Homing Pigeons Are 'Like Family' For Arizona Pigeon Racer
A few days before Thanksgiving, when so many people were focused on turkeys, a couple hundred people gathered in Phoenix to focus on another kind of bird.
Stepping inside a north Phoenix hotel leads to the world of homing pigeon racing.
“When you are hooked on pigeons, you are hooked,” said Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the American Racing Pigeon Union.
The national group boasts nearly 10,000 members. On this weekend, a club from Phoenix is hosting the national convention.
Roberts said the pigeon racing population matches the country’s population, “So, the coasts are heavy. In the middle? Not so much.”
Like most conventions, there are vendors showing off their products. Clear, plastic containers and large, paper bags hold feed samples highlighting a variety of blends – some heavy with protein, others with carbs. But the big draw here is the race.
More than 1,000 birds will check in at the hotel. But, it’s a short stay – just a couple hours. Their cages will be loaded into an unmarked white trailer. Then, they’ll log more than 350 miles until they reach Lathrop Wells, Nevada, the race’s starting point.
“I think I have seven here,” said Travis Dyson, a Utah resident whose birds were raised in Phoenix.
Here’s how racing works: When homing pigeons are about one month old, the owners ship them to handlers to be trained as they start to fly. So, the birds consider handlers’ homes to be their own. More specifically, structures called lofts, like the wooden one in Carlos Ramos’ backyard.
“This is 20 feet to seven,” said Carlos Ramos.
The Glendale resident spent years learning about pigeons before he got into racing about four years ago. Ramos said 20 to 25 people sent him birds to train this year. He’s entered 37 in the race.
As he scooped a feed mixture that contains corn and sunflower seeds, Ramos said he could buy feed in the U.S., but prefers a 17 percent protein mix from Canada. “It’s special, it’s clean. Different quality.”
Considering the loft is home to 100 pigeons it seems surprisingly quiet inside, but Ramos explained the birds know and trust him. Though he can’t always protect them. Not every bird finds his way home after every race. Ramos said it’s rare and it hurts.
“I’m not feeling good. I sleeping bad,” he said. “[Because] the pigeon look like in my family. Look like you have a pet and something wrong with your pet, it’s hard for you. Same for me, one of my pigeons."
Fanciers make up a diverse flock. From world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson to the British Royal Family.
There are hundreds of breeds, said Deone Roberts, but only the homing pigeon is bred for its ability to find its way home.
“That bird is taking in a variety of signals: magnetic fields, the sun as a compass, the sounds, the smells,” Eoberts said.
While most people at the convention are older, Roberts said raising and racing pigeons can offer a lot to kids.
“Learning to take responsibility for another life, learning leadership skills,” she said. “Real life applications for math, science, computer, geography.”
They are skills 10-year-old Nicole Ramos used alongside her father, Carlos, last year when they both captured first place awards. This year, Carlos Ramos is feeling less optimistic.
It’s a chilly, cloudy day and the birds are facing headwinds of 20 miles per hour. It’s about seven hours since the race started and the tension is rising in the Ramos backyard.
“This is a tough race,” Ramos said.
His birds have to fly 319 miles to reach him.
“Any moment,” he said.
It became his mantra as he kept his eyes skyward. Eight hours into the race, Ramos admits to feeling anxious. “Yes,” he said with a laugh.
And then, just five seconds later, he spotted his first pigeon. Whistling and scurrying across the lawn, Ramos waved her down. Her feet touched the landing pad and marked her arrival time as 4:17 p.m.
“How do you feel now?” I asked Carlos. “Good,” he replied with a laugh.
After a quick body check Ramos caresses her wings, gives her a quick kiss and gazes back to the sky.
“Another one,” he called out. “Number one.”
Each bird is assigned a number and "Number One" clocked in at 4:24 p.m. When I asked Ramos how he could tell which bird it was from so far away he replied, “Because I know my birds. I know my birds.”
He repeated the process nine more times before calling it a night.
Ramos did not have the fastest bird in this race, but 11 pigeons placed in prize categories and all made it home.