When a racer can’t find its way home

With a high percentage of pigeon losses in race and training events, and irregular returning times after races, Thomas Smit discusses the possible reasons why pigeons battle to find their way home.

More and more pigeons are getting lost in races or in training. And instead of hundreds of pigeons clocking in within minutes after finishing a race, we find large gaps in returning times. Here are a few of the possible causes.

Normal losses
When large numbers of pigeons are bred by fanciers, most will be of average quality, with only a few outstanding and a few far below-standard birds. It’s often difficult for average and below-standard racers to find their way home when they wander too far away from their familiar loft environment.  These are normal losses and come down to poor orientation. It’s also fairly common, thanks to the law of averages.

Mysterious losses
Recent changes in the earth’s magnetic field due to solar storms have affected many pigeons’ ability to find their way home.  During the sunspot activity between May and June, thousands of racing pigeons went missing in South Africa. From this we can assume that changes in the earth’s atmosphere and/or magnetic field influence pigeons’ orientation. Some mysterious vanishings include a 1998 race from western Pennsylvania to suburban Philadelphia, in the US, when 80% of the 900 competing racing pigeons went missing. 

Then in Sweden in 2004, only 500 out of an estimated 2 000 pigeons returned from a 150km flight in perfect weather – it was believed solar storms were to blame here too. When most of the 60 000 pigeons in a race from southern France to England in 1997 never returned, it was speculated that racing pigeons use atmospheric infrasound to orientate and that this ability was disturbed by the shock wave made by a Concorde supersonic airliner during the pigeons’ flight.

The carpet of sound, more than a 100km wide, threw the birds off course.  But unless we can determine the mechanism racing pigeons use to orientate themselves and then identify the factors affecting its function, we’ll never be certain what caused such vanishings.

Losses caused by disease
High losses can occur during outbreaks of viral diseases affecting the nervous system. One of the main culprits, the Paramyxo virus, causes pigeons to lose balance, making it difficult for them to fly, or even stand. Symptoms include twisting of the neck and a “star-gazing” mannerism. Often the first sign is when the bird doesn’t return in good time from race events, or doesn’t return at all.  Avian malaria and crop cancer will also result in slower times. Any untreated disease will negatively influence performance, which is why hygienic pigeon-keeping is a must.

Losses through injury
An injured pigeon will still attempt to reach its destination. I’ve seen arrivals return in good time despite being attacked by a hawk.  The courage of our feathered friends is admirable as they brave the elements and birds of prey, driven by their love of their home.  During head winds over long distances, packs fly low to minimise resistance – and often fly into barbed wire fences.  Multiple overhead wires are also a threat for inexperienced racers. One fancier told me of seeing a pigeon in full flight being temporally blinded by the sun and flying into an overhead electric wire. The bird was cut in half.

Avoidable losses
The following circumstances will cause losses that could be avoided:

  • Pigeons sent on training flights before they’re familiarised with their home environment will stray.
  • Pigeons that are too young for racing won’t have the necessary mental or orientation faculties and will stray without the pack to guide them home.
  • Unfit pigeons won’t stay air-borne in a prolonged flight and will soon seek a church roof or find shelter in a strange loft once they tire.
  • Pigeons that are not properly prepared beforehand for the demands of the distance and conditions of a race event won’t return in good time – especially when they’re trained in cool-weather conditions and are then expected to compete on an extremely hot day.
  • Many one-day pigeon lofts don’t expose the pigeons to sufficient hours of prolonged flight before entering them into a long-distance race.
  • Pigeons not given enough rest between prolonged flights won’t return.
  • Malnutrition, poor health, undesirable loft designs and overcrowding will also lead to losses.