on race day.

“It’s pretty hard for a hawk or falcon to miss about 200 pigeons.”

Most folks wonder how pigeons are able to find their way home?

“No one knows for sure,” the society’s website states. “In experiments conducted, pigeons have been blindfolded and released some 90 to 100 kilometres from their home base and have returned to within 20 metres of their home.

“It is understood that the same homing instinct is used by migratory birds which travel thousands of kilometres every year to the same breeding grounds where they began their lives and from there they go back to where they spend the winter, often in another hemisphere.”

The Mid-Island Pigeon Society is also a member of the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union.

And they’d love if more locals got on board.

As of right now they only have about 10-12 active members from Cowichan.

“It’s a dying sport really,” Tomshak said.

To find out more about the society, call Tomshak at 250-597-8224 or Doug Chadwick at 250-245-4073 or click here.







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