How racing pigeons find their way home in just 10 hours after being released 500 miles away remains a mystery.
â€œNobody knows for sure,â€ said Fred Nichols, an Iron Station man who races and raises pigeons. â€œHonest and truly thereâ€™s no definitive answer why.â€
It could be eyesight or hearing or some magnetic force calling them. Whatever it is, those who raise pigeons find it fascinating.
Members of the Catawba Valley Racing Pigeons Club, which meets in Maiden, gather to discuss this and other pigeon-related topics.
â€œWe talk about winning birds and some of the tough races that the birds go through and just how amazing they are to come five or six hundred miles over territory theyâ€™ve never seen before,â€ Nichols said.
Many of the club members devote large amounts of time and money to race pigeons. Some have hundreds of birds and drive them 30-100 miles from home to train.
â€œYouâ€™ve got to be committed,â€ said Robert â€œWhiteyâ€ Beal, a member of the club.
People become involved in the hobby for a variety of reasons. Beal, for example, was introduced to it by a neighbor. Nichols found a hurt baby pigeon when he was 13 and was hooked ever since.
In other areas of the world â€“ especially Belgium and Holland â€“ pigeon racing is a national pastime. Even the Queen of England has racing pigeons.
Members of the Catawba Valley Racing Pigeons Club love the sport for the competition. They donâ€™t name their birds or consider them household pets.
That said, they do have an appreciation for the animals.
â€œI enjoy watching them,â€ Beal said. â€œI just like to see them fly.â€
When itâ€™s young, every racing pigeon is given a band with an identification number, which is placed around its leg. For races, another band is added to record when the bird returns home.
The birds are taken to a far-away location by a hired truck driver (the last race took place in Clemson, Ala.) and released at two different times for two different races (Race A releasing at 7:15 a.m., Race B releasing 30 minutes later).
Computers, microchips and GPS units are all used to determine the winner. Generally, there are 500-600 birds in each race. They fly hundreds of miles without rest, stopping only for water.
On occasion, a bird doesnâ€™t make it back home following a race.
â€œSome birds get lost and mixed in with city birds,â€ Beal said.
Most, however, make it home, ready for another race.
â€œYou really get excited when you see them come in,â€ Beal said.
Money can be won from the races. The biggest race in the United States, the World Ace Challenge, takes place in Texas. The winner takes home $300,000.
â€œThe purses in some of these races will blow your mind,â€ Nichols said.
So will the cost of pigeons. While some can be bought for just $5, others cost $75,000 each.
No matter what level pigeon-racing enthusiasts are playing at, however, theyâ€™re always fascinated with the birds.
â€œThey have some type of magnetic north compass in their brain and they can hone in on that,â€ Nichols said. â€œIt never ceases to amaze us.â€
by Sarah Grano