Pigeons are one of the oldest domesticated animals, having served as a reliable food source and as message carriers for centuries. Fondness for the bird ranges from disdain for the feral pigeons occupying our parks and city streets to adoration as a symbol of love and peace often released at sporting events, weddings and funerals.
The importance of homing pigeons before electronic communications is often forgotten. The Reuters News Agency, the world's largest information provider at the time, began as a pigeon service carrying closing stock prices between Belgium and Germany. The use of homing pigeons by financier Nathan Rothschild to gain advance news of Napoleon's unexpected defeat at Waterloo is thought to have led to a fortune being made in the bond market of the day. Charles Darwin actively studied the bird and its unique genetic mutations as part of his study of evolution. Homing pigeons also served a vital communication function carrying battlefield messages in both World War One and Two.
Modern pigeon racing, "the sport with a single starting gate and a thousand finish lines,” (1) originated in Belgium in the mid-19th century. The sport was introduced into the United States in about 1875. The sport of pigeon racing is well established in the US and around the world. Two national racing organizations, the American Racing Pigeon Union and the International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers, Inc., with over 12,000 members, spans the US from coast to coast.
With better understanding of genetics and selective breeding, improved health management and handling, today’s racing pigeon has become the race horse in the sky. Racing pigeons navigate across a variety of unfamiliar terrain often flying 500 miles in a single day and can reach speeds in excess of 60 mph utilizing a combination of magnetic field orientation, sight, smell, and terrain recognition. After much research, full understanding of the bird’s ability to orient and return successfully to its home loft remains a mystery.
With an influx of diverse immigrants from across Europe experienced with pigeon racing in their home countries, Pittsburgh, PA, became the mid-Atlantic mecca for the sport in the 1950’s and 60’s. The 27 clubs and over 1000 lofts in the metro area often shipped 10,000 birds to a single race. Race distances ranged from short distances of 100 miles to 1000 air miles. The various Clubs’ entries were consolidated and loaded on trains and later large truck vans in the city’s Strip District and transported to the release point to begin their journey to their home lofts throughout the city and surrounding areas. The membership was very active with competing Clubs in every community in the area.
Today, the sport in Pittsburgh continues to foster comradery, enthusiasm and a place in history. Each weekend throughout the summer, anxious eyes scan the horizon for the sight of flapping wings of the fancier’s returning pampered competitors and hopefully “a winner.”
(1) Marathon in the Sky, Jim Jenner – Pacific Communications