The speedsters of pigeons racing

There are various debates surrounding the flying speed or velocities of racing pigeons. Naturally the fastest pigeon will win the prize money – or not?

Issue date: 15 February 2008

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There are various debates surrounding the flying speed or velocities of racing pigeons. Naturally the fastest pigeon will win the prize money – or not?

The theory of flight as it’s understood in the avian world has been the inspiration for many a specialised mating in pigeons, to breed for a more aerodynamic body, a certain wing type, configuration of the head and neck, and the length of the tail. There are various schools of thought of which the latest is that all airborne racing pigeons “move” at a comfortable flying velocity. This suggests, according to its advocates that the idea of a sprinter in pigeon racing doesn’t exist.

The theory postulates that the winning pigeons are not the fastest, but that they are simply advantaged en route as the rest of the flock slows down as fatigue sets in. The theory names this as the “guts” factor that is said to influence and benefit speed more than the possibility of speed existing as a single factor. This theory has some merit, but not all “fast” winning pigeons are going to be disadvantaged by the “guts” factor as they may possess it in equally good measure. So if “guts” is not the handicap, the winner will be the fittest, the most “intelligent”, the most capable and also the fastest pigeon – period.

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Sprinters versus stayers

“Sprinters” is the term generally applied to the fastest pigeons over short distances such as between 80km and 450km. The “sprint” factor is credited to the fact that the distance is not long and it’s therefore assumed the winners are sprinters. The winning speed at which the sprint races are won, may, in fact, not always be that fast. In the same way the winning velocities over the long (650km to 800km) and extremely long distances (over 800km) are sometimes fast-paced. This suggests sprinters may also sprint on the middle to long distances, during favourable weather conditions such as wind blowing from behind and cooler temperatures. But the point is whether the sprinter can maintain its speed, or pace, long enough, over an extended distance, to complete the journey at the overall fastest velocity? You decide.

Time on the wing

The time spent on the wing versus the distance flown becomes the centre of debate – rather than the speed of the race. The ability of “stayers” that are able to sustain extended flight is credited to the “guts” factor as the most influential aspect of performance. Winning “stayers” in contrast to winning “sprinters”, are blessed with the “guts” factor and don’t give in to fatigue as easily as sprinters and win on the distance not because they’re faster, but because they can hold on for longer. The question to ask would be what makes two quality “stayers” – with the same “guts” factor, assuming both are in peak condition and equally motivated – able to beat one another? The answer must be that despite the extended distance, the winning pigeon is also faster than its opponent. It could not have won if it was slower – regardless of the distance.


The external factors that influence speed include consistency of wind direction and the strength of wind throughout the race. O ther factors are heat, fog, rain, fluctuating temperatures and mountainous terrain over the race distance. I f one assumes that all racing pigeons, in a race event of extended flight, pace themselves to fly at a comfortable speed, those that don’t manage to pace themselves in the same way will be disadvantaged by giving too much too soon. The suggestion of a comfortable flying velocity holds merit in the fact that despite being in possession of the “guts” factor, an overly keen or hasty pigeon could deplete all its reserves, halfway, before it reaches its destination. If it had moved at a moderate pace it could have conserved its energy for longer. This adaptability would be linked to its intelligence and experience, rather than to a rigid deduction that all pigeons in an entire flock during a race event move in the air at a comfortable flying speed. Front runners or pacemakers can’t be in that position if they’re not faster. In being faster, individual comfortable flying velocities differ – what’s comfortable for one is uncomfortable for another.

Influence of physical features.

During strenuous flights, when race conditions are unfavourable, it will be impossible for a pigeon with certain physical characteristics to pace itself in the same way as another pigeon with different physical features. A pigeon with a shorter wing has to beat its wings faster to just stay airborne, whether it likes it or not. Only if the primary flight feathers have reasonable gaps between them to allow air to escape on the upward stroke, will it be relieved of some tension and tire less quickly. pigeon with average to longer wing length (in proportion to its body length and size) will generally stay airborne with more ease. Again, wing design (flatness, curve, thickness of the flight feathers) including the spaces between primary flight feathers, and the length of the arm bone that connects the wing to the body, will all influence the bird’s flight. ther than that, aerodynamic potential when in flight is also important.

The genetic package

South African multiple Comrades winner, Bruce Fordyce, said on national television, “you can train anyway you like but you can’t beat me because am genetically better equipped than you are”. n racing pigeons this applies to the strength of the heart muscles and its recovery rate, all the other organs including the immune system, and the functioning of the metabolism. The bird’s intellect is clearly also important. – Thomas Smit ([email protected] or call (011) 680 4778)