“Once I had a bird come in from a race and zoom by me and circle around to come into the loft, and then he flew back by in a big arc with a hawk after him. Pretty amazing birds, that even after flying for 200 miles, they can still outrun a hawk.”
At first glance, it might seem that Hugh Usry is talking about a falcon or an eagle or some other bird that, in our minds, symbolizes stealth and speed. What he is really talking about, however, are pigeons.
What was once a means of communication has turned into something of a sport for some people. Despite faster means of modern communication, the noble pursuit of raising, training and racing homing pigeons continues today. The CSRA Racing Pigeon Club has its headquarters here in Thomson. The club has a charter from the International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers, established in 1880. The club has four members.
Homing pigeons might look similar to the common pigeon, and they have common ancestors; but, homing pigeons are bred for their speed, homing instinct and racing ability.
“They do more than just fly home,” said club member Tim Ferrell. “They race home.”
On a day before a race, members of the club meet at Ferrell’s garage with their pigeons cooing and rustling in small carrying crates. The blue, red, gray, white and tan birds wear bands around both legs.
“Pigeons wear lifetime tags to identify them,” explained Usry, a longtime pigeon racer. “And racing tags that scan like a bar code, so you can clock the birds when they get home.”
The pigeons’ bands are scanned before leaving for the release location and are automatically logged upon their return to the home roost by a scanner in the open door. Their time is divided into yards per minute to determine the winner – so a bird that must fly an extra 5 miles to get to its loft might return a little later than birds who live closer to the release site, but it can still win if its overall time per yard was faster.
Big-time racing birds sometimes fly up to 1,000 or more miles in a race, but the CSRA club does shorter runs. The usual runs are 100 miles from Clarksville; 200 miles from Ringgold; 300 miles from Chattanooga, Tenn.; 400 miles from Evansville, Ind.; and 500 miles from Effingham, Ill.
The birds are transported to these release locations by someone in the club with a truck with a big crate in the back, which has the A and B races separated. Old Bird races, which are birds over 1 year old, can fly in races of up to 500 miles that are held in the spring. Birds younger than a year start with shorter races, up to 300 miles. Those races are held in the fall.
The CSRA Racing Homing Pigeon Club held a 200-mile A race and B race on May 21, 2011, in Ringgold. The A race was released at 6:30 a.m. with 39 birds competing. The first place bird, belonging to Tim Ferrell of Thomson, clocked in with a speed of 1,196.735 ypm. The second-place bird, belonging to Hugh Usry of Thomson, clocked in with a speed of 1,109.396 ypm and the third place bird, belonging to James Johnson of Evans, clocked in with a speed of 1,105.937 ypm.
The B race was released at 7:15 a.m. with 41 birds competing. Ferrell proved to have the fastest bird in this race also, clocking in at 1,131.637 ypm. Second place bird, belonging to Usry, clocked in with a speed of 1,109.396 ypm and Johnson’s bird took third place clocking in at 1,105.937 ypm.
Ferrell said he has been racing pigeons for about 30 years. His father first got him interested in the sport. When Ferrell was about 6 years old, his father got pigeons and began to race. Ferrell said his father raced until the day he died and he has been doing it himself pretty much ever since then. Ferrell owns 15 breeding pair of pigeons. He has a separate 50-bird race team that he uses for racing.
Ferrell said once an old bird has flown a 500-mile race and done well in the race, that bird retires to a section in the center of his coop to become breeders.
There are some races that are longer and larger with prize money, which is helpful with the cost of feed and housing for the birds; however, the CSRA Club competes only for the sport, diplomas and trophies.
“Pigeons can live to be 20 years old. They can fly in races until they are 5 to 7 years old. After that, they can stay home and be breeders. They get treated a lot better than some people do,” said Usry. “Between the release site and home, it’s all up to the pigeon. They generally choose to get back to their comfortable loft as soon as possible. But not always.
“Birds almost always come right back after a race, but I’ve had one come back a year later. Somebody called me up once and said they had one of my birds in Harlem, so I had to go and get it.”
The rare bird that doesn’t come home might have been caught by a hawk or another bird of prey, but with speeds averaging 50 mph or more, that is not an easy catch for a hawk.
“They can outrun a hawk flying in a straight line,” said Ferrell. “but the hawk can still fly faster swooping down from above.”
Anyone interested in racing pigeons with the CSRA Club can contact Hugh Usry at (706) 339-1678, Tim Ferrell at (706) 836-0613, or James Johnson at (706) 496-2784. A free pair of birds will be given to anyone joining the club.
“We’re just trying to get interest up,” said Ferrell. “It’s a dying sport. With the migration from country living to neighborhoods, pigeons are frowned upon in neighborhoods because people look upon them as dirty animals. You don’t want someone raising pigeons right next door to you, that’s mostly an animal people want to raise out in the country.
Evidence of pigeon messengers stretches back to 1150 A.D. in Iran. The news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 was raced to England by a pigeon.
The first airmail stamp was created in 1898 for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service in New Zealand. The Dickin Medal, the British award for animals who have served valiantly in the military, was awarded 54 times between 1943 and 1949. Thirty-two of the recipients were homing pigeons.
Anyone interested in learning more about the sport of homing pigeon racing can visit ifpigeon.com.