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How to raise homing pigeons

By Katie Honnette

During World War I and II, homing pigeons carried messages across enemy lines. Applauded for their skill and speed, 32 of these birds were awarded The Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valor given to animals.

Today’s homing pigeons are often referred to as “racing pigeons” and “racing homers.” Clubs exist across the U.S. where members raise racing homers, a variety of homing pigeons that are selectively bred for enhanced speed and homing instinct. Pigeon racing club members train and condition their birds to race from 100 to 600 miles. The birds are timed and judged by how quickly they return home.

Released as “doves”

While most racing homers have gray feathers, there is a white variety of homing pigeon that looks like doves. They have pure white feathers and a small frame and are often released at special events such as weddings and memorial services. At weddings, the sight of pure white birds soaring through the air provides an unforgettable moment that symbolizes the couple’s new life together. At a memorial service, these “dove” releases offer a peaceful scene that often brings a sense of closure to those attending. Because homing pigeons fly home, the symbolic releases are seen as a humanitarian and environmentally-friendly way to celebrate an event.

What you need

Much like poultry, homing pigeons require a space that is safe from predators and protected from the elements. An elevated loft with good ventilation is ideal. The birds instinctively fly in groups circling their loft. The hum of their wings moving the air overhead is a peaceful sound. Install a small door, with a landing platform in front, that the birds can use to enter and exit the building, and make sure the door can be locked in order to keep it predator-proof. Next, equip the loft with plenty of nesting boxes as well as roosts and ledges for the pigeons to land on. The birds require fresh water and pigeon feed, a mixture of grains and seeds that can be found at most co-ops and pet stores. In addition to food and water, pigeons also need grit. Crushed oyster shell provides calcium while crushed granite helps their digestion.

Starting a Flock

When purchasing homing pigeons, it’s important to keep their primary trait of homing in mind. If not contained, an adult, mated pair will most likely fly back to their previous home. To reduce the chance of losing an investment, try to purchase young pigeons (squabs) that have never been trained to another loft. If the birds are young enough, they will quickly consider the new loft as home. However, if purchasing an adult pair, it’s helpful to keep them restricted to the loft until they have fledged since homing pigeons will typically stay with their young. After this initial hurdle, all birds hatched in the loft with consider it “home.”

Training 101

Training begins in the loft. Once homing pigeons are purchased, keep them in the enclosed building for about four weeks before letting them fly. This will help solidify the new loft as home. Next, open the loft door every day and let the birds take wing. They will most likely fly circles overhead as if getting their bearings, staying within a quarter mile and return to the loft often. After another four weeks, the new owners can begin the process of releasing homing pigeons farther and farther from home. Begin by releasing them within sight of their loft. Then, one mile away, followed by five miles, and so on until the desired distance is reached. The same method can be done in all directions from the coop. This progressive training allows the homing pigeons to not only get their bearings but to build up their endurance.

While common pigeons – the kind that perch on top of statues in the town square – are often considered a nuisance, homing pigeons offer traits that set them apart. Generations have marveled at the mysterious way they return home, and the birds will continue to awe and inspire with their instinctive gift. 

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